Getting Churchill wrong. Britain’s obsession with its ‘Greatest Briton’

In 2002, the British public decided by a considerable margin, in a BBC poll, that Sir Winston Spencer Leonard Churchill, Prime Minister from 1940-45 was the greatest Briton of all time.

This, culturally, was a watershed moment in many ways. Firstly, it was the culmination of a war fetishism that had been developing for decades (at least since the 1950s), and which found its deepest expression in the two decades that would follow the BBC poll.

Secondly, it came at a time of immense fragility for the British national psyche. A country that had been fighting wars, both hot and cold for a century, during which time a global empire had been lost had little clear sense of its own role, (other than the one that was being written for it in Washington and Westminster at the start of the War on Terror).

Britain itself had been transformed by austerity, affluence, immigration, mass culture and relative economic decline throughout the 20th Century and the last attempt to revive its fortunes under the stewardship of Margaret Thatcher had been (despite whatever else happened in those eleven years) a resounding failure.

An unequal country, shorn of its manufacturing base, dependent on financial services and inflated property prices had found it hard to settle into a long post imperial afterglow.

For many British people, and perhaps a majority of English people (whose unease and resentment towards Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish devolution and the growing sense of new inclusive and somehow threatening identities), identity was most easily drawn from the past.

The war that ‘we’ won is consistently the easiest place to find succor and the hyper mythologised figure of Winston Churchill serves as a signifier for all that was once great and in the eyes of some, all that can be reclaimed.

It all depends on which Churchill we’re talking about of course, because there are many. Was in the supposedly liberal Churchill of the Atlantic Charter and the Iron Curtain Speech? The beligerent, defiant Churchill of June 1940? Was it the crafty, sly Churchill who wrote the percentages agreement and showed it to Stalin (and who ultimately was outclassed in sly by his Soviet opposite number)? Was it the romantic, literary Churchill? The artistic renaissance man Churchill? Was it the wartime Churchill or the peacetime Churchill?

No doubt Churchill was an immensely significant figure in 20th Century history, but as with all such figures from Cromwell to Bismarck an industry of biographies and hagiographies surround them.

In Britain, the Second World War (and to a lesser extent the first) has been elevated to the level of a secular religion, with its saints (Churchill) its sacred days (Remembrance Sunday), its rituals (Poppies) and its heresies (saying Churchill was anything other than an English Moses). British popular culture has created a cartoonish Churchill and in his nemesis, a cartoonish Hitler.

It matters a lot how we see the past, it matters a lot how we navigate it. Our sense of ourselves now and the decisions our society collectively makes as a result are directly informed by who we imagine ourselves to have been.

The Churchill industry is, for the most part, a source of mythologisation and confusion and the figure who has ruthlessly exploited the memory of our wartime leader more than any other is the current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Johnson wrote a book about Churchill that can neither be thought of as biography or history, as there is a precise methodology behind both genres. Johnson, in writing The Churchill Factor, which is easily the worst book to have ever been published about Churchill repeats fabrications, myths and romantic fairy stories, perhaps knowingly, perhaps unintentionally.

The reason, as ever, is that for someone as entitled, bored, careless and disingenuous as our current prime minister, getting basic facts right doesn’t really matter. It hasn’t mattered during a public health crisis, it didn’t matter during his tenure as mayor of London and it doesn’t matter in his written endeavours (which were even ‘supported’ by well respected academics).

You can watch myself and journalist Otto English discuss the cult of Churchill and Johnson’s book here:

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