Winston Churchill in War and Peace | The Nation


Winston Churchill in War and Peace

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In my own view, then, Mr. Churchill is one of the great anachronisms of our time. The war he is waging is not the war that history has staged. He fights Hitler as Marlborough fought Louis XIV, as Pitt fought Napoleon. The immense social forces which have gone to make this war are as outside his consciousness as the principles of the Russian Revolution are outside his understanding. He is not really interested in a post-war world in which the foundations are revised. Partly that is because, like the typical Whig aristocrat, he sees all politics in terms of people on his side of the House of Commons or on the other side; he is unaware of the impersonal forces of history. He can understand Mr. Bevin, but not trade unionism; Herbert Morrison, but not socialism, Lloyd George, but not liberalism. His insights are always concrete and not abstract.

His imagination is visual, and the thing which influences him is always the thing before his eyes. He can sympathize with all the earnestness of his generous nature with East Enders in London whom the blitz has rendered homeless; he cannot feel in the same way for unemployed miner: in Wales or displaced shipwrights in Jarrow. He can put all his mind and heart into the things that interest him: the plan of a battle, for instance, or a hill of which he is going to take charge. But it is difficult to win his attention for something remote from his own sphere of action.

Like all the men of our time whose roots are in the Grand Whiggery of the eighteenth century, Mr. Churchill is an intense individualist. If it be said that in that, period, between 1906 and 1914, when his fortunes were associated with the Liberal Party, he was one of the most ardent supporters of an "advanced" program, there are, I think, two answers. First, because he is a great adventurer, whatever Mr. Churchill does he is compelled to do intensely; since there had to be action in those years, he supported the call for action with all his strength. And, secondly, no one who examines the speeches of his Liberal period can fail to note in him then the son of Lord Randolph Churchill; their spirit is that of Tory democracy, which in its turn was the child of Disraeli and the Young England of the forties. The real Winston Churchill is imperialist, paternalist, in favor of a strong government which shelters the weak from the blasts of life. But he is not concerned to build a world in which the weak can stand by themselves. An equalitarian society has no interest for him. He would hate a world which found no room for the romantic exploits of the empirebuilder. His temperament makes him transform every argument into a battle, and once he has engaged his forces, while he loves the game, he is desperately anxious for victory.

He deploys the forces of a Britain whose bargain with fate he conceives, in its large outlines, to have been finally made. Its magnificent past enthralls him so that he cannot go beyond it for his inspiration. Each of its institutions, each, indeed, of its possessions, is for him like some dear family heirloom with which he cannot bear to part. And he finds it difficult to admit as a colleague anyone who does not think in these terms. He can understand Cobbett, because in that stout old agitator was concealed an ardent Tory. But Shelley or William Morris, the Webbs or Bernard Shaw, these and their ideas breed in him at once a sense of profound mistrust. They can reject the past he cherished without a single sigh of regret; or like Mr. Shaw they can laugh at his idols without any emotion of sacrilege.

Mr. Churchill has not a speculative mind; with him a theory begets not interest but suspicion. His habits of thought have been formed in the House of Commons, where the men on the front benches argue either to keep power or to achieve it. Even his books are nothing so much as speeches; and his vast life of Marlborough cannot be judged unless it is regarded as a massive reply to a vote of censure. So that the future of Mr. Churchill turns above everything on the issue of whether the problems faced by Britain are soluble within the framework of its traditions. If they are, Mr. Churchill will end his career in a blaze of glory. If they are not, he may well come, like the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo, to seem like some splendid but obsolete survival of a vanished epoch. His best friends will wish that, as the war closes, he will retire to write a history which in interest would rival Thucydides; but I think those are more likely to prevail who urge upon him that the man who won the war must at least inaugurate the peace. He will not yearn to profit by his own solemn warning that a great war minister seldom succeeds in the epoch which seeks to consolidate his victory.

His weaknesses are monumental; no honorable opponent can fail to recognize that his virtues are monumental, too. He has always had courage; he has always seen the virtue of audacity where audacity was called for; he has always hated wrong where he could see that wrong had been inflicted. Throughout his life he has been a loyal friend and a generous foe. He has had imagination and pity in that grand manner to which he was born. He has always met danger without flinching, and the more dark the hour the more proudly he has faced its threats. He has loved life in every aspect that called for the soldier's virtues. He has known, as few men have known, how to evoke the best in those who served him. I do not think the future historian will grant him that supreme quality which makes perhaps half a dozen statesmen in the last four centuries the decisive architects of a new world. But I think he will say of Mr. Churchill that in one of the most splendid hours in the history of his country no man did more to safeguard its strength and maintain its dignity.

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