Britain, Brexit and Why Winston Churchill is Alive and Kicking in this Mess
Le Monde, January 21st 2019
Britain is not a happy place. But then neither is much of the Western world. Instead, it is angry. A country where many people feel let down, not respected or listened to by politicians, institutions and elites.
In the UK, unlike elsewhere, this discontent fed into and aided the victory of the Brexiteers in the 2016 referendum. The subsequent near three years of continual Brexit discussions between the UK and EU, and within the UK, have not produced an agreed plan for leaving – or national unity. Rather, all this has fed even more disquiet and distrust.
This state of affairs has not just emerged in the last few years, but has been building, slowly and imperceptibly for decades. It has been driven by disappointment amongst many voters at the condition of post-war Britain, anxiety about change, and a fear of the future: all of which have contributed to more and more people taking refuge in an imagined version of Britain’s past.
A pivotal figure in all this has been Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the UK between 1940-45 and 1951-55. Churchill’s political record saw him first, Conservative; then, Liberal, and finally, Conservative again. His public life spans most of 20th century Britain, from the turn of the century Boer War, to Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ in 1909, the First World War and the Gallipoli disaster. Then there was his disastrous decision as Chancellor in the 1920s to return Britain to the Gold Standard, resisting the General Strike, and the wilderness years of the 1930s opposing Indian home rule and appeasement of the Nazis. Then came redemption, as he became PM in the ‘darkest hour’ of May 1940. And after all that, there was even a final act, returning as premier in 1951.
The Churchill who has emerged in recent decades in public debate is not the complex, contradictory, problematic figure of real life. Instead, it is a selective Churchill of fiction, imagination and mythology, who has been conjured up into existence and become influential to aid a partial and narrow-minded politics.
Churchill’s rich history has been reduced to a few months in the summer of 1940, and his stance as a wartime leader at the crucial moment for the UK and in the fight with Hitler. This has risen in importance the further removed we have come from the Second World War, and is as much about what has followed that conflict as what happened within it.
Britain’s post-war story is one of having to confront uncomfortable truths. The UK has experienced relative economic decline, become more unsure of its place in the world, and critically, failed to renew and modernise public institutions. It is salutary to note that when Britain finally entered the EEC in 1973 it did so because its elites worried about the UK’s status as ‘the sick man of Europe’ and did so with a prevailing pessimism, rather than hope of finding a positive European home.
In this climate Churchill has increasingly provided a safe haven in stormy seas. He offered – particularly in the summer months of 1940, from the defeat of France, to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain – a story of Britain standing alone which was of course a falsehood given it stood with the Empire and Dominions behind it (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and more).
A key decision at this point, in May 1940 – as Hitler’s armies reached the Channel but before the above events unfurled – was the five days of Cabinet discussions which decided not to seek peace terms with Hitler but to continue with the war. This was Churchill’s ‘finest hour’: the moment he marginalised the appeasers in his party and then slowly built his support.
The reclaiming of this version of Churchill in 21st century Britain has become the last uplifting story about this country. It provides a moral dimension and purpose to Britishness – when the country stood for the forces of good and democracy against darkness and democracy.
What this has come to say is that, for all our present day doubts, there is something special and unique about Britain, and that it stands apart from other nations, including our European neighbours. Britain aided by Churchill’s determination, his speeches and sense of calling, reinforced its belief in British exceptionalism and superiority. Even more than this it aided a sense of insularity and self-congratulation – that our way of life and institutions had stood resilient at the time of greatest challenge. Unlike all those pesky Europeans who had succumbed to dictatorship or been invaded and conquered by the Nazis.
This has become part of the foundation story of what it means to be Britain and British. To be different from our neighbours. To not be European in the same way. And to stand apart. Thus the British thread of democracy, liberty and the rule of law is vindicated – from Churchill to Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown to today’s Brexit.
Churchill seems to be alive because of that palpable sense of disappointment which emerged over the course of post-war Britain, and which has fed into present day discontent. Hence in these current times of crisis British newspapers are regularly filled with headlines such as ‘What would Churchill say on Brexit?’ and ‘Would Churchill have backed a No Deal Brexit?’ Such nostalgia isn’t just found in Conservative circles. There is also a Labour version as well, which cites one of its founders Keir Hardie and reifies Clement Attlee, Labour’s post-war premier, whose administration built the modern welfare state.
In a country filled with evocations of the past it is the right-wing one which has risen to the fore. Tory Brexiteer and aspirant leader, Boris Johnson, wrote a book on Churchill. It does not matter that it is littered with mistakes such as the Germans conquering Stalingrad or Churchill inventing the terms ‘Middle East’ and ‘Iron Curtain’, this is a statement of intent. It offers reassurance, romance and continuity: in a changing world you can always count on the Tories and what Britain stands for.
It is explicitly a story from one age of the ruling class to another: from when some men knew they would grow up fighting over part of the world in the name of Empire whereas today the canvas for this class has shrunk to presiding over Brexit and defending the City of London from regulation. Johnson describes Churchill as ‘a spoilt, bullying, double-crossing bore, and a bit of an all-round bore’, but he could just as easily have been writing about himself and his class.
Johnson’s Churchill is a deliberate fiction because trying to offer reassurance is mostly meaningless today. It is not a coincidence that the Conservative leader who most repackaged Churchill was Margaret Thatcher. She did not see herself as a convehtional Tory, but someone with a radical intent on transforming Britain into a land of free market capitalism without the social supports inherent in the Toryism of Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath.
Thatcher used Churchill to present the power of the determined leader winning against all the odds, and to locate her own British (and indeed, English) nationalism in a mainstream Tory tradition. Thatcher regularly cited Churchill and Churchillian values, using them to distance the UK from the European Union for example, or to resist the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands.
This had to be a careful balancing act. Churchill was in favour of European unity. But in the words of Thatcher in 2002 while he ‘waxed lyrical about the prospects of European unity’ he did not envisage the UK ‘ever being part’ in such a project.
Thatcher recalled once the 1962 description used by right-wing historian Andrew Roberts (author of a recent mammoth biography of the man) of the time when ‘Field Marshal Montgomery (the victorious British General in World War Two over Rommel at El Alamein) found Churchill sitting up in bed smoking a cigar, shouting for brandy and protesting against Britain’s entry into the Common Market’.
How Britain arrived at its current confusion is a long story with many accomplices: the failure of modern Conservatism to take on its own vested interests and renew; the problems of decline and loss which have characterised post-war society and left Britain divided and bitter; but also responsible is the retreat of the Labour Party after Clement Attlee’s immediate post-war government and its inability to continue with their reforming zeal and take on the establishment.
Britain is thus a land which increasingly resembles an antique roadshow (itself a popular BBC TV programme). The past is literally everywhere, from costume dramas about the upper classes (Downton Abbey) to continual fascination with the Royal Family as soap opera and even social history (The King’s Speech, The Crown series). And as a plus point some of this even sells well in the USA.
When Churchill died in January 1965 it was a moment of national mourning and seemed as if imperial Britain living in the shadows of the Second World War passed with it. Former PM Harold Macmillan wrote ‘England without Winston. It seems impossible.’ This looked to be the birth of modern Britain: the 1960s, the Beatles, swinging London, Harold Wilson and Concorde.
But it did not happen. Britain did not leave the past. We never really joined the European project as that would have meant becoming something different. Hence we arrive at this unfortunate state: where Britain’s greatest statesman is used to embark on an ill-thought out project of national harm and vandalism. All we can be sure of is that the ghost of Churchill will be with us for many years.