Churchill’s “Infallibility”: Myth on Myth
Mr. Daniel Knowles (“Time to scotch the myth of Winston Churchill’s infallibility,” (originally blogged on the Daily Telegraph but since pulled from all the websites where it appeared), wrote that the “national myth” of World War II and Churchill “is being used in an argument about the future of the House of Lords.”
Mr. Knowles quoted Liberal Party leader Nick Clegg, who cited Churchill’s 1910 hope that the Lords “would be fair to all parties.” Sir Winston’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames MP, replied that Churchill “dropped those views and had great reverence and respect for the institution of the House of Lords.” Soames concluded: “But it doesn’t matter. The basis of this argument is mythology, not history.”
Churchill’s view on the Lords was more nuanced than Clegg stated, and certainly did change after passage of the 1911 Parliament Act, which Churchill helped pass. It eliminated the Lords’ veto of money bills, restricted their delay of other bills to two years, and reduced the term of a Parliament to five years. You can look it up.
What to do about the House of Lords is a matter for the British people and their representatives. My task is merely to refute nonsense about Winston Churchill—which I will now respectfully proceed to do, quoting from Mr. Knowles’s treatise:
• “We idolise Churchill because we don’t really know anything about him.”
Only sycophants idolize Churchill. But if they do, it’s not because they know nothing about him. He has the longest biography in the history of the planet. He has 15-million published words. There are a million documents in the Churchill Archives. One hundred million words were written about him. He gets 37 million Google hits. Don’t be silly.
• “His finest hours aside, Winston Churchill was hardly a paragon of progressive thought.”
Churchill’s was at times so progressive that he was called a traitor to his class. His own Conservative Party never quite trusted him because they knew he continued to harbor principles of the Liberal Party he had been part of from 1904 to 1922. To cite examples would bore you. So let’s just say that he favored a National Health Service before the Labour Party did, and believed in a system of social security before the Labour Party existed.
• “He believed that women shouldn’t vote – telling the House of Commons that they are ‘well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.’”
Churchill never said that in the Commons. It’s a private note pasted into his copy of the 1874 Annual Register in 1897, when he was 23. At that time the majority of British women themselves were opposed to having the vote. Churchill changed his view on women’s suffrage after observing the role women played in World War I—and when he realized, as his daughter said, “how many women would vote for him.”
• “He was fiercely opposed to self-determination for the people of the Empire….”
Was the fierce independence Churchill admired in Canadians, Boers, Zulus, Australians, Sudanese, New Zealanders and Maoris a sham and a façade, then? Churchill did have a tic about the early Indian independence movement, with its Brahmin roots. Yet in 1935 he declared that Gandhi had “gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables.” And Churchill was proven right that a premature British exit from India would result in a Hindu-Muslim bloodbath—how many died is still unknown.
• “….advocating the use of poisoned gas against ‘uncivilized tribes’ in Mesopotamia in 1919.”
That Golden Oldie has been refuted repeatedly for twenty years. The specific term he used was “lachrymatory gas” (tear gas). He was not referring to a killer gas like chlorine.
• “Even his distrust of Hitler was probably motivated mostly by a hatred of Germans.”
Is this the same Churchill who urged that shiploads of food be sent to blockaded Germany after the 1918 armistice, incurring the wrath of his colleagues, who wished to “squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked”? Is this the man who wrote to his wife in 1945: “…my heart is saddened by the tales of masses of German women and children flying along the roads everywhere in 40-mile long columns to the West before the advancing Armies”? Really, Mr. Knowles should be ashamed of himself.
• “In 1927, he said that Mussolini’s fascism ‘had rendered service to the whole world,’ while Il Duce himself was a ‘Roman genius.’”
Lots of politicians said favorable things about Mussolini after he restored order to a reeling Italy in the 1920s. Churchill was among the first to realize and to say publicly what Mussolini really was. Churchill wasn’t always right the first time—but he was usually right in the long run.
• “In 1915, he had to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty after the disaster of Gallipoli.”
He had to resign because of the Dardanelles, not Gallipoli, which was someone else’s idea (and hadn’t yet become a disaster). Churchill initially was even doubtful about the plan to force the Dardanelles, but he defended it and was a handy scapegoat. He vowed never again to champion “a cardinal operation of war” without plenary authority; hence his assumption of the title “Minister of Defence” in World War II.
• “His decision in 1925 to restore Britain to the Gold Standard caused a deep and unnecessary recession.”
There was already a recession. Churchill, Keynes and the Gold Standard comprise a far more complicated subject than Mr. Knowles represents. Among other things, the Gold Standard was insisted upon by the Bank of England. Churchill was certainly wrong to buy their arguments, and saw many of its effects coming; he was also incredibly unlucky in the way things transpired.
• ”That led directly to the general strike in 1926, in which he was reported to have suggested using machine guns on the miners.”
Mr. Knowles confused his red herrings. It was the Welsh miners at Tonypandy in 1910 against whom Churchill is mythologically supposed to have sent troops—but top marks for the machine guns, a new twist on the old myth. (In fact, Churchill opposed the use of troops, in Tonypandy and in the General Strike.)
Mr. Knowles concluded:
Yes, he was, in the most part, a brilliant war leader. His role in the creation of the modern welfare state is also worth remembering. But his views on Lords reform are as irrelevant today as his views on India or female suffrage. This is a debate we should have based on principle, and on a practical evaluation of how well the House of Lords works. Citing dead men only muddies it.
Well, it is my instinctive feeling anyone who fails to do basic research can produce only what amounts to a national myth, divorced from reality.
Churchill was not always “a brilliant war leader.” He did help create what became the welfare state–and warned against its excesses. His views on Lords reform are not irrelevant, but they do require more study than we read in the Telegraph Blogpost. His views on India are still relevant to certain Indians who have written on the subject. (As one wrote, the Axis Powers had quite different ideas in mind for India than the old British Raj).
As for female suffrage, ask all the women who voted for him. Citing live Telegraph bloggers only muddies the waters.
Mr. Knowles has tweeted that “The whole point of the post was to take down Clegg. That piece is bizarre.” I certainly agree his piece is bizarre. But Mr. Clegg lasted until 2015.
10 thoughts on “Churchill’s “Infallibility”: Myth on Myth”
May I suggest the need for further education? The points you cite were not part of Mr. Knowles’s charges, so it is rather jejune to claim my response fails because it didn’t cover them. If you click on the links I do provide, you will see whether or not the reply to Mr. Knowles was weak or not.
As for Dresden and the bombing campaign, my book Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality takes that on wholesale, in a chapter entitled “Mad Bomber.” For only $9.99 for the Kindle you can learn all about why Churchill had to back the bombing campaign, why he was the only Allied leader to question its morality, why he called for it to cease once Germany was on the ropes. You don’t even have to spend $9.99 to read the truth about Dresden, which was requested by the Soviets, and ordered by Clement Attlee. Click here.
The repatriation of Soviet citizens in the later stages of the war, if that’s what you mean by “Christian and other refugees,” is not a happy story and reflects poorly on Churchill and Roosevelt. Of course, other considerations were afoot that influenced them to acquiesce to Stalin’s demands for repatriation, and those were complicated things. It is dangerous to single out this or that unfortunate decision, from of all the decisions competing for time and resolution. WW2 was a very dangerous war.
This is a weak defense of Churchill. It fails by what it omits: 1. his unconscionable terror bombing of every major German city culminating in the incineration of Dresden; overall, up to 200,000 civilians were killed deliberately; and 2. Churchill’s cooperation with the monster Stalin in forcing hundreds of thousands of Christian (and other) refugees back into Soviet territory.
In a crowded field, historians get noticed by “demythologizing” heroic men and women. Those contrarians who get the most attention are those who approach their critiques not with balance but high dudgeon. They are very often guilty of ruthless cherry-picking and almost always afflicted with presentism. How else to explain the vitriol focused on the likes of Churchill and Mother Teresa.
The criticism is valid, but has a short window. Churchill abandoned Eugenics before he turned forty. For criticisms with rather longer windows see: https://richardlangworth.com/imperfections.”
I am glad you reference that article because I published it—a thoughtful appraisal of the matter by Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert. It is available as a .pdf attachment by email to any reader who asks (click on “contact” above).
Eugenics was an irrational, non-scientific, response, in an age of supposed scientific rationality, to a social problem. Briefly it was so popular that the Mental Deficiency Bill of 1913 passed Parliament with only three votes against it.
A number of truly intelligent, learned and well-meaning men and women mistakenly bought into Eugenics. Churchill was one of them. Paul Addison wrote: “Churchill’s intentions were benign, but he was blundering into sensitive areas of civil liberty.” He recognized this early, and was done with Eugenics before World War I. As William Manchester wrote: “It was part of his pattern of response to any political issue that while his early reactions were often emotional, and even unworthy of him, they were usually succeeded by reason and generosity.”
“The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”
—Winston Churchill, from a significant source: http://bit.ly/1Lpw2v6.
Any attempt to provide a “nuanced and balanced” account of this vile eugenicist would be rather reminiscent of the notion that Hitler made the trains run on time. As I myself am someone that Churchill would have no doubt condemned, vilified and tormented as a “dysgenic,” I can only say (as I would say of a certain other “notable historical figure” of the time): “Tramp the dirt down.”
Thanks for the kind and eloquent words.
In a world filled with opportunists who smugly strive to knock great (but still human) people off of their pedestals, your cool, articulate, and well-researched rebuttal was refreshing. You have personally helped me in the past pertaining to Chesterton & Churchill, and now you continue to help the reading public about the snares of shoddy “reporting”. Well done, sir. And thank you.
Well done, Richard!
Somebody needs to do it.
Defending Sir Winston is exhausting…but the beat goes on.