Critique Down Under: Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

by Richard Langworth on 28 April 2017

Particularly on the Fall of Singapore (see earlier post), a new critique of Churchill misses the forest for the trees and fails on the facts. Really, Churchill made lots of mistakes worth contemplating. But these aren’t among them.


Churchill with another figure whose virtues outweighed his failures, President Truman, 1952. (AP and Sun Coast Daily)

The article appeared in southwest Australia’s Sun Coast Daily on April 26th. Not exactly The Times, and if you don’t subscribe to Google Alerts you missed it. For the fun of shooting fish in a barrel, however, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.


Critique 1: Self-Interest

“Churchill had a long and varied career in politics, managing to swap parties as his career needs required.”

Churchill swapped parties in 1904 over principle (Free Trade), risking rather than enhancing his career. (He lucked out when his new party won the next election.) He switched again in the 1920s after that party fell out from under him, which didn’t help his career much either (he was out of Parliament for over two years). Fortunately for him, a Conservative prime minister offered him a job. It seemed like the right thing to do. Wouldn’t you?

Critique 2: Military Catastrophes

“He managed while in government to produce two military catastrophes: first the awful Dardanelles campaign of the First World War cost him his job, then in the Second World War he master-minded the awful Norwegian campaign which cost Chamberlain his job and catapulted Churchill into the PM’s office.”

Churchill did not conceive of either operation and to say he “produced” them is a “terminological inexactitude.” While it is true that he loyally tried to advance them, the failures were the work of many. On the Dardanelles, he later admitted “trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position. Men are ill-advised to try such ventures. This lesson had sunk into my nature.” For an eminently balanced account of the follies of the Dardanelles, I recommend Christopher M. Bell’s Churchill and the Dardanelles.

Critique 3: Cheesy on Defense

“While it’s true he did speak out for rearmament late in the 1930s, readers may not realise that while treasurer in conservative governments between the wars he presided over an austerity program including a huge decline in military spending, leaving the navy, for example, running a string of mostly clapped-out First World War era battleships.”

The state of the Royal Navy in 1939 can hardly be blamed on someone who’d been out of office for the previous ten years. But in the 1920s, you couldn’t find a member of any Tory or Labour government in favor of spending money on armaments. Yet Churchill, when times had changed, was among the leading supporters of the government’s decision to renew capital warship production in 1936.

Critique 4: Singapore

“Churchill, the military genius and austerity merchant, left Singapore incompletely and poorly defended. He sent two battleships, completely lacking air cover, to deal with the Japanese threat. Both were sunk by Japanese planes while steaming away from the Japanese landings in Malaya.” 

In 1924-25, Churchill questioned the decision to defend Singapore by shore based guns, and recommended submarines and air power. Granted, he was mainly trying to avoid heavy defense expenditures at a time when no one foresaw the need for them. (The guns fired, ineffectually, at land-based attackers in 1941.)

In October 1941, before Japan attacked, Churchill sent the two warships to Singapore, hoping they would serve as a deterrent. When the deterrent failed, his first impulse was to send them to join the remnants of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. He should have. But it was Vice Admiral Tom Phillips, not Churchill, who opted to sortie from Singapore without air cover, hoping to disrupt Japanese landings, and he was sailing toward them, not away from them. Yet throughout the war, very few capital ships were sunk by air power alone, except when caught in harbor.

The historians Robin Brodhurst and Christopher Bell explain these little-known corrections to popular belief shortly on the Hillsdale College Churchill Project website, which I will link when published.

Critique 5: Unions

“Churchill notoriously urged the government to machine-gun striking unionists in the 1926 General Strike.”

While hostile to socialism, Churchill warmly accepted trade unions. For him, wrote the historian Chris Wrigley, “they were elements of Victorian individualism.” In dealing with unions, including over the General Strike, his impulse was first to win the argument, then to address their grievances. There is no evidence whatsoever that he urged the gunning-down of strikers.

Critique 6: India

“Churchill was also deeply racist, regarding the idea of Indian independence and Gandhi with deep horror.”

What Churchill regarded with “deep horror” in India was more Brahmin domination than Indians governing themselves, which they were largely doing long before the Raj ended. When the India Bill passed in 1935 he encougraged Gandhi, who replied: “’I have got a good recollection of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colonial Office and somehow or other since then I have held the opinion that I can always rely on his sympathy and goodwill.”

Some racist. See “Churchill and Racism: Think a Little Deeper” and “Welcome Mr. Gandhi—Winston Churchill.”

Critique 7: He “ran the show”

“During the war he presided over a national all-party government which meant in effect that he ran the show. Once an election was held in 1945 the British people dumped him and the Conservative Party unceremoniously.”

It is the tendency in both national and party governments for the prime minister to “run the show.” Given what he learned from the Dardanelles (see #2 above), what else would we expect of him in 1940?

I must admit this is the first time I’ve heard Churchill criticized for presiding over a coalition government. It was a coalition because all three parties and Mr. Chamberlain agreed in May 1940 that a coalition was the only way to fight Hitler. Churchill was the only candidate both available and willing, whom all three parties would agree to support.

Winston Churchill was on the political scene over half a century, and his mistakes like his virtues were on a grand scale. But the latter considerably outweighed the former. Would-be critics need to do better research before proclaiming his feet of clay.


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