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The Churchill Cult, by Jingo

Robin Pope/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Churchill statue in Parliament Square cordoned off after being defaced during Extinction Rebellion protests, London, September 10, 2020

Over the last forty years, the English cult of Winston Churchill has reached near-absurdist levels of adulation in England, provoking a backlash from anticolonial critics of British imperialism. It received a further boost in March this year when President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the UK Parliament over Zoom and paraphrased one of Churchill’s more famous World War II utterances (from his “fight them on the beaches” broadcast), linking it to the Russian assault on the Ukrainian leader’s country. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin was assigned the role of Hitler. Zelensky took the part of Churchill. Members of Parliament from all four parties drooled with pleasure. NATO-land may have conferred a temporary sainthood on Zelensky, but we should not overlook how misplaced his analogy is. The spinal cord of the Third Reich was, after all, crushed at Stalingrad and Kursk by the determination and courage of the Red Army (in which many Ukrainians fought, in far greater numbers than those who deserted to Hitler). The strength of the US war industry did the rest. 

As a result, there was no fighting on English beaches or anywhere else in the UK. The Luftwaffe bombed Britain, but Hitler’s feared invasion never materialized, as his ambitions foundered on the Eastern Front. Not to be too mean-spirited, let the House of Commons and the British media networks swoon over Zelensky and his impersonation of Churchill, though I would hardly be surprised to learn that the gambit was recommended by the British Foreign Office in the first place. But I wonder if Zelensky is aware that a tsarist general much favored by Churchill and armed by him, Anton Denikin, who fought viciously against the Bolsheviks in the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, is hero-worshipped by Putin today. 

And what of the hero-worship of Churchill? In the immediate postwar period, Britons decisively voted him out of power. The Churchill cult, an essentially English phenomenon, would not take off for nearly forty years. It was first propagated in 1982, almost two decades after his death in 1965, by Margaret Thatcher, who, with moral support from President Reagan and General Pinochet, won the ten-day Falklands war against Argentina. Churchill had been much invoked by all sides in Parliament before the war. The Argentinian dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, was compared to Hitler and those who opposed the war were referred to as Chamberlainesque “appeasers.”

Later that year, in a powerful polemic against the war in the New Left Review, Anthony Barnett was the first to explain the use to which Britain’s wartime leader was now being put—a new and modern phenomenon invented because of the need to secure acceptance of the war that Thatcher had decided to wage, he argued: 

Churchillism is like the warp of British political culture through which all the main tendencies weave their different colours.…Yet the fact that the ideology is so much more than the emanation of the man is part of the secret of its power and durability.

Three years after the Falklands war, during a visit to the United States to mark the bicentennial of the US Independence, Thatcher adduced Churchill again to stiffen Reagan, who had a softer line on nuclear weapons and regarded them, in some ways, as immoral. In her address to a joint session of Congress—making her the only British leader invited to do so since Churchill—she recruited him once more to insist that “No one understood the importance of deterrence more clearly than Churchill…be careful above all things not to let go of atomic weapons.”

This instrumentalizing of Churchill became necessary both for the UK’s liberal and conservative intelligentsias and for a majority of its civil service, after it was obliged to accept that Britain was no longer an empire or even really a sovereign state, but a satellite of the US since, after the Suez debacle of 1956, it was effectively prohibited from waging wars without the explicit approval of the White House. Churchill as icon became a symbolic substitute for empire. Britain had become little more than a US appendage, but at least it had Churchill. 

For the US elite, Churchill-worship was a minority taste among its more Anglophile wing. A competing strategic concern for the United States was the post-reunification of the German state, but its wartime leader could not be revived. The spirit of Churchill, though, sprang eternal, sanctifying the US–UK “special relationship”—a shibboleth of much greater status for the UK than the US. Trump professed admiration for Churchill and made a point of restoring to the Oval Office a bust of Englishman first loaned to George W. Bush by the UK government, but it had first been moved elsewhere by Obama and was finally returned by Biden.

In the postwar UK, memories of Churchill’s mistakes and misdeeds at home and abroad made him a controversial figure. He was never a much-loved politician among his peers. Even during World War II he faced criticism, and from many quarters: the Conservative Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary that several centrist politicians had told him “Churchill must be brought down.” The society photographer Cecil Beaton, a close friend of many Conservative grandees, reported that they freely discussed Churchill’s faults and weaknesses. The halo of a household god that could not be stuck above his head when he was alive is now firmly in place. The cloying scent and the dense clouds of incense are rarely absent. That is the principal reason that Churchillism, the modern cult of Churchill, should not be regarded as a revival. 

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In 2015, four years before he was elected prime minister and a year before the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson published The Churchill Factor, a book that became a bestseller in Britain. It was not a historical work that offered much in the way of analytical ideas. Its style, if tutored at Eton, mirrored Johnson’s personality: rumbustious, impulsive, discursive, chaotic, yet shrewdly calculating. He identifies with his subject when describing the hatred for Churchill within the parliamentary ranks of the Conservative Party, which only reluctantly accepted him as leader and prime minister. Johnson, whose own unpopularity within the party is well-known, relished the fact that “hundreds of Tories…had been conditioned to think of him as an opportunist, a turncoat, a blowhard, an egotist, a rotter, a bounder, a cad and on several well-attested occasions a downright drunk.” The inebriation aside, Johnson could have been writing about himself. By way of illustrating his point, Johnson quotes from an irate wartime letter written by Nancy Dugdale to her husband, Tommy, a Tory MP then serving in the armed forces: 

WC they regard with complete distrust, as you know, and they hate his boasting broadcasts. WC really is the counterpart of Goering in England, full of the desire for blood, Blitzkrieg, and bloated with ego and over-feeding, the same treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot air. I can’t tell you how depressed I feel about it.

Patrician antipathy of the living Churchill had its counterpart at the other end of the political and social spectrum. In comments recorded by the pioneering social research project Mass-Observation, a schoolteacher named C. R. Woodward made clear his revulsion: 

I listen to Churchill at Ottawa [in 1941]—the cheering, the dramatic ‘speech-for-effect-on audience,’ the vituperation, the French-Canadian sop of paragraphs in French, were all reminiscent of Hitler in 1936, 7 & 8. The mob psychology again.

Johnson himself, of course, is no stranger to the “speech-for-effect,” with his own opportunistic feel for “mob psychology.” Interestingly, though, as the populist who would ride to power on the promise to “get Brexit done,” he gives a fair account of Churchill’s favorable views on the beginning of the process of European cooperation in 1950. Churchill criticized Prime Minister Clement Attlee and the Labour party for refusing to attend the gathering in Paris organized by the German and French statesmen Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet that led to the European Coal and Steel Community, the first building block of the later Union, and cheekily accused Attlee of “Palmerstonian jingoism” (after the nineteenth-century statesman famous for conducting an assertively nationalist foreign policy at the height of Britain’s imperial power).

Churchill was for an ultimate United States of Europe, but Britain could “not be an ordinary member.” Why? Because it represented a triune entity: part of Europe, still dominant in the colonized world, and a partner of the United States. Johnson describes Churchill as “one of the presiding divinities of the European Union,” but he himself defends Attlee’s position, arguing that the Labour leader wasn’t given enough time to make a careful decision. Hence the boycott of the Paris meeting that established the ECSC. And Johnson argues correctly that Churchill’s principal reason for the UK’s inclusion in Europe was to prevent any slide of the rest of the West into neutrality regarding the cold war.  


Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson posing with a bust of Winston Churchill in the US Capitol, Washington, D.C., September 22, 2021


As prime minster, Johnson is determined to demonstrate that one can defend US interests in Europe without being “an ordinary member” in the EU. Hence the semi-hysterical warmongering by the British elite on Ukraine, designed to underline a simple message to Europe: you need us, the US and the UK, more than the Germans. 

The Johnsonian spin on the general Disneyland lionization of Churchill in England today is only the latest attempt to exploit his legacy. As Brecht wrote in Galileo: “Pity the land that needs a hero.” 

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The evidence of Churchill’s antiheroism is abundant. He is often credited with opposing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of “appeasement” in the late 1930s, and calling for rearmament in the face of Nazi Germany’s increasingly aggressive irredentism. But that is hardly to proclaim Churchill a noble antifascist; he remained in many respects an arch-reactionary. As was well known at the time, his position in the Spanish Civil War had been the same as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s: all three had supported Franco.

He was often disparaged for his strategy against the Axis—particularly in 1942 after the disaster in the Far East, with the fall in February of Singapore, which Churchill had regarded as an impenetrable fortress. There were serious discussions within the political parties and, according to some, in senior military circles as to whether he should be retained as prime minister and who his replacement might be. Even the loyal Home Intelligence Services recorded that “his choice of lieutenants is more and more criticised.”

The de facto Leader of the Opposition, the left-wing Welsh Labour MP Aneurin Bevan, provided an explanation. He taunted Churchill in Parliament, a few months after the surrender in Singapore, that the system of class privilege that underpinned the officer corps in the British Army was dangerously outmoded: “Had [Field Marshal] Rommel been British, he would never have risen above the rank of sergeant.” 

This view was shared by many serving during the war. In 1944, an army parliament was convened in Cairo, regarded with suspicion by the top brass but reluctantly permitted as an exercise in preparation for postwar democracy. In the mock elections for an assembly, Labour candidates won a huge majority; Churchill’s Tories came last. It was a harbinger of the result in the real election Britain held in 1945. Victorious in war after the defeat of the Nazis, Churchill took a bow at the palace balcony flanked by the royal family. Defeated in peace soon after, he ceded government and national leadership to Labour’s Clement Attlee. 

A new social-democratic consensus formed; there would be no return to the class society of prewar England and its aristocratic elite. When Churchill won the 1951 election, it was in a changed world. The Conservative Party made no attempt to dismantle the National Health Service or return the newly nationalized mines and railways to private ownership. By the 1955 election, hampered by ill-health, Churchill stood down as Tory leader, and his suggestion that the campaign slogan of the party should be “Keep England White” was rejected by irritated colleagues. 

That was no anomaly. Churchill had been a racist and imperialist all his life. For him, an ardent supporter of the Whites in Russia in the early 1920s, the Revolution had been mainly the work of Jews. He believed that Native Americans and Australia’s Indigenous people should be grateful that their continents had been occupied and rescued “by a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race.” As for the Chinese, he never hid the fact that “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them.” He loathed Gandhi and had little but contempt for India: the wartime Bengal famine that claimed three million lives, partly as a result of British policy, left him unmoved. At the height of the war, in 1943, he shocked Roosevelt’s vice-president, Henry Wallace, who confided to his diary:

I said bluntly that I thought the notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority, inherent in Churchill’s approach, would be offensive to many of the nations of the world as well as to a number of people in the United States. Churchill had had quite a bit of whisky, which, however, did not affect the clarity of his thinking process, but did perhaps increase his frankness. He said why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority, that we were superior… 

A year later, Churchill’s decision to crush the political movement allied with Greece’s Communist-led resistance, the most effective in Europe, and to substitute a monarch with the help of fascist sympathizers was conveyed to Britain’s commanding officer in the Greek capital, General Scobie: if the Greeks refused to be disarmed, he should treat the situation as a colonial counter-insurgency campaign. “You may make any regulations you like,” he told the general. “Do not…hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.” Scobie duly established a reign of terror in the country to end the Communist insurgency. Among the litany of the war’s direst mass atrocities were those carried out by the British in Greece. 

Churchill’s policies in Kenya and Iran were similar in character. He wanted white settlers to flood Kenya and hold power over the black majority, as they did in Rhodesia and South Africa. To enable this, the British set up a gulag system to imprison and torture the most militant sections of the resistance, imprisoning virtually the entire Kikuyu ethnic group. This grim history of ruthless colonial repression has been exposed only relatively recently—and not by British historians, but by American academics, foremost among them the redoubtable Caroline Elkins. 

In Iran, Churchill wanted regime change to punish the democratically elected leader Mohammed Mosaddegh for daring to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. Mosaddegh was duly removed in a coup orchestrated jointly by the CIA and its British equivalent, MI6, as the recent documentary Coup 53 relates, and he was replaced by a despot whose unpopular, repressive rule paved the way for the eventual clerical takeover in 1979. 

Whatever else, Churchill remained true to his beliefs till the end. But by the time he died Britain was a very different place from the Victorian empire in which he had grown up. The Sixties saw the shackles of censorship thrown off; a far less deferential culture took hold, and satire yoked to radical politics became popular. Far from being canonized, Churchill was often mocked. A state funeral in 1965 did not prevent the left-wing playwright Howard Brenton from writing a scabrous sendup of the wartime leader, The Churchill Play, less than a decade later. 

It was not the first time that Churchill had been harshly lampooned. The first time was to his face and at the hands of his own American allies. Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, in particular, was often irritated by Churchill’s posturing and tweaked him mercilessly. When Churchill visited the United States in January 1953 to attend a farewell dinner for President Truman in the White House, he should not have been too surprised to discover that Acheson had prepared an after-dinner mock trial in Churchill’s honor, an event later described by the president’s daughter in her memoirs. The British prime minister was in the dock for war crimes, accused of complicity in the use of nuclear weapons. Truman himself avoided being handcuffed to the British leader since he was needed as the presiding judge. Was it merely levity in poor taste, or was this an attempt at some form of collective therapy? Probably a mixture.

For Britain, or really for England we should say, the modern cult of Churchill signifies a refusal to reckon with the nation’s post-imperial present—its actual status and power in Europe after Brexit and in a submissive coital lock with a transatlantic ally who does not return the sentiment. The pernicious part of this version of Churchillism is that its elision of Churchill the racist militarist, in favor of a mythical heroic anti-fascist, lends a veneer of nobility and respectability to a synthetic neonationalism. Like Johnson himself, it’s a fraud.

Long ago, in 1698, John Toland, the first biographer of John Milton, wrote: “It is commonly seen that historians are suspected rather to make their hero what they would have him be than such as he really was.” Too true. History can both encourage an orgy of idolatry and follow it by a long round of iconoclasm. We are due for the latter phase.

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