“Anyone reading this knows where he was on September 11, 2001. A diminishing number remember where they were on January 30, 1965—the day we said farewell to Winston Churchill. (He died fifty years ago, January 24, 1965.),” Richard Langworth writes at the Weekly Standard:
For me it was a life-changing experience. Suddenly, unforgettably, on my flickering, black and white TV screen in New York City, the huge void of Westminster Abbey filled with The Battle Hymn of the Republic. He was, we were reminded, half-American, an honorary citizen by Act of Congress.
That day was the start of my 50-year career in search of Churchill—of what his greatest biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, calls, “labouring in the vineyard.”
After the funeral I picked up The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his World War II memoirs. I was snared by what Robert Pilpel called his “roast beef and pewter phrases.” It’s biased, as he admitted—“This is not history; this is my case.” But it is so ordered as to put you at his side for the “great climacterics” that made us what we are today.
Churchill’s life spanned sixty years of prominence, unmatched in recent history. Of course, he insisted, “nothing surpasses 1940.” That was the year Britain and the Commonwealth—“the old lion with her lion cubs,” as he put it, “stood alone against hunters who are armed with deadly weapons” until “those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready.”
But I soon learned there was more to Churchill than 1940. Martin Gilbert wrote: “As I open file after file of Churchill’s archive, from his entry into Government in 1905 to his retirement in 1955, I am continually surprised by the truth of his assertions, the modernity of his thought, the originality of his mind, the constructiveness of his proposals, his humanity, and, most remarkable of all, his foresight.”
Sadly, England as a whole lacked Churchill’s foresight; at MercatorNet, Alun Wyburn-Powell explains “How Winston Churchill lost the 1945 election:”
Among the excuses the Conservatives offered after their defeat was that the Army Bureau of Current Affairs had indoctrinated service personnel to vote Labour. This excuse was at least plausible in principle, but it was pretty flimsy stuff.
There were some more obvious reasons for Churchill’s humiliation. Ultimately, the Conservatives had simply lost the electoral “ground war”.
In contrast to the other parties, the Conservatives had stuck rigidly to the spirit and the letter of the wartime electoral truce, only holding one party conference during the war and putting little effort into policy development and constituency organisation. The result was that the party machine was in a terrible state, with a greatly depleted band of agents and volunteers.
The party was also still carrying the blame for the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, for which it had been excoriated by the 1940 book Guilty Men.
Public memory was also against the Tories for another reason: the travails of David Lloyd George, who died in 1945. While still credited as the man who won World War I, Lloyd George’s record as prime minister after the war was dismal, marked by broken promises, unemployment, industrial unrest and threats to start another war. His dire tenure created a popular consensus was that good war leaders do not necessarily make good peacetime leaders.
Meanwhile, British society had changed during the war. Voters had become less class-bound; the evacuation of urban children to rural areas, service of all classes in the armed forces, and civilians sharing bomb shelters with strangers, had facilitated social mixing on an entirely new scale.
That in turn helped create a whole new political atmosphere. After World War I, many people had wanted a return to life as it had been – but after World War II, most people wanted a complete break with the past. In that climate, Labour’s forward-looking election slogan, “Let us face the future”, was far more appealing the Conservatives’ plea to let Churchill “Finish the job”.
Everyone should watch the 26-part World at War series released in 1973 by Thames Television, available on DVD from Amazon, and pretty easily found in streaming format on the Web. As I’ve written before, it was produced at exactly the right moment — when television was technically sophisticated enough to undertake a project of this scope, and while many of the major players were still alive and many still relatively young, and while Laurence Olivier was alive to narrate the series with the gravitas it deserved.
But perhaps most importantly, before the excoriating impact of political correctness would begin to tarnish how we view World War II, which unless we really have reached what Robert Tracinski of the Federalist calls “Peak Leftism,” will likely only get worse in coming decades. Political correctness is a disease that advanced slowly before fully metastasizing; but its roots were already present among 1930s British leftwing elites, who vowed would “in no circumstances fight for king and country,” and feared Churchill more than they feared Hitler (plus ça change). And as the 15th-episode of the World at War, titled “Home Fires” notes, even as England was on the verge of defeating National Socialism in Germany, it was about to institute an ever-increasing peacetime amount of nationalization and socialism at home:
That’s an excerpt from that episode; watch the whole thing here.
As to how Labour would radically reshape the people who inhabited postwar Britian, Peter Hitchens, the Tory-leaning brother of the late leftist Christopher Hitchens, does a remarkable job of highlighting the transformation of his country in his 2000 book, the The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana. (Please, somebody release this book in Kindle format). As the book’s title suggests, Hitchens begins by comparing the British people who turned out with stiff upper lips for the 1965 funeral of the Man Who Won World War II, and 30 years later, ululated en masse over the demise of Princess Diana, who was largely famous for being famous and for being a wannabe pop star and fashion icon. In other words, for purely aesthetic reasons.
“Wouldn’t it be simpler,” socialist playwrite Bertolt Brecht famously wrote, if the government dissolved the people and elected another?”
It took a few decades, with a timeout of sorts during the Thatcher years, but mission accomplished in postwar, post-Churchill England.
Speaking of political correctness, the transformation of a people, and Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Obama couldn’t be bothered to attend her funeral in 2013. Presumably, he wouldn’t have made time for Churchill’s either, right?
Update: At Power Line, Steve Hayward is more optimistic about the West’s future than I am, dubbing Churchill “Not the Last Lion:”
Manchester wrote in 1983 (in National Review, surprisingly enough) that “If there is a high office in the United States to which Winston Churchill could be elected today, it is unknown to me.”
The irony is that pre-war Churchill thought very much the same thing: see his remarkable essay from around 1930 entitled “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” which is in the must-have collection, Thoughts and Adventures. “Modern conditions do not lend themselves to the production of the heroic or superdominant type,” he wrote. This was, Harry Jaffa pointed out in a splendid essay entitled “Can There Be Another Churchill?,” an instance of Churchill being wrong:
In 1939, Winston Churchill did not think so. But, as so often in his life, he was mistaken. Let us take comfort in that.
And in response to my post, Kathy Shaidle proffers excellent advice: