On the 50th anniversary of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the reputation of the “greatest Briton” is once again being debated. What were his successes and failures?
There are few potted biographies of Churchill these days that do not draw attention to his racism and imperialism, his belief that white Britons were at the top of the tree and destined to rule over others many thousands of miles away. For a man of his time, this was hardly uncommon, but some of his comments about black and Asian people are liable to make many of us wince these days.
As India’s independence leader and believer in non-violent protest, Gandhi has achieved an iconic status, not one that can be comfortably reconciled with Churchill’s oberservation that “it is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the vice-regal palace”.
Sir Winston Churchill is also remembered for his treatment of rioting miners in south Wales in 1910. In trade union circles, he was the Liberal home secretary who sent in troops to restore order, but his precise role in events has been challenged. A decade later, he used the notorious Black and Tans, no strangers to extreme force, against the IRA in Ireland.
Churchill is best known for leading Britain through the second world war, which restored his reputation after the Gallipoli disaster in the first world war.
As first lord of the admiralty, responsible for the navy, he believed the war should be extended east, beyond the trenches of Europe. His military plan meant sending the fleet through the Dardanelles to seize Constantinople, ending Turkey’s role in the conflict.
Accordingly, in 1915, an attack was mounted at Gallipoli, with troops from Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand launching a land invasion. Fighting lasted for nine months, with heavy casualties on both sides, before allied troops were evacuated, having failed in their mission.
In London, the failure led to the formation of a coalition government, with Conservatives brought into the fold and Churchill demoted. He believed he was “finished” and his political opponents rarely let him forget how his master plan for the Dardanelles had ended so tragically.
A lesser – some might say less egotistical – man might have slunk away at this stage of his life, questioning his own abilities as a military campaigner. Churchill did not, and for that Britons today must be thankful – despite the terrible loss of life in the second world war.
While in the build-up, Neville Chamberlain hoped that war with “barbaric” Nazi Germany would never come, Churchill, now a Conservative, knew it would and that Britain had to be prepared – or face a foreign invasion that could have led to its end as an independent country.
He replaced Chamberlain as prime minister during the early stages of the war, following the Norway debacle. The irony is that Chamberlain resigned after an unsuccessful military campaign whose main architect had been first lord of the admiralty Winston Churchill.
While Gallipoli had led to demotion, Norway led to promotion – to the highest office in the land. But Churchill would not always be tarred by his failures, despite the need to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. His finest hour was just beginning.
Churchill had his flaws - but his legacy is with us today. Read Alex Thomson's blog.
The prime minister realised that unlike the first world war, the second would be fought from the air. Had Britain not managed to defeat the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940, with Hitler waiting to invade, British history would have followed a different course.
Before Russia’s entry into the war, Britain stood alone, hoping for US assistance – with only Churchill’s “we will never surrender” rhetoric in the House of Commons and on the radio to raise people’s flagging spirits.
These were soon lifted by America’s decision, after Pearl Harbor, to declare war on Germany, along with British victory at El Alamein and German defeat, at the hands of the Russians, at Stalingrad. D-Day was still to come.
Of course Churchill cannot be credited with every British victory in the second world war, in the same way he cannot be criticised for every defeat. Nor can Britain claim to have defeated Hitler’s Germany on its own. Far from it.
But it was Churchill’s understanding that Britain would not be able to watch the war from the sidelines, and the indomitable spirit he displayed during Britain’s darkest hour, that deserves praise. Quite simply, he was the right person at the time and no-one else would have done a better job.
Had Britain been defeated, Churchill’s reputation would not be what it is today. But it was not.
Not that this worked for him at the 1945 election, when he was rejected by the voters in favour of Clement Attlee’s Labour party, which won a landside. His sky-high approval ratings in opinion polls suggested victory was in reach. But to the British people, after years of sacrifice, Labour’s unequivocal commitment to a welfare state held more allure.
For years, Churchill had neglected domestic politics so he could concentrate on the war effort. This proved his undoing in 1945, but six years later, in 1951, he was back in power.