The Un-great Non-debate Neither Buries nor Lionizes Churchill

The Un-great Non-debate Neither Buries nor Lionizes Churchill

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.

3 thoughts on “The Un-great Non-debate Neither Buries nor Lionizes Churchill

  1. I watched this online recent­ly, and while I think the pro-side did bet­ter than your review and the audi­ence gave them cred­it for (and enjoyed Buchanan’s admit­ted­ly con­tro­ver­sial book), I at least appre­ci­ate a review that doesn’t descend into nasty and dis­hon­est accu­sa­tions of unspo­ken and insin­u­at­ed anti-Semi­tism and Nazi sym­pa­thies on Buchanan’s part. That is more than I can say for too many Churchill obses­sives among main­stream Amer­i­can (neo)conservatives. Eight-plus years after this debate, fas­ci­na­tion with Churchill rages on, as the new­er movies on his life make clear.

  2. Love your report. You knew from the start the debate would be just plain sil­ly. Just as were all those Oxbridge “great debates” in the 1930s. Debates have a gener­ic prob­lem: the ques­tion. Either/or ques­tions and answers are, by def­i­n­i­tion, wrong when they apply to human activ­i­ty. Here’s one: “Does his­to­ry repeat itself, as San­tayana warned?” Not only did San­tayana not so warn, but by def­i­n­i­tion his­to­ry can­not repeat itself. It’s a wild-goose chase to start with. I think it’s why the Oxbrid­gians lost the Empire — wild-goos­ing around. Of course Buchanan is not a bit sin­cere or seri­ous about any of that stuff. He’s just hav­ing fun and mak­ing money.

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