Churchill’s “Infallibility”: Myth on Myth

Churchill’s “Infallibility”: Myth on Myth

"Woodcarvings: A Streuthsayer or Prophet of Doom," Punch, 12Sep34.
“Wood­carv­ings: A Streuth­say­er or Prophet of Doom,” Punch, 12Sep34.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. The crit­i­cism is valid, but has a short win­dow. Churchill aban­doned Eugen­ics before he turned forty. For crit­i­cisms with rather longer win­dows see:”

    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.”

  5. “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:

    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.”

  6. Mr. Lang­worth,
    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.

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