Churchill’s Continual Shadow
Open Democracy, November 4th 2009
Churchill is everywhere – claimed by Nick Griffin and the BNP, praised by historian Andrew Roberts, and the subject of two recent biographies on his war years by the American writer Carlo d’Este and Max Hastings (1).
As the Second World War nostalgia industry gets into gear – passing the 70th anniversary of the European branch of the war (the Chinese-Japanese war starting earlier) – the build up goes on towards the marking of the Battle of Britain and ‘our finest hour’ next summer.
‘Into the Storm’ was a timely dramatisation of Churchill at war and Anthony Barnett has already commented that there was a sense of the great man slipping into history and of all of this seeming to come from a far off place and time (2).
Yet, Churchill’s shadow still lingers over us – the last British imperialist who presided over the demise of the British Empire but the continuation of the Empire State.
Today, Churchill is long gone, but his imperialist delusion resulted in the creation of a wartime consensus which created in Barnett’s words the ideology of ‘Churchillism’ – of Britain becoming the junior partner to America in the global order (3).
‘Into the Storm’ caught some of the fascinating and complex character traits that were Churchill: part cantankerous, part erratic strategist always prey to nutty ideas, deeply passionate, humane and sentimental, who revelled in Britain’s traditions of war and empire.
The film bookended the two pivotal moments of May 1940 and July 1945 and missed out lots of crucial history and truncated others. It jumped from the end of the Battle of Britain in September 1940 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Churchill was seen reacted to the latter and recognising that Britain was no longer on its own and the tide had turned.
This missed without even the slightest comment the single most momentous moment of the Second World War and 20th century – namely Barbarossa when on June 22nd 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. This was the pivotal point of the war and instantly seized by Churchill – ending Britain being on its own and recognising the scale of the challenge Hitler had taken on. This is bad, dangerous history, and while some degree of selectivity is needed, one cannot but help worry that the HBO/BBC production of this meant than an Americanised/deSovietised view of history was preferred to the truth.
At the same time the film caught some essential points. It accurately portrayed the historic rule of Labour in 1940 and 1945 and Clement Attlee’s role as a quiet man of destiny. In the former, as Neville Chamberlain toiled on May 10th 1940 Attlee refused to serve in his coalition government thus forcing his resignation. Attlee and Labour then five years later refused to continue in coalition with Churchill after the war with Germany concluded forcing an immediate general election before the end of the war with Japan.
There is also an interesting point in these two occasions of huge relevance to our post-democratic times, namely, that in the Labour deliberations of 1940 and 1945 the crucial and it turns out correct decision was taken by the democratic party structures, rather than party leadership. How quaintly old-fashioned!
It also captures the palpable feeling that Churchill knew that he was invoking and drawing from a mythical, idealised England which was slipping away. There is even a hint in the film that Churchill knew on some emotional level that it had never actually existed, but held power and potency over the English imagination, and that all this was diluting and dramatically diminishing.
‘Into the Storm’ personified the two great titans of middle century Britain – Churchill and Attlee, and showed how they worked together in the heat of ‘the people’s war’ and then restarted their party rivalries. It is in some respects like seeing the two other colossal political figures who reshaped and transformed Churchill’s and Attlee’s Britain – Thatcher and Blair – working closely together personally, as they did so successfully in the realm of ideas.
I have always had a personal relationship with Churchill – growing up in Dundee and aware from an early age that Churchill had represented the city as Liberal MP from 1908-22, being First Lord of the Admiralty in the First World War for part of the time. In a celebrated election shock in 1922 Churchill was sensationally defeated as MP for the city by the Prohibitionist candidate, Edwin Scrymgeour, the only ever MP to be elected on such a ticket (4).
As a child I reacted to this local history and the canonisation of Churchill that still went on into the 1970s by dismissing him as ‘just a Tory’. Yet the Dundee story is a much more complex one, mirroring his rich, contradictory life. Here was the age of patrician politicians who patronised constituencies met by a radical, populist politics challenging it and heralding in a new era.
Churchill won the war so we used to say having never won a popular vote and then lost to Labour in 1945. Interestingly and never commented upon, Churchill fought three elections against Attlee’s Labour and lost all three of them in the popular vote – a worse record than either Ted Heath or even Neil Kinnock. Of course he came back to office in 1951 despite polling less votes than Labour.
With all his contradictions and limitations Churchill stood against the evil and grotesqueness of Nazism and summoned all of his formidable energy and purpose to bring about its defeat. For this we should all have a debt of gratitude, but it is time as we approach the seventieth anniversary of the events of 1940 to bury once and for all Churchillism and offer a convincing alternative to the ideas of Thatcher and Blair: the latest advocates of Churchillism and the Empire State.
1. Carlo d’Este, Warlord: Churchill as War Leader 1874-1945, Allen Lane 2009; Max Hastings, Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45, Harper Press 2009.
2. Anthony Barnett, ‘Bye Bye Winston’, OpenKingdom, November 3rd 2009,
3. Anthony Barnett, Iron Britannia: Why Parliament Waged its Falkland War, Allison and Busby 1982.
4. William M. Walker, Juteopolis: Dundee and its Textile Workers 1885-1923, Scottish Academic Press 1979.