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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Winston Churchill Tribute

In this New Year falls the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. I have decided to devote my blog to the memory of this very great man, perhaps the greatest man ever to have lived, the person who made the greatest positive contribution to our world in living memory, perhaps ever.  I feel fortunate to be able to say that this great man was still alive for the first two years of my life, indeed, he was still a member of parliament representing a constituency a few miles from where I was born and lived in London. I was born into Churchill’s world, a place that would have been far far worse then, and today, had it not been for him.  Today I live just a few miles from his birth place at Blenheim Palace and just a few miles from his resting place at Bladon where he has a modest tomb compared to many with lesser achievements. 

Churchill was born 150 years ago in 1874 to a family of aristocrats; his father Randolph was a member of parliament and his mother was an American from high society. He did poorly at school and didn’t go to University but to Sandhurst military college thanks to his parent’s connections.  He was a good writer from an early age, making good money from journalism.  As soon as he was able he pulled strings and got to fight in the front line in the Boer War in South Africa where he wrote brilliant articles that were greatly in demand from the newspapers.  He was captured and escaped. He was not frightened to use guns to defend his country. Before long he followed in his father’s footsteps and became an MP.

His political career was a roller-coaster ride, winning and losing elections, defecting from the Liberals to the Tories, twice becoming Prime Minister. The constants were his brilliant speeches, which he always prepared meticulously in advance (following one disastrous speech that he tried to make without notes), his criticism not just of his enemies but of close colleagues when he disagreed with them, his regular campaigning to improve the lot of the working man (which was pretty damn terrible in the first half of the century), his love of the British Empire, his love of France, his desire to innovate with technology and his love of cigars, whisky and champagne!

During his 90 year long life, he wrote 39 books (more published works than Dickens and Shakespeare combined) and won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he painted 539 pictures, one of which recently sold for one million dollars, and of course he spent time with his wife Clementine and his large family, much of it at his Chartwell house in Kent, where he laid brick walls himself, looked after the large contingent of animals and so much more.  He had read 5,000 books, the contents of many of which he had committed to memory and he frequently surprised guests by quoting entire passages of relatively obscure poems and books. Then, in his professional career, his published speeches alone run to 8,700 pages and his memos and letters comprise a million documents.  This is all quite phenomenal before we even start to look at how his political career not only changed the face of history on a number of occasions, but actually saved our democracies and no doubt millions of lives as well.

The list of his political achievements is long and I am going to refer briefly to some of those I find most impressive.  But I will first focus on just one event that I believe shows his genius, illustrates his personality, and for which each of us is surely truly grateful to him. That event took place in May 1940. Picture the scene: a meeting of the eight members War Cabinet at a time when Hitler had taken most of Europe, was marching toward Paris with nobody to stop him and the British troops were evacuating the continent at Dunkirk.  Really the only thing that could have gone worse would have been for Hitler’s troops to kill/capture the British forces around Dunkirk rather than let them escape (it is unclear why Hitler ordered his troops not to close in as they intended to.  Thank God they were so good at obeying orders!).  Picture a bunch of men meeting to discuss options for Britain; all of them had memories (mostly personal) of the 39 million people killed in the Great War just 20 years earlier.  They all wanted to avoid carnage on this scale again.  Lord Halifax brought news of an offer of mediation via the Italian Embassy.  Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister, was in London and was seeking for Britain to enter negotiations with Germany in order that he might win better terms for France.   Halifax recommended strongly exploring these offers.  Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister who Churchill had just displaced was one of the eight and we know very well that he was seeking appeasement and did not want war. It looked as if there was no sensible alternative. The Labour colleagues (including Clement Attlee) and Liberal colleagues were supportive of Churchill but the Tories had the majority and they wanted to enter talks with Hitler or his representatives.  ‘Talks’ - this is another term for surrender. So Churchill was in a minority in the War Cabinet and could not get his way. So what did he do? Well Winston Churchill never gave up on anything until he got his way. And bear in mind that most of the press was against Churchill: the Daily Mail was anti-Bolshevik and liked the idea of Hitler sorting that out; The Times had been pro-appeasement; Churchill had been sacked from the Evening Standard because he had been taking too hard a view on the Nazis! So Churchill did what Churchill did best. After 3 days of stalemate, he convened a meeting with the entire cabinet (25 ministers), many hearing him for the first time as new the Prime Minster. He had prepared a brilliant moving speech – you will get the drift from these short extracts:

“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man…..

We should become a slave state, through a British government which would be Hitler’s puppet….

And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

His ministers were so moved by his speech that they cheered, shouted, clapped him on the back. Churchill had won the debate, so the war against the Nazis would continue, under his leadership.  Within a year of that decision, 30,000 British people had been killed by the Nazis and far worse was to come.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if Churchill had accepted the majority decision in the War Cabinet and sought peace with Hitler.  Today, 75 years later, would we all still be living under a fascist dictatorship?  All of the Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Political protestors and dissenters, people with disabilities and goodness knows who else, would have been murdered, annihilated. Hitler had drawn up plans to run Britain from Manchester and had elaborate plans to build enormous Reich style buildings where his cronies would run the country and report to him. It is impossible for us to imagine what this could look like in the same way that millions of people couldn’t believe that Hitler really was committing those atrocities during the war. In the same way that billions of ordinary people around the world were shocked by the film the allies took as they liberated the concentration camps. How could human beings do this to other human beings? Well Hitler and his bunch of bastards certainly did do it. And the whole of Europe (and beyond – he would surely have fought Stalin next) would have been subject to his evil rule by the end of 1940 if Churchill had not stood up to his colleagues (who were not bad people – like the leaders of France, following the carnage of the Great War that was so recent, they were prepared to do almost anything to avoid a repeat). They just did not have Churchill’s vision.

Churchill always stood up for his principals, his beliefs, what he thought was right, regardless of the obstacles in the way. The people of Britain, France, Germany and most of the world owe so much to this man. Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to one man. Forgive my distortion of the great man’s own words.

But like most people, geniuses or not, Churchill quite often got it wrong. His greatest catastrophe was his decision to send the part of British fleet to Gallipoli through the Dardanelles to capture Constantinople during the First World War when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. It was an ambitious plan that went disastrously wrong and as a result 180,000 allied soldiers lost their lives. He was dismissed from the Admiralty. Interestingly, his dismissal delayed his brilliant plan to invent and deploy tanks to the frontline.  He frequently visited and walked along the trenches and realised that in the total madness of no-man’s land with British and enemy trenches on either side, what was required was a large armoured ‘steam roller’ with caterpillar style wheels that would not get stuck in the mud and would allow the army to advance. The army generals weren’t interested so he decided to develop it himself as a ‘landship’. After many delays in part due to his dismissal, he got them operational. Imagine the reaction of the enemy forces when they saw these indestructible machines aiming at them for the first time.  Many believe this helped shorten the war and therefore save millions of lives.

His brilliance and his successes easily outshone his failures. He had an extraordinary ability to forecast the future, but then he had great difficulty in convincing anyone else that he was right, as they did not have his genius to see how things would pan out. After the First World War, he warned his partners at Versailles that the treaty was too harsh on Germany and would result in trouble:

“in war resolution; in defeat defiance; in victory magnanimity; in peace goodwill”

And of course he was correct, as the demanding terms of Versailles on Germany in terms of financial penalties were one of the drivers that propelled Hitler to power. On this point, Churchill gave early warnings about the rise of Hitler but nobody listened to him. Even much of the press ridiculed him as a warmonger. They preferred Neville Chamberlain’s approach of appeasement. He was also very critical of the rise of Bolshevism and he saw that Stalin was going to take over Eastern Europe with this evil ideology. Whilst people were generally much more sympathetic to his anti-communist stance, his creation of the term ‘Iron-Curtain’ and prophesy that communism would take over the east were largely ridiculed. His famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946 in Missouri with President Truman turned out the be accurate, but at the time was condemned by the New York Times, the London Times and Truman himself, despite the fact that he had seen the speech in advance. The same year he gave his United States of Europe speech in Zurich. The Attlee government was to decline Schuman’s invitation to join France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries to discuss a common European market initially in coal and steel. Churchill was a great believer in freedom of movement, free trade and above all, a union that would prevent another war. The EU would probably look very different today if Churchill had been Prime Minister at the time!

Churchill also coined the term Middle East and in 1921 when he ran the Colonial Office, he was responsible for sorting out the mega-mess in which various British declarations had promised the same territories three different times to different sets of people.  The most famous is the Balfour declaration of 1917 that promised a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, which at the time was a largely uninhabited desert. Looking back today, this does not look like a success in terms of location, but how was Churchill to know that the future actions of Hitler and Stalin would drive millions of Jews to this territory? Although there is no doubt Churchill had tremendous sympathy for the Jewish people, he was a fair man who wished to help all peoples – an example is his authorisation of £100,000 (£5.7m in today's money) in 1940 (when Britain was broke and losing the war) to spend building a mosque in Regent’s Park.

Another example of his great character and his desire to recognise people for their actions was one occasion during the war when a cleaning lady in the Ministry of Defence found a Top Secret file in the street and returned it the following morning without reading it. It was indeed a very important file, and once it had been confirmed that its contents had not been distributed, Churchill requested that the cleaning lady be made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in the forthcoming King’s Honours. Unfortunately there was an administrative mistake and she was made an MBE – a great but lower award. Several years later, when Churchill lost the election and made his own resignation honours, he corrected this and the lady became a DBE!

No one can criticise Churchill’s work ethic and his desire to improve things even if he didn’t get it right every time. Who does? During the first four years of the war, as Prime Minister, he travelled 110,000 miles across the world, more than any other leader of the time. He liked to see situations and people first hand so he could make better judgments. He travelled to France four times before the Vichy regime to try to help and persuade the French government find a way to carry on; he travelled regularly to the United States to try to persuade the Americans to provide desperately needed weapons, battleships and food, mostly returning empty handed, at least prior to Pearl Harbour. But he did not give up. And this should be a lesson to us all. When you genuinely believe in something and know it to be right, don’t give up.

Winston Spencer Churchill died on January 24, 1965 at the age of 90, having stepped down as an MP just four months earlier. He had kept going right to the end, having retired as Prime Minister in 1955 at the age of 80. In 1963 John F. Kennedy named him the first honorary citizen of the United States, recognition that I am quite sure he would have appreciated given his affection for that country. But above all, he believed in democracy and fairness and for fighting for those values. Our world would be a better place today if we had more men like him.

I finish my tribute with a few more quotes from the great man:

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

We contend that for a nation to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.

It has been said that democracy is the worst from of government except all the others that have been tried.

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

Never give in – never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

Winston Spencer Churchill 30th September 1974 to 24th January 1965

I would like to thank Boris Johnson for his excellent book 'The Churchill Factor' which was part of my inspiration to write this blog.

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