Underrated: Winston Churchill

Do we pay enough attention to what the great wartime leader actually said?

Underrated
(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Churchill — underrated? By whom? Surely his mythical status is unrivalled among modern statesmen of this or any other land. The flow of documentaries, biographies and movies never ceases. The latest cinematic tribute, Darkest Hour, has just demonstrated that he is still a hit not only with critics but also at the box office; while the standing ovations with which audiences greeted Gary Oldman’s stirring evocation of perhaps his greatest speech, “We shall fight on the beaches”, shows that his words have lost none of their sublime power to move us.

And yet, and yet . . . Churchill the legendary orator may still be alive and roaring, but how often do we pay attention to what he actually said? How often does it occur to one of our leaders to emulate not merely the style but the substance of his leadership? Would the Prime Minister dare to face down the appeasers in her Cabinet, as Churchill did Chamberlain and Halifax in May 1940? Even our cherubic Foreign Secretary, who has added his own slim volume to the vast literature, can hardly be said to have followed the great man’s example: all too often, British diplomacy still meekly toes the European line. Even when our politicians try to strike a note of Churchillian pathos, they usually fall into a Farageist bathos.

So let us take another look at that speech, made by Churchill immediately after the “miracle” of Dunkirk — delivered in the Commons not, as in Darkest Hour, immediately after winning over his Cabinet on May 26, but a week later, on June 4. Much of it is, inevitably, given over to a narrative of heroic resistance and deliverance. He claims that the RAF had emerged victorious from its first “great trial of strength” with the Luftwaffe, and he looks forward to the coming Battle of Britain, asking: “May it not be also that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?” Thus Churchill places what he concedes has been, if not “the greatest military disaster in our long history”, then still a “colossal” one, in the widest possible context: the defence of Western civilisation.

Having dismissed the purported invasion plans of “Herr Hitler” by a reminder of Napoleon’s abortive precedent, he insists that “We shall not be content with a defensive war. We have a duty to our ally” — France. A few days previously, Churchill had flown to Paris at considerable personal risk to see the situation for himself and impress upon the French leadership his determination to stand by them. Not only thousands of British and Canadian troops, but a quarter of the RAF were still engaged in the Battle of France, despite the desperate shortage of aircraft. French troops were given priority in the Dunkirk evacuation, and 111,172 were rescued. Marshal Pétain, by now ready to surrender, was quite unmoved by this brave display of solidarity.

By the time he addressed the Commons, Churchill knew that the French were resigned to defeat. Perhaps he already foresaw the emergence of a French resistance movement: hence his quixotic insistence that “the British empire and the French republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength”. The opposite was true: Pétain was already plotting to collaborate with Hitler. Even before De Gaulle could set up his Free French government in exile, Churchill was appealing to an idealised France, as an integral part of the very civilisation that the real France was about to betray. Less than a month later, after the French surrender, he was obliged to give orders to destroy their fleet at Oran. For this he has never been forgiven by the French. Do Emmanuel Macron and his generation of compatriots have the faintest notion of how far Churchill was prepared to go for the sake of France?

Yet Churchill could not afford to sacrifice his own country. So in his speech he called on the British “to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone”. It was a terrifying prospect, and in Darkest Hour we see Churchill himself wavering, pressurised by his rivals and his party, over the question of peace talks. At this nadir the film asks us to believe in a scene where the Prime Minister takes a Tube journey and asks his fellow passengers their views. To a man, woman and child, they tell him to fight. Many have found this scene implausible, even ridiculous. But the point is that Churchill and the ordinary Britons of his time all knew what was at stake in the war: the survival of Western civilisation.

It is this perspective that is absent today. Our present leaders are too busy grovelling to lift their eyes to the horizon, to the defence of our liberties and to Britain’s destiny as the land of the free. Rather than trying to impress Mr Macron with our cuisine on his visit last month, Mrs May should have taken him to see Darkest Hour. The French President identifies with Louis XIV, Napoleon and even De Gaulle. We underrate the example of our own greatest statesman at our peril.