The film “The Darkest Hour” has brought up once again, the decisive moment during the great second war when Churchill rallied Britain to fight on alone against Nazism. And it raises the question, once again, what is there to learn from this history? Andrew Rawnsley ponders that question in an interesting piece for The Guardian.
I agree with Andrew that it is wise to ask what is there to learn from Churchill the man. Before we answer, however, we should admit that Churchill came from a different era.It is dangerous, therefore, to apply our standards to his reality.
Born in 1874, the son of one of the great aristocratic families , Churchill inherited values that we see as archaic. These include a love of war, empire, and the class system that put him on top. But we tend to forgive his hawkish support of empire and enthusiasm for the 1914 war, his fight against giving women the right to vote, his out of step support of Edward VIII’s assertion of the king’s prerogatives, his fierce opposition to Indian independence, and so forth. We would say that they reflect his inherited rather than deeply thought through values. His attachment to unfortunate positions was “romantic” rather than “intellectual”. And there is no doubt that there was a deeply romantic aspect to Churchill’s character.
We are more interested in Churchill’s love of history, his commitment to mobilizing language to lead, his integrity, vision, humanity, and his great courage in the face of adversity. Andrew makes this interesting comment
We are reminded that the superman was, just as his wife said, a man. He was a genius not because he was without faults but because he transcended his flaws.
These qualities stand out even now, more than half a century after they were so badly needed as the war raged. And rightfully so, we ask who among our current leaders exhibits anything remotely close to these values?
The answer, of course, is no one. Andrew writes
Do we have a yearning for leadership that combines principle, vision and humanity with the capacity to mobilise and unify people behind a collective and heroic endeavour? I rather suspect we do.
But we might also recall that Churchill’s commitment to the values we love about him also did not come out of nowhere. He took on these values — and his determination to transcend his weaknesses, which included a speech impediment — because he believed it was expected of him, coming from his class and background. After all, he was descended from the great Marlborough! He believed that he was born to lead, and he craved the opportunity that the crisis of war gave him to do so. That belief made his downfall from the Gallipoli disaster during the First World War all the more personally devastating. It made his slow recovery from that personal disaster possible. Conviction, after all, is the fountain of resilience. Who among us believes he or she has this sort of birth right and the responsibilities that it imposes? What schools teach our children that they have this sort of life mission?
In other words, we rather more believe that we are free to choose whether to take responsibility for the positions our societies find themselves in. One might even argue with a straight face that there is no blame in our turning our backs on where we come from and where our communities may be headed, if where we come from and where others are headed do not advance our personal interests. We are born less to lead, than to be free not to do so.
That sort of freedom, as we are learning, has its costs.
A quick follow up – It occurred to me after writing the above, that Churchill was acutely aware of his personal interests in advancing his career. He was extremely ambitious on a personal level, so much so, that some of his contemporaries were repulsed by his self-absorption. It would have been impossible to ascend the political power ladder the way he did before the First World War and not have that self-absorbed quality. One could not credibly argue, therefore, that his leadership was unselfish.
At the same time, Churchill fused his personal interests with his commitment to the historic moment. He believed there was no difference between the two, or at least that the difference should be minimized. So, for example, he made money by writing — but not just any writing. He wrote about things that he thought would help him and that should matter to society. That meant history (including but not limited to his family history), comments on current events, and speculations about the future. He noted “the annihilation of Oscar Wilde” and showed respect for Wilde’s use of language, but did not comment on the more frivolous content of Wilde’s plays.
Yet Churchill may have been influenced by Wilde’s aesthetic that life is an artificial construction rather than a reflection of deeper “truths”. Thus, the Churchill we love in 1940 was created by Churchill as a work of art for history. He did what he thought was the right thing to do because it was right, and because he wanted to make history. doing it That is selfish, and it is different than the type of selfish freedom that facilitates escape from history.
This borrows from Disraeli, who also believed in the power of constructing and participating in a great historical narrative. It stands in contrast to Gladstone, who insisted that his political conclusions were morally inevitable, which justified his taking a leadership role. But both Disraeli and Gladstone stand in contrast to leaders of today, in my view, by thinking in broad historical terms rather than just partisan terms.