Churchill: When Britain Said No
The 50th anniversary earlier this year of the death of Winston Churchill produced an international wave of commemoration. Churchill remains among the most widely admired – and most regularly quoted – political figures of the past century, especially in America.
While Churchill’s role in history will be legitimately analyzed for centuries, there is a class of Churchill-bashers (‘revisionists’) for whom the adulation of the last few months (and decades) cannot pass without a spirited answer. And where better to do this than on Britain’s state-owned broadcaster.
The revisionists’ first salvo was Jeremy Paxman’s programme (‘all the dockworkers hated Churchill’) on the January 1965 state funeral. Now to provide the coup de grace is BBC2’s Churchill: When Britain Said No produced and directed by Christopher Spencer.
Public broadcasting used to be a source of admiration for Britain around the world but with programmes such as this, now seems more an embarrassment. When Britain Said No belongs in the dustbin of history along with the nationalized industry that the Labor party brought in when it defeated Churchill in 1945.
The 1945 election results remain a puzzle, especially to American admirers of Churchill who, not appreciating British domestic politics, reacted (and still do) with ‘how could they’ shock.
When Britain Said No purports to explain the result and is described as containing ‘surprising revelations’ (in reality, rehashing already widely known Churchill controversies) and debating his ‘weaknesses as well as strengths’. Alas, while the actors are good (portraying Churchill is tricky) and the vintage film footage interesting, it does little of the sort.
In describing his own memoirs of the second world war, Churchill admitted ‘This is not history. It is my case.’ But this programme is no history either. To use the invective launched at Churchill by Evelyn Waugh, it is ‘a shifty barrister’s case.’
When Britain Said No is so one-sided and hysterical that it actually does a disservice to the revisionist cause. The programme trots out so many Churchill clichés and selective, out-of-context quotes that a general viewer would easily be convinced that this most-admired Briton was a racist buffoon. These include distorted ‘discussions’ on the Tonnypandy Riots and the 1926 General Strike.
And it picks easy targets:
Yes, Churchill was largely wrong about India and his famous ‘half naked Fakir’ comment about Gandhi (like Churchill the subject of adulation years after death) haunted him since he made it 1931. Yet the programme fails to ask if Churchill hated the Indian leader so much, why did he say just a few years later:
‘Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables. I do not like the India Bill but it is now on the Statute Book … [so] make the thing a success. I did not meet Mr. Gandhi when he was in England but I should like to meet him now.’
And Gandhi remarked:
“I have got a good recollection of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colonial Office and … since then I have held the opinion that I can always rely on his sympathy and goodwill.’
If nothing else, Churchill’s warnings about internecine violence in India came true after Partition, and how does his hatred of Indians jive with his later good relationship with Nehru?
And of course, the ‘Gestapo’ comment in the 1945 campaign speech was foolish and ill-advised. His wife Clementine told him so beforehand and Churchill surely regretted it after – and paid the political price.
The programme’s litany of other ‘revelations’ about Churchill includes:
- ‘His policies as Chancellor had lead to a disastrous economic collapse’ so he apparently created the Great Depression all by himself. Hardly.
- He was a stubborn, difficult and demanding boss. Long known, but one might wonder how well an easy-going and accommodating one would have served Britain in those challenging days. ‘I never worry about action, only about inaction’ seems a good mantra for fighting a war.
- As First Lord of the Admiralty, Gallipoli was Churchill’s ‘master plan’ and thus entirely his responsibility. Not a word is uttered about anyone else. The truth is that there is more than enough blame in the Gallipoli campaign to spread among several people.
Ironically, the programmes misses a few easy targets; for example why not trot out Churchill’s 1920 article about Jews and Bolshevism to prove he was anti-Semitic? And surely Churchill must have been a secret communist sympathizer – just look at all the nice things he said about Stalin from 1941 to 1945.
The experts interviewed in the program (Sir Max Hastings and Anthony Beevor in particular) are well-regarded historians, although more known for their military than their political writing. But one unfamiliar name appears frequently: Dave Douglass. While the programme skips over his credentials, it turns out he is in his own words, ‘a revolutionary Marxist on the Anarchist left and a member of … the IWW.’ Douglass hardly qualifies as someone with an objective opinion or, more importantly, any real knowledge about Churchill.
Another predictable presence is Professor John Charmley, the revisionist dean. From Charmley’s barely suppressed smirk, we learn that Churchill was really a proto-fascist, ‘the equivalent of Nigel Farage’ and one step away from throwing in with Oswald Mosley and the Blackshirts.
According to Charmley, ‘Churchill’s ideas in the 1930s had been rather sympathetic towards fascism; at least until 1938 he’d said obliging things about Hitler as well.’ Front and centre marches a single line from Churchill’s 1937 Evening Standard article to prove the point.
Well if Churchill was a Nazi sympathizer that certainly wasn’t apparent to Goebbels or Hitler in Berlin – but perhaps they were too busy entertaining stronger admirers such as the Duke of Windsor and Lord Londonderry. Charmley knows that a quick glance at the work of Churchill authorities Sir Martin Gilbert and Richard Langworth would put this nonsense to rest.
And Charmley can’t resist a last jest, informing us that in Churchill’s war memoirs, ‘every page … broke the Official Secrets Act’, thus apparently throwing him in with Burgess and Maclean.
The first 55 minutes of the programme works hard to dig the Churchill reputation a deep grave. The producers then apparently looked up and found themselves at the bottom of a discreditable hole of their own making.
What to do? Furiously spend the last five minutes reminding us, ‘Oh, by the way Winston Churchill was a great man and saved the world.’ Even Alan Brooke said so.
When Britain Said No concludes with a last screen shot, surely confusing to anyone who has just watched the program: ‘In 1951 Churchill stood again for election – and won.’ The viewer might wonder: how could that be? The programme offers no answer and one is left to conclude that either Churchill wasn’t so bad or that the British people, having unwisely tossed out the great man in 1945, regained their senses and voted him back.
As much as the programme’s portrayal of Churchill is a cardboard caricature, that of Labor leader Clement Attlee – a saintly, avuncular pipe smoker – is just as one-dimensional. As Michael Jago’s excellent recent biography points out, ‘Clem’ was a decent, honorable man who worked productively with Churchill during the war-time coalition but then, after initial success as Prime Minister, struggled to govern effectively with the weak economic and strategic hand that fell to Britain after the war. Churchill, by contrast, played the even weaker hand dealt by Adolf Hitler in 1940 superbly well.
And without applying the same torch to Attlee as When Britain Said No does to Churchill, he too was not immune to the prejudices of his day as his comments about American Jews noted by Jago testify. (Incidentally, the programme garbles the Churchill quote about Attlee; Harry Truman actually said, ‘He struck me as a very modest man’, to which Churchill replied, ‘He has much to be modest about.’)
American conservatives often lament the perceived liberal bias in our Public Broadcasting System. But no PBS station would ever run a programme about an American leader as unbalanced and inaccurate as this.
Lee Pollock is executive director of The Churchill Centre, Chicago. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not The Churchill Centre.