We don’t need to talk about Winston

I discovered recently that my great-grandfather Richard Berwick Hope played on his school cricket team with the great sportsman C.B. Fry.  He (Hope) also turns out to have been a contemporary of Winston Churchill at Sandhurst (he features on the list at the back of this book on Churchill).

These things got me thinking about what my ancestor might have thought as he saw these two contemporaries of his become world-famous figures, particularly Churchill since Hope lived through the Second World War and even into Churchill’s peacetime period as prime minister.  Part of me wonders what he made of his class-mate’s rise to Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, First Lord of the Admiralty (again) and Prime Minister.

These idle thoughts butted up against a general feeling I’ve had for a while that Churchill’s image as national hero really needs more grounding in real life. There seems to be a sense that because Churchill did or said something it must be right.  This is rubbish.  He did and said a lot of things, many of which were stupid and many more of which were reflections of his time rather than some innate truth.

This is not to say that he should not be regarded as a national hero – I think he should, it is hard to imagine that any of the alternative prime ministers in 1940 would have been so firm and inspirational.  He was the person that the nation needed in 1940… but he is not the person the nation needs now. He was inspirational at his nation’s hour of great need, but is he really someone to be recalled whenever it suits?

Two examples occur to me of the use of Churchill’s name in political arguments.  One by Baroness Warsi and one by the BNP.

Sayeeda Warsi recently quoted Churchill to support her argument against the Alternative Vote system:

Let me tell you what’s wrong with AV. ‘It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal’ voting system. It means that elections ‘will be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.’ Conference, not my words – the words of Winston Churchill eighty years ago.

She also used the Churchill quotations in an article for the Sun today, to back up her line that AV will assist the BNP.  I’m sure it is heartening for Conservatives and Sun readers to hear that Churchill felt this way about AV, but (even aside from the misleading point about extremism) it really is not helpful.

It might do them some good to remember that this is the same Churchill who told the nation that a Labour government would need a “Gestapo” to implement their policies.  It was also Churchill who returned the nation to the Gold Standard in the 1920s, helping to bring on the General Strike. I wonder whether Baroness Warsi thinks that her Cabinet colleagues and the nation as a whole should follow his lead back to the Gold Standard.

Churchill also refused to speak to Lady Astor when she was elected because: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she bursts into my bedroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.”  One can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the appearance of a woman of Pakistani descent in a Tory Cabinet!

Even more despicable in the tub-thumping Churchill-worship was Nick Griffin when he appeared on Newsnight and used Churchill to back up his point of view. He claimed that Churchill would have been a BNP member, to which various people made valid arguments about the fight that Churchill put up in the name of democracy.

In some ways, Griffin was correct, though: Churchill would have agreed with some of the BNP’s policies, such as on non-white immigration to the UK. This is not because their position is inherently right and British, but because Churchill was a man of the nineteenth century with a Victorian sense of racial superiority.  His views were out of date by the time of his death, and are even more so now.  Churchill was also an imperialist, while the BNP think that we should not be involved in wars overseas. Judged by today’s standards, Churchill was indeed very right wing. That is why we shouldn’t take as gospel the words of the ageing wartime prime minister… because he was a man of his time. That is part of what gave him his rhetorical ability, but it makes him a bad role model in many other ways.

We should respect Churchill, but accept his faults. His leadership in the Second World War was imperfect but it was important – if not vital – to the survival of a democratic Britain and of the Western Front against Nazism. His record on domestic matters is less impressive and his views were those of a man of his time.  This should not mean that we hark back to those views as inviolable ‘British’ views, or that he was right (or wrong) about everything, or that we dismiss him out of hand. Churchill was important, but he must be understood in context not put on a pedestal and worshipped.

Please, stop quoting him as if he was some great infallible arbiter of political debates… he was not.

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2 Responses to “We don’t need to talk about Winston”

  1. AV ‘will bring in fascism’ « A Forlorn Hope Says:

    […] A Forlorn Hope « We don’t need to talk about Winston […]

  2. David Simkin Says:

    Stuart – would you please make contact with David Simkin of Sussex PhotoHistory who has recently made some discoveries about your great grandfather Richard Berwick Hope and his activities as a society photographer. Two examples of his photographic work appears on the webpage devoted to the photographer and pioneer film-maker Arthur Esme Collings. I am also seeking your permission to feature the photographic portrait of Richard Berwick Hope.

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