Monday 1 June 2015


A debate is under way about Sir Winston Churchill, with strong and differing views being held.  Having known people born around the same time, although of rather differing social class and background, one thing I am certain about is that he was a man of his time.  That time was not the same as ours and his world was different.

Another matter is that from an unusually young age he was a man in the public eye and to some extent alls the world a stage in trying to work out who he was, what, why and the when and where.  He is a rare example of aristocrat, celebrity, media man, sportsman and serving soldier to add to the complexity.

He was also a human being.  Then, as today, far, far too often leading figures were seen as other beings, not the same as other men or women and so could be either wholly good or evil according to the stand point adopted.  Churchill was a very ambitious high status male in a man's world with a firm belief in himself and his future.  If anything he was typical of that elite at that time.

Add to that the turbulence and upheavals of the period there was endless scope either for serious error or for being one of the few to be right about something or both perhaps even at the same time.  Given that he was in politics for 55 years and always prominent there must have been many times when he was wrong or right, if we could agree on which was which.  Because this depends on our thinking in other areas in which Churchill was active.

Because of his extraordinary and wide military experience in a short period before going into politics, beginning as a young officer in the 4th Hussars, expert in polo and a notable player in the rough house of that game unlike the civilities and stricter rules of cricket and the codes of football, or for that matter the etiquette of field sports.

He knew a good deal about Defence, Empire and related matters.  But he had a tenuous grasp of economics and international financing.  He was very much hit and miss at decisions in these areas where they collided with the politics and too dependent on others.  He did not always chose his advisers wisely in this field.

For my money, sic, one of his worst errors was to let Montague Norman, then Governor of the Bank of England get away with so much during Churchill's spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer.  The 1925 Act relating to the Gold Bullion Standard and its effects was one key error he did admit to later.

He was a difficult man to argue with on subjects where he was expert and when he had the bit between his teeth.  On the deficit side he was over fond of stunt politics and flashy initiatives that entailed high risk.  In military terms, the failure of the Gallipoli campaign is one example, but there were others.  Another feature was that he was a bad enemy to make, he never shirked a fight, as Adolf Hitler discovered.

In 1945, Churchill himself dissolved the Coalition to fight an election on party lines probably too early and as so often with him in haste.  Had Churchill lasted longer in office it is an open question whether the American treatment of the UK in the immediate post war period when the British Empire returned to being a major target for US opposition and attrition could have been dealt with more effectively.

In that 1945 Election, given that the Labour ministers had largely done a difficult and reliable job, apart from Herbert Morrison's occasional lurches,  and the respect that Attlee came to have, it was perhaps not so much Churchill that the voters were against it was the sort of Conservative Party in general they distrusted from the 1930's.

My source for this is my own parents, wider family, neighbours and others with their memory and experience of the 1920's and 1930's.  They were not voting against Churchill, they were voting for Labour and the packages they promised to rebuild after the war and the creation of a new and better world.

The centralised command economy of the war years and the planning etc. they believed could deliver on what was wanted and needed and the Conservatives could not.  The end of war was the end of need for an elderly warrior Prime Minister perhaps now past his time at 70.

This was the age before TV. Because Attlee is not camera friendly now we may not think much of him, but then he was a strong and convincing presence in large meetings and rallies, as I saw personally, and the electors in general had a high opinion of him as a principled and decent man.  Churchill, on the other hand, had too much peacetime baggage to carry, notably in the matter of India.

Churchill comes in for a good deal of criticism for his attitudes to other peoples and faiths.  In relation to his comments on Islam they may seem deeply prejudiced but in the 1890's he had seen what the Mahdi and the militants could do in Africa and what they intended to.  If he charged at Omdurman it is not surprising.

Also, his comments on Gandhi seem shocking and distasteful to us now.  But he was far from alone in these views.  The transition of Gandhi from a South African lawyer affected by Apartheid to what amounted to be a preacher cum political activist in India was difficult to swallow for many.

Nevertheless, Churchill made it back to Downing Street in 1951, albeit with the assistance of the quirks of the first past the post electoral system, with fewer votes than Labour. The problems that Labour faced with austerity enforced on the UK, another war being fought, this time Korea, problems in the Middle East and Empire, were enough for Churchill to be back with a slim majority.

It is hard for us to detach ourselves from present political views or of the ideas we have these days in looking back at the past.  But to assess a man then we should try to see them as men in that time with what were the norms of that period.  Another reason for taking a long cool look is that we should see them as fallible humans with ordinary failings.

I have mentioned before that I once played rugby and cricket against the 4th Hussars when Churchill was their Colonel-in-Chief and Prime Minister.  They were not men to argue with and had a high esprit de corps.  They lived hard, played hard and fought hard.

You might take the politician out of the Cavalry but as in Churchill's case you cannot take the Cavalry out of the politician.


  1. I know what my mother thought of him, which wasn't much.

    She knew him by the way. Not socially of course.

  2. "But to assess a man then we should try to see them as men in that time with what were the norms of that period."

    I think that's right and it is something we often find difficult or even impossible. My parents were grateful for Churchill's wartime leadership but seemed to have no great liking for him otherwise.

  3. The minnows 'debating' Churchill should know that if he didn't exist they would be talking German and labouring in coal mines for the third reich.