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Expert Comment: “In Churchill’s shadow?”

Churchill Friday 30 January 2015

On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill, Dr Mike Finn, Lecturer in the History of Education at Liverpool Hope, assesses the former Prime Minster's legacy.

A dozen years ago, the historian Sir David Cannadine collected his essays on modern British history into a volume entitled In Churchill’s Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain. For Cannadine, Churchill was a touchstone for the history of modern Britain; a “life…lived in a vainly magnificent attempt to preserve Britain’s unrivalled Victorian inheritance in an increasingly hostile and post-Victorian world”.

Churchill had been born and reached adulthood when Victoria was still on the throne and Britannia indisputably ruled the waves. By the time of his state funeral in 1965, Britain was in full-scale imperial retreat, reduced after Suez to the level of an ancillary power to the United States, and in the grip of the ‘Swinging Sixties’, with a moral compass increasingly far removed from ‘Victorian values’.

It’s no surprise then that historians such as Cannadine have taken Churchill as a symbolic figure. It’s also something that wasn’t lost on those who attended the funeral, or who participated in the commemorations of Churchill’s life in 1965. It was clear even at the time that Churchill’s demise heralded the passing of an era, the closing of an historical episode, even if much of that episode was being increasingly repudiated by contemporary society.

The funeral was also the beginning of the posthumous canonisation of a figure who was intensely-divisive through much of his life. Churchill entered politics as a Conservative, became a reforming Liberal, took on the power of labour during the Great Unrest of 1910-1914, notably allowing the deployment of troops in South Wales and Liverpool, disastrously restored Britain to the gold standard as a Conservative Chancellor in 1924, and by the 1930s was a marginalised figure on the Tory backbenches.

It was the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement – of which Churchill was the most significant critic – in the 1930s which vindicated Churchill’s political judgement. In 1940, following the fall of the Chamberlain government during the Norway debate in the House of Commons, Churchill took office as Prime Minister and the rest really is history.

Leading a coalition government, Churchill was a motivator and a manager, with his speeches (particularly in the dark moments of 1940-1941 when Britain ‘stood alone’) significant in maintaining British national resolve. He became, and remains, the iconic figure of British resistance. And yet he was kicked out of office before the war was even over, voted out by a public who desired Labour’s commitment to a welfare state and a mixed economy, including the nationalisation of industry, the pursuit of full employment, and the development of a National Health Service.

Churchill lost a further election to Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1950, before returning to office as Prime Minister for a second time in another General Election in 1951. At no point had Churchill been able to demonstrate that he was the choice of the British people; in 1940 he was appointed Prime Minister by the Crown without facing an election, in 1950 he had lost the popular vote by the better part of two million; in 1951 – when he won the election – he still lost it by 200,000. Only the vagaries of the British election system conspired to ensure that a party which had unequivocally lost the popular vote were propelled to power. Thus even when Churchill began his second term, and his first as a peacetime Prime Minister, the reality was that the majority of Britons had chosen someone else.

His second term, memorably chronicled by Sir Anthony Seldon in Churchill’s Indian Summer, was characterised by drift, at least in part attributable to Churchill’s advanced age and increasingly poor health. It has largely been regarded by historians as a failure.

Yet, in death, Churchill topped a poll of 100 Greatest Britons conducted by the BBC in 2002. He has been retrospectively valorised, taken as an emblem of Britishness, and embedded firmly into the national consciousness in a fashion dissimilar to how he was interpreted by his contemporaries. This in itself tells us much about the process of historical myth-making and representation, and the difficulties in reconstructing the past in the present. The story of the ‘dockers’ salute’ to Churchill’s coffin as it passed down the Thames, with the cranes of the dockside dipped in his honour, has been much retold these past days – and notably with the significant caveat, highlighted by Jeremy Paxman, that the dockers didn’t like Churchill for his attitude to organised labour and had to be paid to do it.

Roy Jenkins, himself a major political figure as well as an historian, memorably closed his assessment of Churchill by claiming that he had, in fact, been the greatest British Prime Minister (at the expense of Gladstone, another of Jenkins’ subjects). Churchill had faced a trial unparalleled by other Prime Ministers, and had overcome it. For this, his stature amongst the ranks of British leaders was, for Jenkins, the greatest.

Each of us has our own favourite politicians, leaders, symbols – but it’s hard to dissent from Jenkins’ view that Churchill faced the greatest single challenge and rose to it with aplomb. It is undeniable that he played a major role in the safeguarding of British freedom in the darkest hour of 1940, through the Battle of Britain and the blitz. But his significance as an historical figure goes beyond that; Churchill was the Prime Minister who saved Britain but he was also the first who recognised that Britain was moving into a phase of relative decline in international influence. In his two terms, particularly the latter stages of the war years and the early part of his peacetime administration, he sought to grapple with Britain’s relative diminution, and to hang on to what he could of British power and influence.

He was not alone in this. Labour Prime Ministers, from Clement Attlee, who authorised the development of a British nuclear weapon, to Tony Blair, who invaded Iraq in order to remain close to Britain’s American ally, have done the same. But Churchill was the first to envisage the fact that the age of empire was closing, and if Britain was to maintain influence it was to be a hard-fought battle.

He was also a symbol of a past age; his 1930s contemporaries thought he was an anachronism, who delivered parliamentary speeches in a style more appropriate to the Edwardian era. As it was, these oratorical skills would serve him well in war. But by his funeral, with Britain locked in Beatlemania and the advent of the permissive society, his world was long gone.

This is perhaps the reason why Churchill has become a template for such reverence; he represents a lost world of British power and influence, of national glory – and as the backlash against the ‘progressive consensus’ of the post-war years began under Margaret Thatcher, Churchill became a hero not just for what his wartime leadership, but the very nature of what he represented.

The fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s funeral has become, for historians, a salutary reminder of the “history wars” (if one were needed after the controversy over the First World War commemorations in 2014). Arguments about the present are made through the past. Heroes become vehicles for ideas, hopes and dreams in the present, as much as any actual impact they had in their own lifetimes. Distance, and the machinations of memory, lend lustre and consensus where in a lifetime there is only division and dissent.

Such has been the fate of Winston Churchill, an undeniably gifted wartime leader who played a key role in the salvation of Britain during her moment of maximum danger. He was also a eugenicist who believed for a time in the forced sterilisation of the disabled, an enemy of labour who sent the military in against strikers, a largely disastrous Chancellor of the Exchequer and a peacetime Prime Minister whose moment came too late.

Has Britain remained, in Cannadine’s words, “in Churchill’s shadow?” As the commemoration of the funeral shows, perhaps. But perhaps the real lesson from this (and the politicisation of the First World War) is that Britain remains a nation which prefers to define itself in relation to its past than its future.


Mike Finn is Lecturer in the History of Education and Director of the Centre for Education Policy Analysis at Liverpool Hope University. He was previously Research Fellow in Modern British History at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford and Bye-Fellow in British Social History at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. In 2002-3 he was Kennedy Scholar in History at Harvard University. In 2001 he was the recipient of the Palgrave/Times Higher Education Humanities and Social Sciences writing prize.

In addition to his interests in the history of education, Dr Finn has published widely on British social, political and cultural history, including heroism in the First World War, and his forthcoming books include The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 (co-edited with Sir Anthony Seldon) which will be published by Cambridge University Press in March.

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