Why do they all want to hijack Churchill?
The ‘would Churchill have supported the BNP?’ furore says more about politics today than it does about the role of ‘our hero’ in history.
Now it seems that the British National Party has committed the ultimate sin – it has upset Her Majesty. ‘Queen fury at BNP’, announced the headline in Sunday’s News of the World: ‘Outrage at Nick Griffin Churchill hijacking.’ The best-selling tabloid newspaper quoted a ‘senior royal aide’ who had apparently deigned to grubby his hands by speaking to the NotW: ‘The Queen thinks it is outrageous that the name of such a courageous leader in our hour of need has been hijacked in this way. She believes it is important the royal family doubles its efforts to stem the tide of this division. It is not British.’
Of all the things that party leader Griffin said around his appearance on BBC TV’s Question Time, none has caused more outrage than his suggestion that Churchill, Britain’s most famous prime minister and Second World War leader, would have supported the BNP today. Political leaders, pundits and the queen herself have united to condemn this offensive suggestion. They all insist that Churchill stands in history not only as a beloved national hero but a crusader against Nazism and a symbol of British unity – unlike the nasty, ‘Nazi’ and divisive Griffin and the BNP.
The Liberal Democrats’ Chris Huhne even argued that, since Churchill had been a leading member of first the Liberal and then the Tory party, and had later led a wartime national government including Labour ministers, his legacy should rightly belong to all of the mainstream parties rather than the far-right fringe (see The new divide in British politics: Us and Him, by Brendan O’Neill).
It seems that Griffin is far from the only one trying to ‘hijack’ Churchill. Almost the entire discredited British political class now wants to claim him as one of their own, in the hope that his glorious image of national leadership in a crisis might reflect on them. They are trying to stand on Churchill’s ample shoulders as a platform to reach the moral high ground, from where they can look down on the BNP.
The Churchill they all want to hijack, however, is of course the myth and the legend rather than the real man and leader.
In his life, Churchill was a British imperialist and representative of the ruling class whose determination to defend the empire and the establishment against colonial peoples and the working classes at home made him a far more divisive and unpopular figure than all this talk of national unity suggests. His career is littered with controversies too numerous to go into here.
Before the First World War, just for example, he was home secretary in the Liberal government during what became known as the 1910 Tonypandy riots in the South Wales coalfield. Churchill sent in the Metropolitan Police and the Army to crush the hungry striking miners, turning Tonypandy into an armed camp. This caused such bitterness that even after Churchill’s death in 1965, when a national appeal was launched for a hero’s memorial, few in South Wales gave a penny.
In 1926, Churchill was in the frontline of the Tory government’s war on the working class during the General Strike. He edited the government’s propaganda sheet, The British Gazette, reportedly suggested turning machine guns on the strikers, and declared that Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy had shown the world ‘a way to combat subversive forces’. In the 1930s, his disdain for the masses led him to propose abandoning universal suffrage and going back to a system where only respectable property-owners (of whom there were far fewer then) could vote.
Churchill was also an aristocrat moulded in the late Victorian-Edwardian era, whose outlook reflected the racial and imperial prejudices of those times. He often expressed views that would now be seen as irredeemably racist, anti-Semitic and even pro-fascist – he certainly saw Mussolini as a bulwark against the main enemy, the Jewish-led conspiracy of international communism, and expressed the hope in the early days of Nazi power that Hitler would lead Germany back into the ‘family’ of European powers.
Churchill’s views on most issues were already considered outdated by the 1930s – what relevance they could have to politics in 2009 is anybody’s guess. The common notion now is that he was isolated during that period because of his lone campaign for British rearmament and against the appeasement of Hitler’s Germany. This is a view largely based on Churchill’s own self-serving version of events. In reality he was not the first and far from the only politician demanding rearmament. And his political isolation was due as much as anything to his anachronistic defence of imperial rule in India and demand that British forces re-occupy the sub-continent to crush Gandhi’s home rule movement. During the abdication crisis of 1936, Churchill sided firmly with Edward VIII, leading to accusations that he was trying to form a ‘King’s Party’ to subvert parliamentary democracy.
Soon after the Second World War broke out in 1939, Britain was facing a life-or-death crisis. The political class turned to Churchill to become prime minister of a national government in 1940, precisely because his qualities as an old-fashioned imperialist made him the ideal candidate as a wartime leader. Yet even then, his war record was not quite the heroic tale some would have us believe. Churchill certainly did not go to war to save the Jews or humanity from fascism, but to save the British Empire. His responsibility for such atrocities as the Dresden fire bombings remains an issue of bitter controversy.
And at home during the war, Churchill was far from the universally adored ‘Winnie’ of legend. Millions associated him with the bad old days of pre-war poverty, depression and strife. When the British electorate was finally given a choice in the May 1945 General Election, the great war leader was overwhelmingly voted out of office even before the war had ended. (Though not before he had claimed that a Labour government would require a ‘Gestapo’ of its own.)
It is a measure of how stagnant political life has become in the twenty-first century that so many should seek to revive their reputations by associating themselves with the triumphs of a reactionary statesman who was in his prime about a hundred years ago. It is ridiculous for Griffin to claim that Churchill would have supported the BNP today – he would more likely have considered them insufferable oiks, and far too feeble to give him the power he sought. Yet it is surely no less ridiculous for the mainstream parties to claim the mantle of the ultimate empire loyalist.
Worse, comparing today’s political class to Churchill can only serve to highlight the biggest contrast between them: their leadership qualities. Whatever one thinks of his politics, Churchill was a political giant who stood and fought for his beliefs and led Britain through a perilous world war. His successors are political pygmies who stand for nothing, fight one another, and get Britain bogged down in unpopular little wars in which even they don’t believe. Where Churchill made clear in the mist of the Blitz that his government would never quit London even if the Nazis were marching up Whitehall, New Labour now has plans to evacuate the city and set up a government-in-exile if a few terrorists manage to set off a big enough bomb.
There is a memorable clip of film, taken during the 1945 General Election campaign, which speaks volumes for me about how far things have changed since Churchill’s wartime heydays. The prime minister is speaking at his final rally of the campaign at Walthamstow dog track (now sadly deceased), round the corner from where I live in east London. As Churchill tries to get into his usual wartime rhetoric, the crowd – made up of local workers and servicemen in uniform – grows restless. Squaddies and sailors start chanting ‘We want Labour’ – and then some throw stones at him. Sixty-four years on, it is hard to imagine anybody in politics throwing a brickbat at the beatified Churchill. But then it is harder still to imagine any prime minister having the nerve to expose himself to the general public at a rally, or members of the public having the passion and belief to chant for a Labour, Conservative or any other government.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
James Heartfield shared his views on Churchill and surveyed the struggle to define the Second World War. Tim Black said that, contrary to David Miliband’s impression, Churchill was hardly a great liberal. Rob Lyons said the idea that we’re experiencing a ‘far-right surge’ is a myth. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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