A leader who was a child of his time

Published by The i paper (30th August, 2021)

Behind me, glowering down from a shelf in my study as I write these words, sits a small bust of Sir Winston Churchill. The shape, the stance, the stern look, make it an instantly recognisable icon. I took this small sculpture from my father’s own study after his death, which followed a long and distressing slide into dementia. His funeral was in those strange days before the first lockdown, as our world shifted in face of a silent new enemy. Afterwards, I carried the bust back to my home, so now the former prime minister gazes out over the room as I churn out columns and reports.

I am not sentimental about such stuff, and took little else from a study cluttered with a lifetime’s collection of personal artefacts and trinkets from travels, but this item reminds me strongly of my father. As a child, I would see Churchill staring fiercely over his shoulder while I was being admonished for my latest school transgression, or looking on gruffly as we discussed sport or debated the state of the world. As an adult, I came to see that there was no other public figure held in such high esteem for my father and so many of his generation. This is something worth recalling as the mighty wartime leader becomes embroiled in our modern culture battles.

My father’s life was shaped by the Second World War, having joined the Navy as a teenager, then serving on Atlantic convoys and finding himself at the age of 21 in charge of a landing craft taking American tanks and troops on to Omaha Beach during the most terrible fighting on D-Day. Like so many veterans of that long war, he bottled up his true feelings about those traumatic events and rarely spoke of them until late in his life. The scars, I suspect, ran deeper than he would have ever admitted. Yet, he was always clear about one thing: his intense loyalty to Churchill, whom he met once while serving on a battleship and idolised for his inspirational leadership during the grimmest of days.

Churchill was such an important figure in my father’s life that when his state funeral clashed with my third birthday, I was given a magnetic fishing game and made to play with it all day rather than dare interrupt flickering proceedings on our black and white television. Once he sent a furious letter to Charles Moore, his East Sussex neighbour and biographer of Margaret Thatcher, after the Daily Telegraph columnist referred to the novelist Evelyn Waugh’s claim that many troops were dismissive of their leader during that dreadful war.

Lord Moore mentioned this when we met at my mother’s funeral last week. This is, inevitably, a time of reflection for me on their lives, our relationships and our times. And my father’s devotion to Churchill feels significant given the huge length of the shadow cast by this extraordinary character – especially at a time when our nation feels so divided, fraught with arguments over its history and uncertain of its place in the world. Our waning power has been highlighted again by the dismal retreat from Afghanistan, underlining our dependency again on the US while also a humiliating defeat for modern efforts to spread democracy with arms and aid. 

Churchill has become a cartoon character. He has been mythologised in books and films as the man who single-handedly saved Britain in its darkest hour. At the same time protesters accuse him of racism and call him a despicable symbol of colonial abuse, while a rapidly growing library of revisionist books savage his strategic blunders, personal flaws and political failures. The latest comes from the elegant pen of Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who argues that the wartime leader’s corrosive legacy prevents this country from coming to terms with its place in the world and blames Churchillian nostalgia for many debacles from the Iraq War through to Brexit.

I share Wheatcroft’s concerns over our nation’s misguided sense of exceptionalism and failure to learn from the past. Our leaders love to spout shallow mantras about Global Britain, yet our country has failed to come to terms with its colonial heritage and needs to shape a fresh narrative that embraces all citizens as we search out a new path in this fast-changing world. Yet, it seems harsh to blame all this on what he terms “the Churchill cult”. Indeed, I remember my father’s hostility to leaving the European Union – despite his fondness for Thatcher and former leadership of the local Tories – that was rooted in wartime memories of a conflict-ridden continent.

Ultimately, Churchill was a child of his time. He was our last major imperial leader, a man who rode into battle on horseback in the Victorian era yet ended up as a war leader helped to victory by atomic bombs and laying the foundations for the welfare state. He was a politician, a solider and a journalist whose early despatches include an intriguing account of joining an 1897 cavalry force sent to punish rebellious Pashtun tribes along today’s Afghan-Pakistan border that offers insight into the religious and tribal fissures of this turbulent region.

If we want to understand our past, we should not judge him on today’s values – but nor should we ignore his flaws. He was an amazingly complex human being – brave, generous, brilliant with words, a self-glorifying charlatan and an insufferable egotist. He was a nationalist, a romantic and yet also a realist, guilty of immense mistakes and holding disconcerting views on issues such as women and white superiority. But he got the key calls of the last century right and – unlike one biographer who followed him into Downing Street – proved to be the right man in power at a most challenging time in our history. This is why my father, and millions more, held Churchill in the highest regard – and why that bust sits behind me.

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