Friday, September 11, 2009

Churchill: a liability to the free world

‘Churchill was more a liability than an asset to the free world’. That was the motion defended, on September 3rd, by Patrick Buchanan, Norman Stone and Nigel Knight at the Methodist Central Hall Westminster.

Buchanan, Stone and Knight failed to convince the 1,700-strong audience. However, they had to a large degree already failed before the debate began. Prior to the debate, a mere 118 voted in favour of the motion; 1167 voted against; and 422 ‘did not know’. Their arguments convinced just 63 people, with 181 votes against the motion in the aftermath of the debate, and the majority of those who did not know were swayed by the opposition. At the end of the evening, 1194 voted against the motion and just 34 still ‘did not know’.

Buchanan, Stone and Knight condemned Churchill’s economic policies as Chancellor of the Exchequer (from November 1924 to June 1929), his military strategy during the Second World War and the British bombing of German cities in 1945 and blamed him for the loss of the British Empire. According to Nigel Knight, Churchill’s decision to reintroduce the Gold Standard in 1925 severely weakened the British economy, which was consequently hit even harder by the Great Depression. The effects of the Great Depression, in turn, hampered British rearmament and meant that Britain was inadequately armed at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War. Knight also criticised Churchill’s military tactics of delay and dispersion, partly blaming him for the 10 million losses in the last year of the war. When the British army was victorious, at El Alamein for example, he attributed the victory to Montgomery rather than to Churchill, explaining that the British only won because Montgomery refused to follow Churchill’s proposed strategy. Norman Stone accused Churchill of losing the British Empire. Buchanan went so far as to blame Churchill for the outbreak of the Second World War, arguing that he should have instead sought to compromise with Hitler by dividing Europe into spheres of influence. Finally, Buchanan claimed that, at the Yalta conference in 1945, Churchill had given his ‘benediction’ to the Stalinist regime and had supported over 40 years of repressive rule in Eastern Europe.

However, their arguments lacked coherence and consisted above all of a list of individual mistakes which Churchill had allegedly made throughout his 64-year-long political career. Buchanan, Stone and Knight's only consistent argument was that Churchill’s achievements were a myth.

Churchill is indeed, on the whole, viewed as a hero in popular imagination. His statue on Parliament Square alone, just a few metres outside the Methodist Central Hall, is testimony to his heroic legacy. In the shadow of his statue and mythical place in popular imagination, Buchanan, Knight and Stone’s task to persuade the audience that Churchill was, above all, a liability to the free world was almost impossible.

Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that this myth was built on thin air alone and just a few of the opposition’s arguments were enough to reassure me that Churchill’s reputation was indeed built on solid foundations. Andrew Roberts, Anthony Beevor and Richard Overy all acknowledged that Churchill made mistakes over the course of his 64-year-long career. However, in Roberts’ words, placed in the wider context of his career and of the time, these mistakes were mere ‘pimples’. Although Churchill’s military tactics of dispersion may not have been entirely effective, they were in keeping with a strong British military tradition and, until the United States entered the war, Britain did not have the necessary forces for a more ‘full-on’ attack.

Above all, one of Churchill’s main strengths was his ability to take advice. His plans for El Alamein may not have been realistic; however, he was able to take advice from Montgomery and the battle was ultimately won. Britain was not a dictatorship and Churchill was not the sole decision maker. In this respect the debate seemed almost pointless: Churchill was not, and could not be, the only person to blame or to praise. Richard Overy described him as ‘largely a spectator’. Roberts, Beevor and Overy all agreed that Churchill was a ‘champion to the free world’ (Roberts) and issues of liberty and freedom formed the core of his set of values and beliefs. Churchill was, and remained throughout his career, a defender of the rule of law and of parliamentary government.

He reaffirmed the necessity to fight for justice and freedom at the end of his last major speech in the House of Commons in March 1955:
‘The day may dawn when fair play, love for one's fellow men, respect for justice
and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth triumphant from
the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never
weary, never despair.’

For Paul Addison’s view on the ‘Churchill Question’ read, Makers of the Twentieth Century: Churchill
For an insight into how Churchill dealt with his political rivals, read our article Churchill and his War Rivals
For information about his attitude to black peoples, read our article Churchill and Black Africa
In Churchill as Chronicler: The Narvik Episode 1940, Piers Mackesy suggests that Churchill was particularly skilled at writing his own version of history. He explains how Churchill made his father, General Mackesy, the scapegoat for the allied failure to recapture Norway in 1940.

Source: History Today
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