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The Study of History and the Practice of Politics

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Churchill and...Politics

Two Great Men, Two Great Themes

 

Lord Jenkins and Winston Churchill: The Study of History and the Practice of Politics

 

An Address to the Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Toronto, November 2002


By John Plumpton, President, The Churchill Center, Washington, DC

 

 

I am honoured to speak to you in a venue that hosted Winston Churchill at a luncheon on August 17, 1929. Including those listening on loud speakers on the street outside of the Royal York, 3,000 heard him.

 

Churchill was actually reasonably modest about what drew people to hear him. On one occasion, when he was complimented on the large turnout, he responded: "Yes, but imagine how many would have come if you had announced you were hanging me."

 

On the Royal York event, the Toronto Star reported that the room echoed and re-echoed with applause when he spoke of the ties of love that bound the Dominions with the motherland.

 

I speak to you this evening of 3 great historians: Margaret MacMillan, Roy Jenkins and Winston Churchill.

 

A couple of years ago I heard Margaret speak about her then forthcoming book on the Versailles conference. Last summer, in Oxford, I obtained that marvellous book that I am sure will become a classic. Paris 1919 was originally published as Peacemakers in the UK. You will have an opportunity to hear Margaret speak at a future Society event. She is as fine a speaker as she is a writer.

 

I speak to you this evening about greatness: two great men, a great Briton and the greatest Briton, according to a recent BBC poll.

 

I speak of Roy Jenkins and Winston Churchill and the themes that unite them: the study of history and the practice of politics - themes that are so well illustrated in the your award to Ms. Macdonald and your recognition of Ms. MacMillan.

 

Winston Churchill told former US presidential speechwriter James Humes, when the latter was a teenager. "Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft."

 

But in history lies much more. So much more than that the battle over the history taught in our schools is seen by many as a battle over our national identity and the values of our society.

 

In Saturday's Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson identified the issue with this comment from Margaret MacMillan.

 

"There's a huge debate in the profession," Ms. MacMillan acknowledges. "Social and cultural historians have accused people like me of being old-fashioned and never reading anything new."

 

Arguments about the importance of history and attempts to shape it and control it are certainly not new.

 

In 1927 the then mayor of Chicago, William Hale Thompson, launched an attack on allegedly pro-British textbooks in the city's schools.

Chicagoans, more interested in the services provided by Al Capone, paid little attention.

 

Political cartoonists had a field day with it. In one cartoon, a police officer pulled over a suspicious-looking truck that had just arrived from Canada.

 

Demanding to know what the driver was carrying, he got the response.

 

"Only booze, officer."

 

"Drive on, brother," said the policeman. "I thought it was history books."

 

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Churchill made frequent comments about history and its importance.

 

Some were pragmatic and should be heeded by many contemporary political leaders: "A good knowledge of history is a quiver full of arrows in debates."

 

Others are more profound: "Everyone can recognize history when it happens. Everyone can recognize history after it has happened; but it only the wise person who knows at the moment what is vital and permanent, what is lasting and memorable."

 

But Churchill is often criticized for having a too romantic view of history - views strongly influenced by his upbringing.

 

"History, for Churchill," said the great Cambridge historian, J.H. Plumb, "was not a subject like geography or mathematics. It was a part of his temperament, as much a part of his being as his social class and, indeed, closely allied to it.

 

It became a part of his politics, his diplomacy, his strategy and his tactics. I think it is extremely difficult for anyone not born into Churchill's world or time to realize what a dominance the past had over all his thinking and action.

 

And one should recall that for Churchill the past was very personal. Think merely of Blenheim Palace where he was born."

 

We cannot all be born in Blenheim - nor can we all have Churchill's talent for the resplendent phrase, but we all can, through a deeper and more thorough knowledge of history, have a better understanding of what is vital and permanent, lasting and memorable.

 

Churchill's romantic view of history led him to this conclusion:

 

"History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past trying to reconstruct its success to revive the echoes and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days."

 

Let me suggest that this is not enough. The passions of former days will be kindled only if they are relevant to each and every generation.

 

Thus it is our responsibility to our children, and our children's children, that while the lamp of history may flicker, it must not go out.

 

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There have been many recent attempts to relegate the history of Margaret MacMillan, Roy Jenkins and even Winston Churchill himself to the dustbin of history.

 

TIME magazine, despite declaring him the Man of the Half Century in 1950, concluded that by the end of the century Churchill had "ended up on the wrong side of history."

 

The Atlantic Monthly announced on a recent cover that the revisionist verdict is that Churchill was "ruthless, boorish, manipulative, alcoholic, myopic, and wrong about almost everything" - but then conceded that "he was right about the thing that mattered most."

 

And this may be just a start. Piers Brendon, former Keeper of the Churchill Archives in Cambridge, has forecast a virtual explosion of Churchill studies once the Archives go online. Thus far, he says, only 10% of the material has been used.

 

Can you imagine what the revisionists will find with access to the other 90%?

 

Much of this nit-picking revisionist work is put into perspective by a story Churchill told while commenting on the press attacks during the war.

 

"A sailor jumped into the water at Plymouth to rescue a small boy from drowning. A week later the sailor was accosted by a woman who asked, "Are you the man who picked my son out of the water the other night?

 

"That is true, ma'am" replied the sailor. "I am the man."

 

"Ah," said the woman. "You are the man I am looking for. Where is his cap?"

 

Despite Churchill's achievements of facing down the most ferocious dictator of the century, and forecasting the post-war threat of another, and constructing the building blocks of the greatest alliance in history, we still have people, particularly in the popular press, asking questions about a cap.

 

Fortunately we have books like Churchill, A Biography to answer those questions.

 

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That, Ladies and Gentlemen, brings us to the other great man and the other great theme.

 

The man is the one you came to hear this evening, Roy Jenkins, and the theme is the practice of politics.

 

Lord Jenkins is in everyone's prayers this evening. If I could send him a message I would remind him of the time that a reporter wished Churchill well on his 80th birthday and that he looked forward to doing the same on his 100th.

 

Churchill replied: "I don't see why you shouldn't, young man, you look healthy enough to me."

 

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Another great Cambridge historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, once said that:

 

"There are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill - whether they can see that no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of man and career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man."

 

Sir Geoffrey would have judged Roy Jenkins' biography of Churchill quite favourably.

 

The footnotes, however, show that there were few primary sources used so we have to assume it is based on the 10% that Piers Brendon told us about.

 

If that is so, then why read another Churchill biography? The short answer is that this is not just another Churchill biography.

 

The most important thing Roy Jenkins brings to his book is Roy Jenkins himself.

 

There are many parallels between the lives of Jenkins and Churchill: writer, politician, cabinet minister, productive octogenarian. Indeed, Jenkins is one of the few remaining students of Churchill's life who actually observed him in the House of Commons.

 

Jenkins recalled that observing Churchill from the backbench of the opposing party "was like looking at a giant mountain landscape, which could occasionally be illuminated by an unforgettable light but could also descend into lowering cloud, from the terrace of a modest hotel a safe distance away."

 

Jenkins' most useful insights relate to Churchill's political career. Notwithstanding all the achievements of the great war leader and world statesman, Jenkins reminds us that Churchill was first and foremost a politician - and proud to be so.

 

"Throughout [Churchill's] long marriage," writes Jenkins, "his wife Clementine was to experience no more than the most mild and infrequent gusts of feminine rivalry. But she was nonetheless up against the most formidable competition for his attention, and that was his attachment to what was always to him the great game of politics."

 

I expect that there are spouses here this evening who relate to that situation.

 

The irrepressible Churchill was never short of witty comments about his chosen profession.

 

Tongue in cheek, I hope, he said that "politicians are asked to stand, want to sit and are expected to lie."

 

After knowing every major British politician over his 65 year political career he concluded that to most people "a bad politician is one you disagree with."

 

He said that "the main qualification for political office is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year....And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."

 

He considered politics "almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can be killed only once, but in politics many times."

 

Certainly few had more political lives than he. Most of you are well aware of Robert Rhodes James's book: Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939. If ever there has been a political resurrection it was Winston Churchill in 1940.

 

One reason for his many political deaths was his famous ratting on the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904 and then re-ratting on the Liberals back to the Conservatives in the 1920's.

 

But he knew that one has to be very selective in timing and objectives. Commenting on a 1920's Conservative member who was standing as a Liberal in a by-election, Churchill said it was the only instance of a rat swimming towards a sinking ship.

 

Roy Jenkins entered the House of Commons as a Labour member in 1948 and after serving in several Labour administrations he retired as a member of the Social Democratic Party. In respect, I decline to apply the same verb to Lord Jenkins or to use the same metaphor.

 

However, Churchill's changes in party allegiance did not compromise his value system.

 

He believed that "some men change their Party for the sake of their principles; others change their principles for the sake of the Party."

On the other hand, he once said that he "never stood so high upon a principle that he could not lower it to suit the circumstances."

 

There has recently been much discussion in this country about the rivalry of party leaders, the relationship of those leaders to caucus, and the relationship of the cabinet to the House of Commons.

 

There was never any doubt about where Winston Churchill stood on these matters.

 

With regard to the rivalry of party leaders, let us even call it cabinet solidarity, Churchill's comments are certainly instructive:

 

"In any sphere of action there can be no comparison between the positions of number one and number two, three, or four. The duties and the problems of all persons other than number one are quite different and in many ways" he says, perhaps surprisingly, "more difficult."

 

"Number two or three has to consider not only the merits of the policy, but the mind of his chief; not only what to advise, but what it is proper for him in his station to advise; not only what to do, but how to get it agreed, and how to get it done.

 

Moreover, number two or three will have to reckon with numbers four, five and six, or perhaps some bright outsider - number twenty.

 

Ambition, not so much for vulgar ends, but for fame, glints in every mind."

 

Having served in many positions at several levels, Churchill concluded that "at the top there are great simplifications. An accepted leader has only to be sure of what it is best to do, or at least to have made up his mind about it. The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed.

 

But if he is no good he must be pole-axed. But this last extreme process cannot be carried out every day...."

 

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"I am a child of the House of Commons," said Churchill. And in the most trying moments of the war he always found time to appear before the House and explain his actions.

 

Roy Jenkins writes that "what was also noticeable was the extent to which [Churchill] applied himself to some of the routine business of leadership of the House. He did not cocoon himself in the raiment of a remote war leader who could only make epic pronouncements."

 

Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs made famous the remarkable story of how Churchill, during a life and death struggle with Lord Halifax over whether to negotiate with Hitler through Mussolini, faced down his political opponents in the War Cabinet, with the support of his rank and file supporters.

 

Churchill's faith in his party caucus and in the House of Commons was based on an even more fervent belief in the teaching of his father to "trust the people" even when those same people gave him what he called "the Order of the Boot" in 1945.

 

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Roy Jenkins brings the political Churchill alive as none has done before.

 

Churchill once said that "anecdotes are the gleaming toys of House of Commons history."

 

Jenkins tells us, for example, that during a squabble between Churchill and Labour leader Clement Attlee in 1945, Attlee was attending Jenkins' wedding; that Churchill's weapons of choice were knives and forks; that Churchill's champagne and oysters receptions at Chartwell and the Savoy Grill foreshadowed Harold Wilson's beer and sandwiches approach at 10 Downing St.

 

Jenkins is particularly good on Churchill's relationship with his great contemporaries.

 

Lord Beaverbrook and Brendon Bracken had far too much influence, particularly on issues they knew nothing about.

 

Nye Bevan never commanded Churchill's admiration or liking, Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee were treated with a wary respect.

 

With Leo Amery he was instinctively impatient. Anthony Eden and Archibald Sinclair, being closest to him, received the most rebukes.

 

Churchill was normally quite magnanimous towards political opponents but he had trouble forgiving former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin for leaving Britain unprepared and vulnerable to German aggression.

 

It may be apocryphal, but it is said that when Churchill heard of Baldwin's death, during the war, he commented:

 

"Embalm

Cremate

Bury at Sea

Take no chances."

 

I understand that everyone here may not know who all those people are but it is does illustrate the value of Lord Jenkins to those interested in "the gleaming toys of the House of Commons."

 

Of the three US presidents with whom Churchill worked, he had a guarded ease with Roosevelt; his appraisal of Eisenhower, as president, was hostile; and for Truman he probably had the most respect.

 

Both Winston Churchill and Roy Jenkins were wordsmiths - but in a different way.

 

Churchill could certainly use big words when necessary. Rather than be called unparliamentary for lying he admitted to using a terminological inexactitude. He thought simple words were better and small words were best.

 

Perhaps the most famous example is that he changed Local Defense Volunteers to simply, the Home Guard.

 

Roy Jenkins likes big words. He talks of the fissiparous nature of the opposition and comments on the need to vary the fructiferous metaphor.

 

Churchill is famous for his remark in My Early Life that he would let the clever boys learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. "But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that."

 

I fear that even Mr. Churchill would not last long in today's school system.

 

Lord Jenkins certainly knows English, but readers of his book will also note a fondness for Latin and French phrases, so perhaps you should also have a multilingual dictionary at your side.

 

Lord Jenkins is no stranger to great people. He served with them, or against them, and he wrote about them - Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, James Callahan, Margaret Thatcher, Herbert Asquith, William Gladstone,Winston Churchill - so his judgments have some authority.

 

Jenkins' concludes his biography with:

 

"When I started writing this book I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity, and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."

 

If the editors of TIME and of The Atlantic Monthly - or the cultural and social historians with whom Margaret MacMillan has long debated - were to think more deeply about books like Churchill or Paris 1919 they might just come to the same conclusion and they must might begin to realize that history is indeed a mansion with many rooms and political narrative is an important room in it.

 

Ms. MacMillan concludes her book with two incredibly relevant questions: How can the irrational passions of nationalism or religion be contained before they do more damage? How can we outlaw war?

 

While reflecting on these questions, I am reminded of a closing scene in the movie: Saving Private Ryan.

 

A dying Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) tells Private Ryan (Matt Damon), referring to the carnage and death caused by the mission to get the boy home: "Earn it - Deserve it"

 

That same message was on a famous wartime poster of Winston Churchill admonishing us to: "Deserve Victory"

 

Books like Churchill and Paris 1919 provide us with eternal lessons on how we can do that.