In 2002, the BBC aired 100 Greatest Britons, a mini-series which shortlisted the most prominent Brits throughout history. The series was based on a nationwide poll, and featured a show dedicated to each of the individuals named in the top ten, with viewers then being offered the opportunity to vote again after each broadcast. Winston Churchill was the eventual winner, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel coming in second and Diana, Princess of Wales third.
Those featured were not chosen because they were particularly good or loved, but were instead selected because of their impact on Britain and the rest of the world.
The choice of Churchill as the winner was controversial. He was obviously most influential as the country’s leader during the Second World War, and he is rightly praised for standing almost single handed against Hitler in the dark days of 1940, when Britain seemed on the verge of defeat. However, his career was not always so successful, and was regularly interspersed with controversy and failure.
Born to the Dukes of Marlborough and the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the junior Churchill was technically only half British. His mother was Jennie Jerome, an American heiress who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York before it became absorbed into New York City.
As a young man, Churchill made a poor student, had a lisp (which couldn’t have helped his sense of self-esteem), but proved himself an adequate army officer, where he seemed to come out of his shell. Unlike many politicians then or since, he saw military action, first in British India, then in Sudan, and during the Second Boer War in what is today South Africa.
He also worked as a war correspondent and as an author of historical books. Considering his lineage, a career in politics was almost inevitable. He served as President of the Board of Trade in 1908, became the Home Secretary in 1910, and then First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914.
In 1915, however, he ordered an attack on the Dardanelles (part of the Ottoman Empire) using obsolete ships since he greatly underestimated his foes. British forces were defeated the following year in what is known as the Gallipoli Campaign (also the Dardanelles Campaign), hurting his political career.
His lineage protected him, however, and he returned to military service as Commander of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Having conducted himself credibly, he rejoined the government as its Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War, and as Secretary of State for Air.
In 1921, he served a one-year stint as Secretary of State for the Colonies, then as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929. In 1925, he supported the government’s move to return the currency to the gold standard at its pre-war value, greatly devaluing the pound sterling with painful economic consequences.
As the pro-independence movements in India and elsewhere grew, he supported the use of poison gas to suppress dissidents.
It was in 1936 that he nearly destroyed his political career. That was the year that Edward VIII chose to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Since divorce was still considered scandalous in those days, to have the king marry one was bad enough. That Simpson was still married and in the process of a second divorce, was too much.
Churchill chose to support the king, and in doing so, hurt his position by turning the tide of public opinion against him. To make things even worse, he began preaching against the Germans.
Europe had suffered a devastating war from 1914 to 1918. Though much had yet to be resolved, many wanted to believe that a war of such a magnitude could never happen again. That Churchill was warning of yet another one, especially from a defeated Germany (which had started the first one) was not what people wanted to hear — least of all from the man who would support the king’s marriage to a divorcee.
Even when the Nazi party took power and Germany began rearming itself in direct violation of its post WWI agreements, the rest of Europe was in denial. The government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought a policy of appeasement, giving in to Germany’s demands and letting it get away with absorbing neighbouring states.
Chamberlain paid the political price by stepping down in 1940, paving the way for Churchill. It has been argued that Chamberlain was not quite the incompetent later historians would paint him as, but that his character was better suited to a time of peace, not war. Had he remained in power, Britain could very likely have capitulated to the Germans. While such would have spared it from the devastation that followed, history would become something else, entirely.
Churchill was not a peacenik, however, a testament to his experience on the battlefield. Whereas many countries capitulated to the Germans, Britain under him, refused.
The nexus of a vast international empire, the country had no allies and was dependent on the sea to provide most of its resources. Its overseas colonies were far, however, while Germany and its conquered territories were closer.
Churchill’s policies saw the country through the Blitz, war time deprivations, and continuing isolation — conditions which convinced many that capitulation was probably the best recourse. It was during his tenure that America was finally drawn into the war, eventually seeing Germany’s defeat.
After WWII, it was also he who warned the West of the Soviet threat, something it didn’t want to hear as the USSR was then an ally. He was clearly a man who spoke his mind and held his ground despite public opinion and resulting consequences.
He kept Britain free, and made sure that his achievements as a war leader outweighed his many shortcomings.