Winston Churchill died in 1965; he was last elected to office in 1961. On Sunday the Observer published the results of a survey by the pollsters, BritainThinks . Churchill topped the poll with an impressive 100% in the qualities that were determined necessary for leadership – ‘being decisive, ‘great communicator‘ and ‘having integrity‘. Given that he left office in 1964, only those over 50 were alive at the time and only today’s older generation would have any genuine experience of his impact as a politician. The demographic breakdown of voters was not revealed but it is safe to assume (particularly if it was an internet poll) that the majority of those voting fell into the 25 to 65 age group. Their judgement, we can assume, must have resulted from hearsay or the conclusions of some hagiography like the recent one from Boris Johnson.
The majority of their grandparents would have voted against Churchill in 1945. It is a credit to their safe , informed judgement that we have a welfare state today, despite the best efforts of recent Tory administrations to demolish it. They had sound reason to vote against Churchill; among which were;
- his disastrous leadership in the first World War as First Lord of the Admiralty when his bungling at Gallipoli resulted in the loss of 140 000 lives;
- his use of the military against striking coal miners at Tonypandy in 1910;
- his collusion with Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945 which sealed a dire fate for European countries, including Poland, Hungary and Romania;
- he was in favour of letting Gandhi die and thwarted all efforts at sending relief to Bengal, resulting in the estimated death of 3 million Indians, whom he regarded as sub-human anyway;
- Some of his own colleagues saw Churchill as a brutal and vicious, imperialist racist. His deeds in India and across colonial Africa have been well documented by respected historians;
- He approved of the brutal thuggery by British forces in the Kenyan prison camps during that country’s struggle for independence;
- Churchill invented Iraq, a partitioned state, where disparate, indigenous nations were locked together;
- He was the Colonial Secretary who oversaw the offer of the Over-Promised lands to both the Arabs and the Jews;
- And then there was Dresden;
If Churchill is the gold standard for integrity in political leadership, then his successors need not harbour high aspiration. It was my first year teaching at a Tyrone secondary school in January 1965 when Churchill’s funeral took place; it was a cold miserable day and I remember the caretaker holding up his newspaper and telling me:
‘ It’ll be hot where he is going.’
A more mature reflection, I feel, than that of the participants in the Observer poll.