Critique Down Under: Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Critique Down Under: Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

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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