Seventy years after the Battle of Britain, we again face the threat of a new Dark Age. Can our leaders emulate Churchill’s finest hour?
“There is no hope without fear,” wrote Spinoza in his Ethics, “and no fear without hope.” Today, the West is haunted by fear. It was Spinoza, together with Locke, who won the battle for religious toleration as the foundation of a political settlement that made possible the Anglophone Enlightenment. That battle for toleration needs to be won again today, on both sides of the Atlantic, because we live again in an age of intolerance: not only the intolerance of radical Islam, but also the intolerance of a radical secularism that takes its cue from Voltaire’s motto: ”Ecrasez l’infâme!“
Today, we also need thinkers who can make the case for toleration in a wider sphere: thinkers capable of defending the market economy against its detractors, of defending the rule of law against anarchy, of upholding the liberties and values of the West against its enemies, internal and external.
This year, we have been celebrating the 70th anniversary of that darkest yet also most heroic episode in our history when Britain stood alone against the menace of Nazi Germany. Churchill rallied a nation still reeling after the evacuation of its army from the Continent of Europe at Dunkirk and the ignominious defeat of its main ally, France. On June 4, 1940, with the “miracle” of Dunkirk still fresh in the public mind, he made the first of a series of speeches that together constituted an even greater miracle. Here, as in most of Churchill’s orations, the most famous passage comes in the per-oration:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Many of the themes that Churchill made his own are already clear in this: the indomitable defiance; the readiness to contemplate the occupation not only of the entire Continent but even of Britain too; the faith in ultimate victory; and the unwavering solidarity with America. I want to focus, though, on the speech that Churchill made on June 18, 1940, in the House of Commons, which he broadcast later that day. It was in this speech that he gave the Battle of Britain its name even before the Luftwaffe’s onslaught had begun in earnest. Although this is perhaps the greatest of Churchill’s many great speeches, many do not know it. The original manuscript, with his many amendments in blue pencil and set out on the page like Shakespearean blank verse, has recently been put on display. Here is his peroration:
What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.’
The first point to note is that Churchill immediately situates the impending battle in the largest possible historical perspective. The reference to General Weygand, the defeated French commander-in-chief, is significant: it was he who told the French Cabinet that the British stood no chance of surviving alone against the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe: “In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” At the time, Churchill said nothing, but a year later he was able to respond in characteristic style: “Some chicken. Some neck.”
In June 1940, however, he was under no illusions. In private he compared the danger to that faced by England at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588, but he knew full well that the threat posed by Hitler was incomparably greater than that of Philip II, who — while a Habsburg, a Spaniard and a Catholic — had after all been the consort of an English Queen, Mary I. This time the stakes were much higher: not only “the continuity of our institutions and our Empire”, but “the survival of Christian civilisation”. Would any Western statesman speak of “Christian civilisation” today? To ask the question is to answer it: no, not even if he or she were a devout Christian, which Churchill most certainly was not. Yet it is no less true today than it was 70 years ago that Christianity is inextricably woven into the fabric of our Atlantic civilisation, even if we are much less conscious of the fact than our parents and grandparents. For them, the Nazi “war against the West” (as Aurel Kolnai called it already in 1938) was also a war against Christianity.
For the passionately philosemitic Churchill, that also (and crucially) implied a war against the Jewish people. He understood that Jews and Christians in the modern world stand or fall together. As the full horror of the Holocaust became clear from intelligence reaching him about the death camps, he was unique among Allied leaders in calling for bombing raids to halt the genocide, describing it as “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world”. Today, it is even harder to find Western leaders who grasp the enormity of the crime being prepared against Israel and the Jewish people in the name of jihad.
The second point to note about Churchill’s speech is that he links Europe and America in a common destiny. In June 1940, it took remarkable confidence as well as prescience, as invasion by the hitherto invincible Wehrmacht appeared imminent, to predict that if the British could resist Hitler, the liberation of Europe must eventually follow. But Churchill never doubted that the US would recognise, sooner or later, that its own existence as a free country depended on the survival of democracy in Europe. That meant the ultimate defeat of Hitler. The choice for the West was between victory and defeat, nothing else. A negotiated peace, of the kind that some members of the British Cabinet favoured in the summer of 1940, or that Rudolf Hess would propose on his ill-fated mission a year later, was not possible for Churchill. Such a peace, which would in any case have been no more than a temporary truce, seemed to him tantamount to legitimising the barbarism that had engulfed the Continent. Today, we need to recall that resolve never to appease or compromise with those who mean to destroy us.
This leads us on to a third point in Churchill’s speech, one that should strike us as all too relevant to our own time. He speaks of the Nazis ushering in a “new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science”. This is a reminder of the fact that technology in the service of ideology invariably usurps the proper sphere of ethics, and that this phenomenon has made the Third Reich a uniquely modern model of radical evil. But how often do we pause to consider how science has been perverted even in liberal democracies? The threat of a nuclear attack from a theocratic regime in the name of Islam is more spectacular but no less insidious than the degradation of the human person in the name of medical science or human rights. The Dark Age of which Churchill warned might even be said to exist across large tracts of the globe.
An air observer during the Blitz
In his final sentence, Churchill urges his compatriots to do their duty. The imperative here is not necessarily Kantian — although Churchill may still have believed that human beings in such circumstances would be bound to resist such a tyranny as Hitler’s. (As a melancholy matter of record, most did not.) No, this is an appeal to a specifically British tradition, recalling Nelson’s celebrated signal at Trafalgar: “England expects that every man this day will do his duty.” Hence the ascent into pure poetry in the peroration is preceded by a reference to the British Empire and its Commonwealth. Today, this romantic imperialism may strike a false, bombastic note, especially when his suggestion that the Empire might last a thousand years was to be proved wrong so quickly. With indecent haste, Churchill was to be evicted from office before the war against Japan was over, and the process of dismantling the Empire was begun immediately. Yet in 1940, Churchill seriously expected that, if Britain were overrun, his successor would continue the war with the help of her colonial allies. The war against Hitler remains the only just war that most of these countries have ever fought. The defence of the British Empire required that sacrifices be made by many colonial combatants who had never seen England. That is why Churchill made it clear that this was their finest hour too.
In fact, he elevated the conflict onto a metaphysical plane: under the incantatory spell of Churchillian oratory, the Battle of Britain was transformed from an aerial dogfight on an unusually grand scale into a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Between Churchill and the British people he had achieved an absolute unity of purpose, a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in the face of a deadly peril, an exalted sense of standing before the court of conscience and of history to do God’s work in preserving Western civilisation.
Dulles, Churchill, Eisenhower and Eden in 1954, before the Anglo-US rift over Suez
Churchill cared nothing for his own safety: during the Blitz, he would dine at the Savoy Grill and then go next door to watch the destruction of London from the roof of the Air Ministry — a spectacular view but incredibly dangerous. He was constantly on the move by land, sea and air, yet never thought twice about the risk of being bombed, torpedoed or shot down. And casual remarks by Churchill suggest that if the Germans had conquered the British Isles, he did not expect to survive. Today, we do not allow our leaders to share the risks that the public cannot avoid. Our leaders inhabit a high-security bubble, while the cities in which the rest of us must live, euphemistically known as “multicultural”, are places where some of our fellow-citizens turn out to be terrorists.
It is also a question of personal experience. Churchill was, admittedly, the nephew of a duke. But he had fought in India, Sudan and South Africa as a young man; he joined in the last great cavalry charge in history at Omdurman, in Sudan, was captured by the Boers, decorated and considered for the Victoria Cross. In both world wars, he was obliged to take daily decisions that meant life or death for millions. I can think of no present-day European leader who has ever been obliged to fire a shot in anger. In the US and Israel, it is commoner to find politicians who have seen action, such as John McCain or Ehud Barak, although much more typical is the career of Barack Obama, spent mainly at Harvard and in the smoke-free rooms of Chicago and Washington. This rarity of military experience has to do with the comparatively peaceful period that we have now enjoyed for several generations since 1945. Nor do soldiers necessarily make better statesmen than civilians. However, we have paid a price for our pacific politicians, clearly demonstrated in the timid and incompetent leadership of the West in conflicts since the end of the Cold War — from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from Africa to Afghanistan, from Iraq to North Korea. I do not favour a permanent post-mortem on the mistakes that have been made. The first part of Churchill’s June 18, 1940, speech was devoted to the blunders that had led to the defeat of France, pleading with the Commons to postpone recriminations until after the war. Leadership requires loyalty in adversity, too. Between the leadership of 1940 and that of today, however, there is a difference: Churchill knew what he was trying to do and how to explain it to the public, whereas today’s politicians either don’t know what they are doing or cannot explain it.
Churchill had plenty to say on the relationship between the market economy and democracy. Among the many offices he had held, after all, was that of Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929 — an episode in his career mainly remembered for his decision to return Britain to the gold standard, which made him the butt of John Maynard Keynes’s tract The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill. In fact, Churchill does not deserve his bad press as Chancellor. He presided over a period of growth, despite Britain’s one and only General Strike in 1926, and stability. Having lost power on the eve of the Wall Street Crash, Churchill could only watch impotently as the world slipped into the Great Depression. By the time he returned to power, he had been converted to a more activist role for the State. It was he who coined the catchphrase of the new welfare state, which promised social security “from the cradle to the grave”.
But by the 1945 general election, Churchill’s old fear, dating from 1917, that socialism and a centrally-planned economy could pose a threat to democracy and freedom, had revived. Looking ahead to the communist threat and the Cold War, he seized on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as the blueprint for his campaign. In a notorious speech, he warned against socialism as “an attack on the right to breathe freely. No socialist system can be established without a political police. They [the Labour Party] would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.”
Many voters were disgusted by this denigration of his former partners in the wartime coalition, and they were not impressed by the provenance of Churchill’s ideas, at a time when anything German or Austrian was tainted by association with the newly-liberated concentration camps. His deputy, Clement Attlee, described the Prime Minister’s outburst as a “second-hand version of the academic views of an Austrian professor, Friedrich August von Hayek”. Churchill lost the election by a landslide.
But was Churchill, who had been so right about the threat posed by Nazi Germany in 1940, necessarily so wrong about the threat posed by big government in 1945? When we wonder why our budget deficits are now strangling our economies, or why our personal liberties have been circumscribed in so many ways that the individual feels impotent and crushed by the burden of the leviathan State, surely we can date the moment when we crossed the Rubicon to 1945. That year of victory marked the emergence of a new consensus in Western Europe, based on Keynesian economics and social democracy, which was institutionalised by the European Union and has remained largely intact until the present. It is this consensus that has now broken down and will have to be replaced by something closer to the Thatcher-Reagan free-enterprise model of the 1980s. Churchill had more than an inkling of all this when he envisaged the rapid dismantling of the bloated size and draconian powers of the wartime State. By the time he returned to office in 1951, the welfare state had expanded even further, and he was able only to abolish a few war-time controls, such as rationing. Today, we need to revive the Churchillian spirit by replacing many of the functions of government with private and voluntary means. David Cameron has called for “the Big Society” to replace big government, but there is concern that he has been over-influenced by President Obama’s Alinsky-inspired and state-controlled “community organisers”. I am inclined to think that, where politics and society are concerned, small is beautiful. Like Edmund Burke, Churchill sided with the “little platoons”. Except on the battlefield, he was not on the side of the big battalions.
Today, the West manifestly has no leader with the clarity of vision and firmness of resolution of a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a de Gaulle. True, we do not face enemies as formidable and abominable as Hitler, nor rely on allies as treacherous and murderous as Stalin. Instead, we find a common mediocrity of friend and foe. But words retain the power to inspire us, and for the example of his oratory, if for nothing else, Churchill will continue to inspire us. Unlike, say, Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, Churchill making his broadcast of his “Finest Hour” speech may still be heard. “Rhetoric was no guarantee of survival,” he wrote dismissively, and foreigners ignorant of “the temper of the British race all over the globe when its blood is up, might have supposed that [these words] were only a bold front, set up as a good prelude for peace negotiations”. Churchill and his audience knew better. Two months later, on August 18, Churchill told the Commons about the RAF fighter pilots: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” All who heard these words immediately recognised their immortality. They were intended nearly as much for American as for British ears: he desperately needed help from across the Atlantic, for as he remarked bitterly in private, the US was “very good at applauding the valiant deeds done by others”. In public, however, he appealed on September 11, as London burned and the Battle of Britain reached its climax, for the Old World and the New to “join hands to rebuild the temples of man’s freedom and man’s honour, upon foundations which will not easily be overthrown”.
Three score years and ten later, it falls to us to prevent the overthrow of those temples today. Once again it is the Atlantic alliance that defends these temples of freedom and honour against those who would tear them down, who dream of a global caliphate ruling over Rome, Athens and Jerusalem. Once again it is the Atlantic alliance that stands between civilisation and barbarism aided by perverted science, a beacon of light in a darkening world. And once again it is the Atlantic alliance that can and must rally the persecuted and the oppressed wherever they may be, not abandoning the downtrodden peoples of Iran and North Korea, China and Africa, Central Asia and Central America. Above all, we must not abandon Israel. Churchill told Eisenhower in 1956, on the eve of the Suez crisis: “I am, of course, a Zionist, and have been ever since the Balfour Declaration. I think it is a wonderful thing that this tiny colony of Jews should have become a refuge to their compatriots in all the lands where they were persecuted so cruelly, and at the same time established themselves as the most effective fighting force in the area. I am sure America would not stand by and see them overwhelmed by Russian weapons, especially if we had persuaded them to hold their hand while their chance remained.” Today, Israel has again been restrained by America and Europe from destroying the threat to its existence, posed this time by a nuclear Iran, which is busily arming itself with Russian air-defence missiles.
So Churchill’s implied question must be posed again: will America and Europe stand by and see Israel overwhelmed? We do not hear a clear answer to this, either from the White House or from Downing Street. Meanwhile, from Brussels, we hear voices from Europe’s unspeakable past. This is how the Belgian Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht reacted to the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks: “There is indeed a belief — it’s difficult to describe it otherwise — among most Jews that they are right…So it is not easy to have, even with moderate Jews, a rational discussion about what is actually happening in the Middle East…Do not underestimate the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill. That is the best organised lobby, you shouldn’t underestimate the grip it has on American politics — no matter whether it’s Republicans or Democrats.” It is no surprise that the European Commission supported de Gucht when refusing to apologise; he merely expressed regret that he had been misinterpreted. Nobody in the British government saw fit to denounce his blatant anti-Semitism, let alone call for his resignation. Nor, more surprisingly, did those who are no longer constrained by office. What, for example, did the former Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson make of his successor’s comments? His father, Tony Mandelson, was the advertising manager of the Jewish Chronicle, which de Gucht would no doubt regard as a leading organ of the “Jewish lobby”. Yet not a word from Lord Mandelson, either. Churchill had high ideals for post-war Europe, but he would not have countenanced the likes of de Gucht as its spokesman. Why does David Cameron do so?
To sum up: Churchill sought to guide the fortunes of Christian civilisation away from the threat of a new Dark Ages and into the “broad, sunlit uplands”. He only partly succeeded: while Western Europe was saved, Central and Eastern Europe had to endure many more years of tyranny. Under his leadership there was, however, no doubt about the direction of travel, no ambiguity, no guilt, no relativism, no equivocation about the values for which he stood. He was under no illusions about Stalin, but in order to defeat Hitler he was ready if necessary to ally himself with anyone. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” he wrote, “I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
This, surely, is what we mean by leadership. This is what we need, now as then, at a time when Britain faces a crisis not merely of prosperity, but of identity. Can Cameron, supported by the broadest coalition of any Prime Minister since Churchill, rise to the occasion? If we give him the tools, will he finish the job?