Well known as the saviour of the free world in 1940, Churchill nevertheless often found himself on the wrong side of history. In 2002 a BBC television series named Winston Chruchill as history’s ‘greatest Briton’, and as the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death approaches, it is understandable that the reasons behind the BBC accolade are remembered – after all, he was a government minister from as early as 1908, and occupied most of the top jobs during his 50 years in politics. And of course his courage and bravery during the Second World War, particularly during the dark days of 1940 when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany would mark him out as a truly inspirational war leader. However, the case for Churchill’s greatness is far from straightforward, and before he became the saviour of the free world in the conflict with the Nazis, his career was littered with mistakes and misjudgements.
1. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, he demonstrated his lack of economic experience when he put Britain back onto the gold standard. The economist John Maynard Keynes thought that this was a major factor in bringing about the Great Depression.
2. In the 1930s, during his wilderness years, he was vociferous opponent of Indian nationalism, and using language to describe Gandhi that verged on racist.
3. He stubbornly supported Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis of 1936, insisting that the monarch should not abdicate, even when it became clear he was not up to the job.
4. And of course Churchill played a central role on one of the First World War’s biggest Allied reverses – the defeat in the Gallipoli Peninsula.
It’s a convincing catalogue of failure and misjudgement; nevertheless at the moment when it really mattered, in May 1940, Churchill got it absolutely right.
In the 1930s, Churchill toured Hitler’s Germany several times, and spotted the potential for evil. In the aftermath of the First World War, no one wanted to hear about more problems emanating from Germany, and Churchill often had a problem selling articles that talked about the evils of Nazism.
In 1938-39 British public opinion turned against Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, but Chamberlain enough political supporters to push through the controversial policy. Even after war had broken out in September 1939, it still looked for a while as though Britain may refuse to join the conflict, giving Hitler a free hand in Europe.
As Hitler smashed his way through Western Europe, Churchill (recently returned to the Cabinet) remained utterly faithful to Chamberlain. He made sure that none of his supporters leaked damaging stories to the press, but even so, Chamberlain’s policy was soon in tatters and he had no option but to resign. Churchill was the only viable replacement.
Churchill was a decent and honourable man, as well as a charming one, and it is these qualities as much as his dogged refusal to give up, that explain his greatness.
And of course, no British prime minister can remotely match the range of Churchill’s achievements, covering the fields of journalism, art, literature and historical biography.