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