Churchill’s Coming Sesquicentennial: When Eagles are Silent…

Churchill’s Coming Sesquicentennial: When Eagles are Silent…

“Very often the eagles have been squalled down by the par­rots.”   —Win­ston S. Churchill, House of Com­mons, 18 Jan­u­ary 1945

“Winston’s Bag: He hunts lions and brings home decayed cats.” David Low in The Star, Lon­don, 21 Jan­u­ary 1920. The cho­rus has been going on a long time. (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons, pub­lic domain)

(Updat­ed from 2015.) Sea­soned stu­dents of Sir Win­ston had mixed reac­tions to the last com­mem­o­ra­tive cel­e­bra­tion: the 50th anniver­sary of his death. While grat­i­fied that press and pub­lic still remem­bered. there was shock at some of the ill-con­sid­ered, long-dis­proven assertions.

The sesqui­cen­ten­ni­al of his birth is com­ing up in a cou­ple of years, with anoth­er cacoph­o­ny of false charges and imag­i­na­tive assump­tions. Hope­ful­ly, how­ev­er, the par­rots will not repeat the igno­rance punc­tured by the eagles back in 2015…

Old chestnuts

“The Ten Great­est Con­tro­ver­sies of Win­ston Churchill’s Career,” (BBC) 

This was a rote per­for­mance, and sad­ly typ­i­cal. First, you tee-up Churchill as the sav­ior of 1940. Then you tear him down with the famil­iar litany of charges. I do wish they’d come up with some new ones; the old chest­nuts are get­ting shopworn.

One doesn’t mind the BBC float­ing harm­less urban leg­ends. But to offer his sup­posed racist views, the rude things he said about Gand­hi (but not the nice things, or what Gand­hi said about him), or the Sid­ney Street episode as exam­ples of the “top ten” is intel­lec­tu­al­ly vacant.

The real con­tro­ver­sies of Churchill’s career include the Dar­d­anelles, inter­ven­tion in Rus­sia, reor­ga­niz­ing the Mid­dle East, the Gold Stan­dard, Dis­ar­ma­ment, the Rhineland, Munich. Sin­ga­pore, strate­gic bomb­ing, the atom­ic bomb, and post­war sum­mits with the Rus­sians, among oth­ers. On these there is much legit­i­mate­ly to say in crit­i­cism, as well as in praise. (Click on the links above for reli­able backgrounders.)

Per­haps the BBC was cater­ing to its per­ceived audi­ence, which dotes on pop­u­lar canards. They tried to be “fair and bal­anced,” but I don’t think Churchill had a fair shake.

Eagles reply

“We shall fight them on the BBC”  

This mock inter­view of Churchill aimed to answer some of the detrac­tors. It is more amus­ing than the usu­al defens­es. Sad­ly, though, Churchill nev­er said he could only deal with one s*** at a time. And “Jaw-jaw is bet­ter than war-war” was said by Harold Macmil­lan, not Churchill. It was enter­tain­ing to read his words, “an Iron Cur­tain has descend­ed across the continent”—and then to be told he was refer­ring to the Euro­pean Union. Whoops!

One miss­es the com­pa­ny of the eagles. Sir Mar­tin Gilbert and Lady Soames reg­u­lar­ly con­front­ed these sto­ries. But no one has the ener­gy to tack­le them all.  I am always encour­aged by a wise and bal­anced his­to­ri­an, the late and much missed Pro­fes­sor Paul Addi­son, whose books on Churchill remain stan­dard works:

Don’t wor­ry about attacks on Churchill.  He is alive and kick­ing and haunts the British imag­i­na­tion like no oth­er 20th cen­tu­ry politi­cian. He will always be car­i­ca­tured, as he was in his life­time. But free­dom of speech and expres­sion was one of the things he fought for, and in his time he gave as good as he got. The more provoca­tive com­ments about him are a back­hand­ed trib­ute, as they work on the assump­tion that most peo­ple admire him. My own per­son­al view is that he was even greater as a human being than he was as a politi­cian, a role in which he did make mis­takes, as we all do.

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