Comment: Churchill a man of his time – and ours too

REVERED figure and great leader would be at home in today’s political arena, writes Allan Massie
Churchill would have found no problems with a coalition government. Picture: GettyChurchill would have found no problems with a coalition government. Picture: Getty
Churchill would have found no problems with a coalition government. Picture: Getty

Some people, among them Jeremy Paxman and Jonathan Dimbleby, have suggested that Winston Churchill wouldn’t have been suited to politics today.

This strikes me as being a pretty silly observation, a bit like saying that Don Bradman wouldn’t have scored Test centuries today, or Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan wouldn’t have won the Open. Actually, of course, sports journalists and sports fans are generally more sensible, and recognise that the champions of one era would have flourished in another.

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They would have had to adapt to different conditions and so on, but class being, as they say, permanent, it’s reasonable to assume that someone such as Denis Law would today have been every bit as prolific as goalscorer as he was in his time.

Churchill would likewise have had to adapt.

The big set speech at which he excelled is all but obsolete, except at party conferences. He never had to engage in interviews with the likes of Paxman, but given that he had a quick wit and no lack of self-confidence, he would surely have done so effectively. Indeed I can’t suppose that he wouldn’t have seen Paxman off. He may have lived in a more deferential time, but he always relished a contest.

As the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, he would be labelled today as a toff, and he was certainly an aristocrat, a member of the old landed governing class. On the other hand, as the son of a younger son, he inherited no property. He lived extravagantly and was frequently in financial difficulties, but supported himself as a successful freelance journalist and author. He never went to university, but served as an army officer in his youth, then as a war correspondent. The charge of being ignorant of “the real world” couldn’t be made against him.

He was an imperialist, a believer in the greatness and virtue of the British Empire, as indeed most of his contemporaries were. But of course if he was a politician today, he would have been born in the last years of the Empire and, like everybody else, would have accepted that it belonged to the past. Indeed he recognised this in his own time. When Rab Butler told him that Enoch Powell, working in the Conservative research department, had drawn up a plan for the re-occupation of India, Churchill asked if the young man was mad.

If in politics now he would have been dismayed by the decline of parliament. He believed that a MP’s place was in the chamber of the House of Commons, and would have disapproved of the indifference shown by recent prime ministers to debates in the House. Even as an old man in his post-war government, he remained on the Treasury bench listening to speeches from the back-benches. One such speech by a newly-elected MP so impressed him that he straightaway gave Iain Macleod his first ministerial post. Perhaps a modern Churchill would set himself the task of reviving parliament and restoring it to its old importance.

He would have been well suited in two respects to the style of politics today. First he was always aware of the importance of creating and cultivating a recognisable image; hence the curious hats and the trademark cigar. It’s significant that he was one of the very few politicians of his time to be widely recognised by his first name. People spoke of Churchill as Winston, just as they spoke of Blair as Tony.

Second, and more importantly in view of the present state of things, Churchill was never a good party man. He switched parties twice, first moving from the Conservatives to the Liberals when the Tories seemed ready to jettison free trade, then in the 1920s returning to the Conservatives. But he was never fully comfortable there. His wife Clementine, a lifelong Liberal, distrusted the Tories, and the Conservative party responded by distrusting Winston. Even in 1940, a poll of Conservative MPs would have backed Lord Halifax rather than Churchill as prime minister in succession to Neville Chamberlain.

Like his political mentor and close friend Lloyd George, Churchill had a hankering for coalitions. His wartime government was of course a coalition, and the two members of the Cabinet on whom he relied most were his deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, and Ernest Bevin, the great trade unionist whom he brought into parliamentary politics to be minister of labour, in effect the organiser of the war effort on the Home Front. He was eager to keep the coalition in being after the end of the war in Europe, at least till Japan was also defeated. It was Labour, not Churchill, that chose to break up the coalition, even though almost nobody foresaw the 1945 Labour landslide. Churchill would have liked post-war reconstruction to be undertaken by the wartime coalition. In the circumstances of the time this wish was unrealistic, partly because there had been no general election since 1935 – though it’s permissible to wonder if things might not have been better managed if the coalition had indeed held together.

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Even in 1951, when the Conservatives did win an overall majority, Churchill tried to persuade the Liberal leader, Clement Davies, to join his Cabinet, despite the fact that the Liberals had only six seats in the House of Commons. Davies declined, thus preserving the independence of his party, but the invitation hadn’t been unreasonable, given the fact that in two of the constituencies the Liberals won, the Tories hadn’t fielded a candidate to give the Liberals a clear run against Labour.

We now seem to be living in a time when the chances of one party getting an overall majority are slim. This wouldn’t, I think, have displeased Churchill. Indeed I suspect it would have been very much to his taste. If he was in David Cameron’s shoes today, he might be looking to form a grand coalition, a ministry of all the talents, believing this to be the best way of tackling the difficulties ahead. He would recognise that the differences between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour are marginal. Furthermore, he would understand that presenting a united British front would offer the best chance of getting the reforms in the European Union which, as a committed European and Francophile, he would see as being as necessary as they are desirable.