Churchill’s Funeral, 50 Years On: His Words Still Call to Us

Churchill’s Funeral, 50 Years On: His Words Still Call to Us

St. Paul’s Cathedral, 30 January 1965….


Most of those read­ing this knows where they were on 9/11/01. A dimin­ish­ing num­ber remem­ber where they were on 1/30/65. That was the day we of Sir Win­ston Churchill’s state funer­al.

For me it was a life-chang­ing expe­ri­ence. Sud­den­ly, unfor­get­tably, on a flick­er­ing black and white TV screen in Stat­en Island, N.Y., the huge void of England’s grand­est cathe­dral filled with The Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic. He was, they told us, half-Amer­i­can, an hon­orary cit­i­zen by Act of Congress.

That day was the start of my 50-year career in search of Churchill—of what his great­est biog­ra­ph­er, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert, describes as “labour­ing in the vineyard.”

After the funeral…

…I picked up The Gath­er­ing Storm, the first vol­ume of his World War II mem­oirs, and was snared by what Robert Pilpel called his “roast beef and pewter phras­es.” It’s biased, as Churchill admitted—“This is not his­to­ry; this is my case.” But it is ordered so as to put you at his side for the “great cli­mac­ter­ics” that made us what we are today.

Churchill’s life spanned 60 years of promi­nence unmatched in recent his­to­ry. Of course he insist­ed that “noth­ing sur­pass­es 1940.” That was the year Britain and the Commonwealth—“the old lion with her lion cubs” as he put it, “stood alone against hunters who are armed with dead­ly weapons.” And fought on until “those who hith­er­to had been half blind were half ready.”

I soon learned there was more to Churchill than 1940. As Mar­tin Gilbert wrote: “As I open file after file of Churchill’s archive, from his entry into Gov­ern­ment in 1905 to his retire­ment in 1955, I am con­tin­u­al­ly sur­prised by the truth of his asser­tions, the moder­ni­ty of his thought, the orig­i­nal­i­ty of his mind, the con­struc­tive­ness of his pro­pos­als, his human­i­ty, and, most remark­able of all, his fore­sight.” All this his funer­al remembered.

Visionary and peacemaker

And what fore­sight. Churchill pre­dict­ed mobile phones, jet and rock­et trav­el, 24/7 media, genet­ic engi­neer­ing. He warned of the dan­gers of nuclear war, fif­teen years before Ein­stein wrote his famous let­ter to Roo­sevelt on the impli­ca­tions of split­ting the atom—this alleged war­mon­ger who said of war: “What vile and utter fol­ly and bar­barism it all is.”

This same Churchill nego­ti­at­ed the nonnegotiable—a treaty estab­lish­ing Irish inde­pen­dence. Michael Collins, one of the IRA rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who worked with him, declared: “Tell Win­ston we could have done noth­ing with­out him.”

In Cairo he helped draw the bound­aries of today’s Mid­dle East—an act for which some say we should not thank him. Yet they estab­lished a sta­ble Jor­dan, which is there yet. Vain­ly he tried also to cre­ate a Kur­dish home­land, “to pro­tect the Kurds from some future bul­ly in Iraq.” The opti­mist in him called for a Jew­ish home­land: He sim­ply could not under­stand how the Arabs would not wel­come Jews who made “a fer­tile gar­den” of the land they both inhabited.


He fought and lost over Indi­an self-gov­ern­ment. Then he told Gand­hi: “…use the pow­ers that are offered, and make the thing a suc­cess.” Decades before, Churchill had defend­ed the Indi­an minor­i­ty in South Africa, as he had native Africans. “I have got a good rec­ol­lec­tion of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colo­nial Office,” Gand­hi replied, “and some­how or oth­er since then I have held the opin­ion that I can always rely on his sym­pa­thy and goodwill.”

As a young reformer, Churchill cam­paigned for a “min­i­mum stan­dard” guar­an­teed by the state: “I see lit­tle glo­ry in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sew­ers.” Yet he instinc­tive­ly feared social­ism: “the phi­los­o­phy of fail­ure, the creed of igno­rance, and the gospel of envy.”

His 15 mil­lion pub­lished words cov­er more than war and pol­i­tics. He wrote his­to­ry, biog­ra­phy, 3000 speech­es, thought­ful essays on the nature of democ­ra­cy, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, lib­er­ty and the rule of law. He pre­served all his archives for his­to­ri­ans to pore over. His words can jus­ti­fy any side of an issue.

“The nature of man”

“Since his­to­ry nev­er repeats itself, the poli­cies Churchill adopt­ed do not pro­vide ready-made solu­tions now,” wrote the his­to­ri­an Paul Addi­son. “But Churchill’s writ­ings and speech­es are full of reflec­tions and phi­los­o­phy that offer food for thought. It is rare to dis­cover in the archives the reflec­tions of a politi­cian on the nature of man.”

I only wish the print and dig­i­tal media would under­stand this, and thus gen­er­ate less rub­bish. A few cor­rec­tive facts: With­out Churchill, the 1943 Ben­gal famine would have been worse. With­out him, some­one might actu­al­ly have used poi­son gas on Iraqi tribes­men or Ger­man cities. With him, women got the vote. He opposed it at a time when most British women did, and recon­sid­ered when he saw how much women did for the coun­try in World War I.

This man called for “the har­mo­nious dis­po­si­tion of the world among its peo­ples.” Yet, we are told, he “fierce­ly opposed to self-deter­mi­na­tion.” Was the fierce inde­pen­dence Churchill admired in Cana­di­ans, Boers, Zulus, Aus­tralians, Sudanese, New Zealan­ders. Kenyans and Maoris a sham and a façade?

And yet he lives on

Churchill would nev­er win office today, I read dur­ing the funer­al anniver­sary. A “ruth­less ego­tist,” he “would strug­gle to be elect­ed.” Was there a great polit­i­cal fig­ure who was not an ego­tist? No one elect­ed him in 1940. Nobody else want­ed the job. And Churchill’s wartime rela­tion­ships with Allies and the mil­i­tary were very stuff of compromise.

Why does Churchill defy such attacks gen­er­a­tions after his funer­al? Because, I think, Win­ston Churchill stands for some­thing. For cer­tain crit­i­cal human pos­si­bil­i­ties that are always worth bring­ing to the atten­tion of thought­ful peo­ple. Why? In order to per­pet­u­ate things worth per­pet­u­at­ing: Love of coun­try. The fra­ter­nal rela­tion­ship of the Great Democ­ra­cies. Their her­itage of law, lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture. Our thirst for lib­er­ty. Our invin­ci­bil­i­ty when we work togeth­er for just causes.

Across the years

In the time since his funer­al I learned much of Churchill’s life and thought. The eerie rel­e­van­cy of his chal­lenges and expe­ri­ences still call to us across the years. There will always be scoffers, who por­tray him as a one-dimen­sion­al, a man of war, an anachro­nism. “In doing so, it is they who are the losers,” Mar­tin Gilbert con­clud­ed. “For he was a man of qual­i­ty: a good guide for our trou­bled present, and for the gen­er­a­tions now reach­ing adulthood.”

Some who miss him lament that there are no Churchills today. Per­haps such lead­ers emerge only in life or death emer­gen­cies. We may be fac­ing one again.


This arti­cle first appeared in The Week­ly Stan­dard online, 23 Jan­u­ary 2015.

For the famous ren­der­ing of The Bat­tle Hymn of the Repub­lic by the Mor­mon Taber­na­cle Choir, click here.

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