This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill. I normally reserve these In Memoriam pieces for people who have recently died that I have known well and admired. The nearest I can get to Churchill is that my best man’s father was one of his private secretaries in the 1950s but I am a great admirer of his and, like many others, regard him as the greatest of all Britons. I have in my library some thirty volumes either by him or about him and have read several more. This week I was invited to the Carlton Club for a special event to celebrate his extraordinary life and achievements. I met three of his descendants, granddaughter, Celia Sandys, grandson Sir Nicholas Soames and great-grandson Randolph Churchill and had a long conversation with Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives at Churchill College, Cambridge. Mrs Eleanor Laing MP, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and the present MP for Churchill’s former seat of Epping Forest, acted as MC and introduced Allen as the first speaker. He gave an excellent speech, described later by Sir Nicholas as one of the very best he had ever heard about his grandfather, and Allen kindly sent me a copy which I present to you now.
“How can you do justice to the life and the achievements of Sir Winston Churchill in five minutes? Well of course you cannot.
The first and most self evident thing to say is that Churchill lived his life to the full. As a young soldier and journalist he sought and found adventure, coming under fire in Cuba at the time of his twenty-first birthday, fighting the Pathans on the Indian North West frontier, charging the Dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman, and launching himself on the national and international stage with his daring escape from Boer captivity. He made his own luck, and then exploited it brilliantly by writing up his adventures as newspaper articles and books. It was a strategy that also underpinned his political career. Elected to Parliament at the age of just twenty five, he was in the British Cabinet aged thirty three, and had already served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty by the time of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. I hesitate to say it in this company, but (initially at least) he was no great respecter of Party, beginning as a Conservative, but breaking with the Tories in 1904 to join the Liberal Party over the issue of Free Trade, only to return to the Conservatives again in 1924 over his opposition to socialism. Thereby apparently allowing him to remark that, anyone could rat, but it took a certain ingenuity to re-rat.
From the outset, Churchill embraced controversy, and never seemed happier than when in the thick of the fray – He told the suffragettes he would not be henpecked, dismissed Gandhi as a half naked fakir, likened the arrival of Lenin in Russia in a sealed train to the importation of a plague bacillus and dismissed Hitler as a squalid caucus butcher. He entered the House of Commons in 1900, taking up his seat in 1901, and left it in 1964, just short of his ninetieth birthday. And of course he was Prime Minister twice, and from 1940 to 1945 led his country through the great crisis of the Second World War. In the words of President Kennedy, who took them from Edward R Murrow, who may have got them from Beverley Nichols, Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. During his lifetime he published some fifty books in some seventy volumes and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I have not even mentioned the flying, the painting or the bricklaying.
To Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson he was, “the greatest man any of us have known”, and I do not think that any Prime Minister since has dissented from this view, though according to Lloyd George, “He spoilt himself by reading about Napoleon”. Rab Butler famously saw him as “a half-breed American and the greatest political adventurer of modern times”, while Lord Beaverbrook – somewhat ironically given his own reputation - felt that, “Churchill on the top of the wave has in him the stuff of which tyrants are made” and Aneurin Bevan dismissed him as “a man suffering from petrified adolescence”. I think Churchill would have taken all this in his stride. Perhaps he would have responded, as he did to Violet Bonham Carter, by stating, “that we are all worms, but I believe I am a glow worm”.
And his light continues to glow. His life is commemorated at Blenheim, Chartwell and the Churchill War Rooms, through the late Martin Gilbert’s magisterial eight volume official biography (started of course by Churchill’s son Randolph), and in the two and a half thousand boxes of his papers at the Archives Centre. He lives on through his own words, wit and writings, which continue to be quoted and misquoted, and he has a living legacy in Churchill College, Cambridge, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and the host of other organisations that have come together this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his passing.
But what are the characteristics that combine to shape this great man? Again, books could and have been written. But let me pick out four elements:
Firstly, there is bravery. Churchill wrote that “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.” That has to be true. Churchill demonstrated bravery under fire as a young man, and later in the trenches of the First World War, but it took an incredible moral courage to assume the Premiership in May 1940, aged sixty five, and then to decide to fight on after the fall of France. If he had not shown that courage would Britain have continued in the conflict? And if we had not, what would have happened to Europe?
Then there is oratory – the power of words. In the Archives Centre we have Churchill’s original notes for his great speeches and broadcasts, set out like poetry on the page in a blank verse format his office called “speech form”. These show how carefully he prepared, choosing the right words to simultaneously send a message of conviction to the British people, a message of hope to occupied Europe, a call to arms to the United States, and a message of defiance to the Axis powers.
But these words were tied to actions. He lived by his motto “Action this Day” and he bombarded his colleagues, generals, civil servants and staff with minutes and telegrams, focused on taking the offensive to the enemy and delivering victory. He travelled the world to build and maintain the grand alliance against fascism, braving U boat infested waters and dangerous skies; to France, to shore up Reynaud’s faltering regime, to the United States to court Roosevelt, to Moscow to visit Stalin in his lair, to Casablanca, Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. This is the man who said, “I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded. In fact, if anything I am a prod”.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would like to end by recognising his humanity. Yes he had to, and did take, the most difficult decisions, decisions that sent many to their deaths, but while he may have been fascinated by war, he was not blinded to its horrors. He shed tears in public when he inspected bomb damage, and again in Parliament after the sinking of the French fleet. When Stalin and Roosevelt joked at Teheran about executing fifty thousand of the German officer corps, he stormed out of the dinner. He spoke not of hatred but of helping lead the world out of the dark valley and into the sunlit uplands.
To my mind, that is his legacy and that is what we are celebrating tonight.”
Robert Hardy CBE, who has played Churchill on stage and screen more than any other actor, is himself now 90 and was not well enough to attend in person but we saw a video of him telling stories about Churchill. He had met him when he played opposite Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Hamlet is a long play and is usually cut. Churchill was sitting in the front row and visibly mouthed the words of each line that was cut. He later came into the dressing room and told him that the pace at which Burton had played the role suggested that he would not have taken so long to revenge his father on his uncle!
Sir Peter Tapsell, who is retiring at this year’s General Election after 56 years in the House, as a young MP was asked by the then Chief Whip to keep Churchill company after Prime Minister’s Questions which Churchill always attended. He would then repair to the smoking room in which smoking did then take place and so Churchill would soon fill the room with cigar smoke. Sir Perter tried various conversational gambits. First he asked him about one of Marlborough’s battles but got no reply. He then asked Churchill why Kitchener had not provided more troops to avoid the problems at Gallipoli but again without success. He then gave up but after a considerable interval Churchill suddenly barked “Never trust the bankers!” It seemed that he was still preoccupied with his greatest political failure, that of taking Britain off the gold standard.
Sir Nicholas told some good stories too, but not, I think, his best which he told me on another occasion. As a very young boy Sir Nicholas had gone into Churchill’s bedroom where Churchill was still in bed smoking a cigar and reading the newspapers. Nicholas jumped on the bed and said
“Is it true Grandpapa that you’re the greatest man in the world?”
“Yes,” barked Churchill. “Now bugger off!”
Copyright David C Pearson 2015 All rights reserved