Winston Churchill. Will we ever see his like again?
Shamefully, for some ideologues Churchill remains veiled in a fog of negative myth making, often derided as a warmonger, a racist, an unrepentant imperialist and an intransigent enemy of the working class. Such smears say more about the people making them than Churchill
How do we assess the legacy of Winston Churchill, 50 years after his passing? The man was undoubtedly a world historical colossus whose greatest achievements were forged in the fires of war.
He was a man of indomitable resolve and courage, assets that were vital for defeating the Nazi menace. He chose to confront Hitler when others counselled appeasement and, in some cases, despair.
Some of his wartime speeches are among the finest orations in the history of the English language and will be revered for as long as that language is spoken.
But what is striking is that, half a century after his death, Churchill remains veiled in a fog of myth making. The enigmatic son of Blenheim is often derided as a warmonger, a racist, an unrepentant imperialist and an intransigent enemy of the working class. Many view him as a diehard reactionary drenched in Victorian values.
Yet this 'diehard reactionary' played a major role in implementing the liberal government's welfare reforms in the first decade of the twentieth century. As a minister in Asquith's Liberal government, he put in place Labour Exchanges (we now call them Job Centres), unemployment insurance, baths at pitheads and a minimum wage in some of the sweated trades.
This 'enemy of the working man' proved to be a sympathetic Home Secretary in some ways. He reduced the amount of time people spent in solitary confinement and advocated the humane treatment of political prisoners. Expressing sentiments that would warm the heart of any liberal, he spoke of how prison could have a 'corrective' rather than 'vindictive' purpose and how an interest should be taken in rehabilitation.
He said: 'The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country'. While his interest in eugenics, shared by much 'enlightened' opinion, was less progressive, he offered many radical and humane interventions in social policy.
Churchill is often accused of ordering troops to fire on strikers at Tonypandy. This too is a myth and a smear. In fact he held back troops from directly intervening, insisting that the police deal with riots. He also vigorously defended the right to strike, provided that the social order was not threatened in the process.
It was only when services vital to national life were threatened with stoppage that the state had a right to intervene. For this reason he adopted a more militant posture during the General Strike, though he still offered words of conciliation to union leaders.
It is equally inaccurate to describe Churchill as a zealous warmonger. Sensing that a European war in 1914 would be catastrophic, Churchill did his best to prevent it. He proposed the freezing of the arms race between Britain and Germany (a naval holiday) in the hope that it would conciliate the leaders of Wilhemine Germany.
Similarly, with Europe seemingly on the brink of war in the summer of 1938, he supported attempts to broker peace over the Sudetenland.
Far from demanding war in 1938, he called for an anti-fascist alliance that was designed to deter Germany's hegemonic ambitions with a ring of steel. What he could not support was misguided appeasement that would only serve to whet Hitler's appetite for further conquest.
When war came, he relished the chance of leadership but it was not the outcome he had sought. Similarly at the height of the Cold War, he called for a summit conference between the superpowers in order to ward off the devastating prospect of nuclear annihilation.
At all times, he sought 'peace through strength' rather than unilateral gestures.
Though he never relented in detesting communism, and sought to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution at birth, he showed pragmatism too. He held out a hand to Stalin in 1941, following the German invasion, because he knew that only superpower intervention could defeat Germany.
But if Churchill was not a warmonger, what about his views on empire? For sure, he was a zealous imperialist who revelled in the legacy of the 'English speaking peoples'. He was also an implacable opponent of Indian independence, which will embarrass many today.
But he equally condemned the worst excesses of Empire, such as the terrible massacre at Amritsar in 1919. He helped to secure the Irish Treaty of 1921 as well as the creation of a unitary Iraqi state. True, the latter is unravelling before our eyes right now. But even here, Churchill favoured independence for the Kurds and expressed concern for how some rogue dictator might treat them.
He was also a lifelong Zionist who knew that a Jewish state would be a major historical event.
While some of his views on race are highly controversial by today's standards, he remained a vehement critic of antisemitism, opposing the aliens act and forcefully speaking out against Nazi crimes. He also detested slavery and the attitude of prejudice that gave birth to it.
His views on race, society and empire resist simplistic explanation. They reflect the real Churchill, a complex, multifaceted figure of real genius.
Though Churchill made mistakes and unwise interventions, we ought to remember him for the judgements he got right. He knew that appeasing Nazi Germany was sheer folly in the 1930s and predicted that the Munich agreement would only encourage further demands.
He rejected a compromise peace in 1940 because he sensed that Britain could hold on against the Luftwaffe. He correctly warned about Soviet designs in eastern Europe and how an unchecked Stalin would be a menace to the free world.
He spoke of the Iron Curtain and the special relationship, phrases that are embedded in our political lexicon.
For all these reasons, Churchill's achievements are undiminished today. He remains an enduring symbol of freedom, patriotism and democracy, and an icon of defiance in the face of tyranny.
As a statesman, orator and prolific author, he is a titanic figure in British and world history. We will surely never see his like again.
Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton
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