The Great Debate: “Resolved, that Winston Churchill was more a liability than an asset to the free world.” Sponsored by Intelligence Squared, viewable on C-Span.
LONDON, 3 SEPT 1999— It was avidly awaited but fell flat. Tabling a truly ridiculous motion, Intelligence Squared (“the only institution in town aside from Parliament to provide a forum for debate on the crucial issues of the day”) combined with C-Span to bring us this spectacle. It would have been more interesting to debate whether Hitler or Churchill was the better painter.
I will spare you wisecracks about Intelligence Squared. The debate was not a “crucial issue of the day,” and so organized as to obfuscate the argument by forcing panelists to respond to disparate questions hurled in succession from the audience. It started off interestingly, but soon tapered into a long palimpsest of clichés, accusations, denials and counter-charges.
Arguing the affirmative, and by far the most lively and effective, was the engaging Patrick J. Buchanan (Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. His team included Norman Stone (Billkent University, Turkey) and a supercilious Cambridge don named Nigel Knight, whose Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked concludes that it was Hitler who made Churchill a historical figure. Pat Buchanan was the best they had going. A great debater, he knows how to liven things up. But he could have done better by enlisting Professor John Charmley, a witty and able critic, and, like himself, a gentleman.
Opposing the motion was a team led by Andrew Roberts (Masters and Commanders, and numerous other sound histories). Roberts is a razor sharp advocate, but the nature of the program prevented him from getting in all his best ripostes. He stuck too closely to his prepared remarks and—except for a few preemptive strikes at what he knew was coming—not until the Q&A was he able to chop away at the forest of misinformation.
Also effective was Anthony Beevor (D-Day: The Battle for Normandy), supported by Richard Overy (University of Exeter), who usually just repeated Roberts’ points while sniffing at Knight’s. Stone seemed to want to talk about growing up in postwar Britain, and what a bad picture of him appeared in the papers.
What it came down to was a powerful attack by Buchanan (“We have come not to praise Churchill but to bury him”), who rolled out all the shibboleths and out-of- context quotes from his book, from Churchill leading the war party in 1914 to bombing Dresden in 1945. Pat labeled the failed attempt to occupy Norway in 1940 the “worst British debacle,” but later fastened a similar title on the British guarantee to Poland in 1939, omitting that it was Neville Chamberlain who did that. Roberts called him, but Buchanan replied that, well, Churchill was “urging Chamberlain on,” forgetting that the last person Chamberlain was listening to in March 1939 was Churchill. Norway as Debacle is somewhat outranked by Singapore, but not to worry, Knight trotted out Singapore later. He was right that Churchill guessed wrong on Singapore—but so did the entire British military establishment. (Unsaid by all present: as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late 1920s, Churchill had questioned defending Singapore with guns and had suggested using aircraft.)
Buchanan’s most original idea was that it wasn’t necessary to guarantee Poland (which couldn’t be guaranteed, after all). Britain and France merely had to “draw a line down the middle of Europe,” to the west of which they would throw all their armed might against any German aggression.
Say what? Debate where it should have been if you like—but Churchill’s whole purpose in life from 1933 onward was to get somebody, somewhere, to draw that line, and nobody ever did. I think the Rhineland is to the west of Pat’s line, and we all know how the French and Stanley Baldwin responded to Hitler over that piece of real estate.
Of the Polish guarantee, Churchill said basically what Pat Buchanan said: “Here was decision at last, taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people.” (Alas one of the quotes Pat didn’t mention. Later Pat told me that Churchill only took that view in retrospect, in 1948. Not so. His contemporary letters said the same thing.)
Nigel Knight took the attack to the 1920s when, he said Churchill not only foisted the Gold Standard on Britain, impoverishing her for the war ahead, but disarmed in the face of Hitler—whom Knight (but nobody else) divines was a serious threat circa 1928, when the Nazis won 2.6% of the vote. It was of course the Bank of England that wanted the Gold Standard, and not without reason, though this is an argument far removed from the subject.
Knight landed one good punch by declaring—in support of invading France in 1943—that they used more landing craft in the invasion of Italy than in Normandy. If that’s true, it’s an interesting point, but in his zeal Knight forgets that in the final analysis, D-Day was postponed through a series of decisions by Roosevelt, Churchill and their military advisers—and it was the wisest of choices.
Anthony Beevor gamely replied, and the third batters on each team followed suit, but it soon developed into an exchange of “the real fact is that…” versus “that is an appalling travesty of the truth.” Halfway through, I wanted to pull the plug on my monitor.
Moderator Joan Bakewell helped make the time drag by complaining about the sound and the light, and insisting on taking questions in bunches rather than one at a time. This naturally distracted the debaters and got into all sorts of muddles, dropped threads and mistaken recollections of the questions. The most interesting factor, Bakewell concluded, was the difference between the two audience votes, taken before and after the debate:
Vote taken………Before After
For the Motion 118 181
Against 1,167 1,194
Don’t know 422 34
Oho, Bakewell chortled: The pro-Churchill side added twenty-seven votes, but the anti-Churchill side added sixty-three! Her implication was that Buchanan and Co. had made serious inroads.
Not really. The startling change was in the totals. Add them up and you’ll find that 1707 people were there to vote before the debate, but only 1409 afterward. The rest apparently left early. Justifiably.