Awk! We’ve now read umpteen articles on Churchill’s Fatal Faults. They cite imagined flaws long disproven (poison gas, Bengal Famine, opposing all self-determination, hostility to Gandhi). One wonders: Don’t these writers ever do research?*
In rising crescendo since 2015 we’ve put up with a lot. Well, yes, some admit, Churchill saved the West—but he was human and he made mistakes (duh!). Why, he even said things that would shock us in our modern enlightened age. This age of beheadings, massacres, drone strikes and chlorine gas attacks is so removed from the bad old days of Pax Britannica.
Let us provide something the scoffers may really talk about. Here are twenty really serious Churchill flaws which got him or the world into trouble. They reliably prove that he was not infallible.
Flaws from the beginning
1) 1904: Deserting his natural home, the Conservative Party, over Free Trade, only to be forced back to them later, being ever after regarded by both Liberals and Conservatives as a turncoat.
2) 1915: Championing the Dardanelles and Gallipoli operations despite sloppy planning and worse execution by military commanders, without plenary authority to force a chance of success.
3) 1915: Relying too much on the mercurial, disloyal, hypocritical Admiral Fisher, who brought about his (temporary) political demise. Among WSC’s flaws, steadfast loyalty turned around and bit him at times.
4) 1921: Failing to press his demands for Kurdish and Jewish states while in Cairo helping to draw up the borders of the modern Middle East. The flaws of those arrangements are with us yet, though so is a moderate Jordan, one of his creations.
5) 1925: Restoring the Gold Standard without commensurate reforms in employment, tax and wage policies.
7) 1930s: Wasting political capital opposing the India Bill, which had thumping majorities in all parties. (Of course one can argue that devotion to principle is not among one’s flaws.)
8) 1934: Trying to skewer Sir Samuel Hoare on an issue of Privilege (immunity from prosecution) for attempting to influence India legislation, when Hoare’s Conservative friends could stack the deck to protect him despite his guilt.
9) 1935-37: Listening to the Foreign Office, which insisted he tone down his rhetoric and give Hitler the benefit of the doubt in his articles and books.
10) 1936: Muting his opposition to Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, in the hope of gaining political office. Ambition is one of those flaws a good politician can’t do without, of course.
11) 1936: Standing up too long for Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis, long after the King had lost the right to support from anybody.
World War II
12) 1940: Miscalculation during the Norway campaign of April 1940, although some of this was owed to Cabinet dithering.
13) 1940: Placing too much faith in the French Army. Speaking of flaws, that was a big one.
14) 1940: Accepting leadership of the Conservative Party, instead of remaining a non-party leader at the head of the wartime coalition.
15) 1940: Confusing Blitzkrieg with the static warfare of World War I.
16) 1941-42: Stressing Singapore’s seaward defenses, and believing that capital ships were largely immune from hostile aircraft. In his war memoirs he wrote: “It had never entered my head that no circle of detached forts of a permanent character protected the rear of the famous fortress…. I ought to have known and I ought to have been told, and I ought to have asked.”
17) 1941-45: Believing he could trust Stalin.
18) 1945: Comparing Attlee and the Labour Party to “a kind of Gestapo” in the General Election.
19) 1953: Believing that his brand of personal diplomacy would make a difference in Cold War relations after Stalin’s death.
20) 1956: Not interceding more forcefully to resolve the Anglo-American split during the Suez Crisis.
Not everyone buys all the Churchill flaws on this list; there are contrary arguments on some items, especially 1, 9, 10, 14, 17 and 19.
But Churchill himself considered many criticisms valid: 2) “…a supreme enterprise,” cast away, by pursuing “a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position.” (Their Finest Hour, chapter 1, 1949).
5) “Everybody said that I was the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever was.” (1930).
11) “I’m glad I was wrong” (1953).
13/15) Churchill expressed shock over “the utter failure to grapple with the German armour” (1949).
16: “The efficiency of the Japanese in air warfare was at this time greatly underestimated both by ourselves and by the Americans” (The Grand Alliance, chapter 12, 1948). Also, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, Churchill had asked why there were no guns at Singapore facing the other way.
* * *
All these flaws or misjudgments—unlike the disproven canards ignorant critics constantly trot out—are worthy of consideration. They remind us that Churchill’s flaws were, like his virtues, on a grand scale—but that the latter outweighed the former.
In the words of Professor Paul Addison, whom I never cease quoting: “I always feel that, paradoxically, it diminishes Churchill when he’s regarded as super-human.”
*This article originally referred to a critical piece by Peter Harris in The National Interest. By today’s standards it seems almost mild.