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Weaponising Winston

October 22, 2018

A flurry of informed and semi-informed posts about Winston Churchill signifies that someone has written a new book about the old boy. Indeed they have. In this case the author is Andrew Roberts, who has also written biographies of Napoleon and other political and military leaders.

I’m not yet sure I’ll read it. How many more fresh sources are out there that are likely to cause a radical change reappraisal of Winston’s life, work and personality? An anecdote here, perhaps, a nuance there. Unless anyone can convincingly argue that he was a crypto-communist or a transsexual vampire, the consensus, at least among the British, will continue to be that the sum of the positives was greater than that of the negatives.

The balance sheet in a nutshell looks like this:

Negative: Sidney Street Siege, Gallipoli, Black and Tans, Bengal famine, racist, die-hard imperialist.

Positive: war leadership, speeches, mastery of English, strength of personality, magnetism.

Debatable: support of a post-war “United States of Europe” (depends on whether you’re a Brexiteer or not).

Roberts has clearly chosen a good time to publish his book. At a time when none of our politicians seems to possess an ounce of Winston’s strength of personality, clarity of focus and ability to capture the imagination with his words and actions, we look with increasing nostalgia to a time when we had a leader worthy of the name.

The comparison is perhaps a little unfair. It’s arguably far harder to be seen as an effective leader in peacetime. Winston’s record before and after The Second World War was not stellar. And one wonders how he would have dealt with the social media trolls seeking to demystify his leadership and pin him down like Gulliver in Lilliput.

I suspect that – like Donald Trump – he would have seized on Twitter as a propaganda outlet. But I doubt if he would have indulged in multiple tweets every day. Unlike Trump, whose level of activity as president is dictated by his golf schedule, Churchill during the war was making life-or-death decisions virtually every day.

As with his speeches, Winston’s tweets would have been elegant and well crafted. No covfefes would have vomited from his pen. But perhaps they would have been no match for Trump’s brutal output. If you were looking for a contemporary political figure who would have used Twitter with lethal effectiveness, think no further than Goebbels and Streicher. Twitter is the natural home of trolls and demagogues.

Now that everybody has a voice courtesy of the social media, there are plenty of people ready to call him a warmonger, a monster for “allowing” a million people to starve in Bengal, a racist, a bumbling incompetent who got lucky. Everybody loves to reassess, reappraise and revise historical narratives. Churchill, endowed with a sense of history that was almost unparalleled in a politician, would have understood that.

And I also suspect that if he were here today to defend himself, he would have declined to do so, except to say that he was a human being, fallible like all others.

And that is how we should think of him. As a magnificent, prescient, indomitable human being without whom the words of Hitler, Goebbels and Streicher might today be essential texts in our schools.

Those who would condemn him for his follies, foibles, vindictiveness, callousness and Victorian attitude toward racial supremacy are welcome to do so. And I would reply “yes, all true. And what is your point?”

Churchill matters to me. I’ve read four biographies and a couple of his own books. As a schoolboy I was one of thousands who in 1963 filed past his coffin as he lay in state at Westminster Hall.

It matters to me that his mistakes caused pain and suffering, though I think it’s relevant to point out that neither as a minister or prime minister did he act without the consent of his colleagues. He was neither a rogue operator nor a dictator. But it also matters to me that thanks to his willingness to make difficult decisions, and his ability to inspire and comfort his fellow citizens in wartime, the Britain I live in still survives relatively unscathed.

Now that the country is facing a different threat to its existence through the tactical mistakes of our politicians and our current appetite for the simple solutions of ideologues and demagogues, now is not the time for invoking the pugnacious spirit of our greatest wartime leader.

The qualities we need in our leaders are those that seem to be in shortest supply: the ability to focus on the national interest over party politics; the ability to reconcile, persuade and influence.

We are not at war. Warlike talk and the creation of imaginary enemies will only make our situation worse.

I happen to believe that the best outcome from the current crisis would be for us to remain with our friends in the European Union. I accept that not everyone shares my view, to put it mildly. Whether the outcome of the Brexit process, neutral, positive or negative, the biggest task in front of us is to rediscover a degree of social equilibrium – at least to the level that existed before the 2008 financial crisis – and in the process address the causes of knee-jerk populism: rising inequality in our society, fear of cultural, social and economic change, regional grievances and the relentless tide of disinformation propagated through the social media.

We should let Winston rest in peace. He is not the answer to our problems.

From → Books, History, Politics, Social, UK

  1. Abdullah Wallace permalink

    Beautifully put and written, as always

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