Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER History and Mr. Churchill
Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER History and Mr. Churchill
WAR IS a maker and breaker of reputations, and on balance there is more breaking than making. One has only to think of the men who held high office when the war began and to count the survivors today.
Gamelin, whose terse messages that there was nothing to report on the Western Front were accepted as the cryptic subtlety of the superstrategist, is in protective custody. Daladier is something less than a memory. Mussolini, who had set the pattern of modern dictatorship and was wooed alike by both sides, is not even a sawdust Caesar but a fat clown “moping mum whose soul is sad and whose glance is glum.” Field Marshal Ironsides, whose towering height at the War Office gave hope that we had another • Kitchener, is lost in the obscurity of the House of Lords. Gort, V.C., with his china-blue eyes, is no longer Commander in Chief but has found a post to his liking in the defense of Malta.
LtGeneral Cunningham, who played such a part in driving the Italians out of Libya and in cleaning up Abyssinia, has been allowed to retire on grounds of poor health although his health is as good as yours or mine. Sir Cyril Newall, head of the mighty R.A.F., is a forgotten man.
In Germany only two reputations have survived and it has strained the propaganda machine to breaking point to maintain those — Hitler’s and Keitel’s. Von Reichenau, whose bragging gaiety enlivened Berlin before the war and who directed the attack on France, was allowed to die mysteriously while on leave from the Russian front. When he reaches whatever hell is reserved for such men he will find a surprising number of his fellow generals whose deaths coincided remarkably with the changing fortunes of Germany’s war effort.
But in fairness war also brings men from obscurity to fame. Think of Quisling. Here was a man who yearned for power as the people of Europe yearn today for food. He was a regular officer in the Norwegian Army and went on duty to Russia after the last war. He came back and tried to foment Communism in the soul of that clear thinking nation — and failed. Then like Sir Oswald Mosley he formed a new party and contested an election. Like Mosley not one candidate including even himself was returned.
In bitterness he became pro-Fascist and accepted the pay of Germany. Today he has added a new word to language. Dickens, with his genius for fitting names to characters, called his cruel dwarf “Quilp.” Real life went one better and invented “Quisling.”
But as we look upon the change and decay of war and study the shifting scene there is one man who knows that whatever happens, come rain or snow, come storm or calm, his place in history is secure. That is Winston Churchill.
Many years ago I wrote of Churchill that he regarded world events as episodes in his own life, that he would feel that the war of 1914 came in his lifetime not that he happened to be living during the war of 1914. He has always had an acute perception of his own place in history and has
never lost it, even in the days when it seemed that nothing could alter his epitaph, “The most brilliant failure of British politics.”
I shall never forget the day in the House of Commons during the abdication when Churchill tried to make Baldwin promise that he would not take any irrevocable action without first consulting the House. The House shouted him down. Alternately flushed and pallid Churchill tried to make himself heard amid the din. Then Baldwin rose like a giant and declared that he would act with the authority vested in him. From every side “Cromwell” Baldwin was cheered and cheered.
With drooping shoulders and dark discouragement on his brow Churchill walked from the House followed only by his shaggy faithful disciple, Brendan Bracken. For the tenth time in his life Churchill said to his friends: “I am finished.
There is no place left for me in public life.”
Baldwin overthrew the King. Then, believing his position in history to be secure, he resigned and everyone paid tribute to the “greatest living Englishman.” A few months ago when the government was collecting iron railings Baldwin asked if the railings in front of his house could be spared as they were of unusual artistic value. The nation laughed. It had forgotten Baldwin was still alive.
How then has it come about that Winston Churchill, descended from the great Marlborough, born of an American mother and an English father, dismissed from the Admiralty in the last war, dropped by Baldwin in 1931, three times rejected at the polls and howled down by the House of Commons during the abdication — how has it come about that in the history of Britain he will take his place be*ide the great Pitt and even take precedence over Lloyd George?
The more I study the political life of Britain
the more it is evident that the man who achieves supreme office is nearly always one who has the tenacity and the vision to maintain a policy during periods of hostility and indifference. Tim Healy once said to a young man
entering Parliament: “Find a cause, my son, and stick to it. Take something like ‘The nation needs larger potatoes.’ Speak on larger potatoes whenever you get the chance. Move the adjournment of the House on them. You’ll bore them stiff and they will laugh at you. But years later when there is a crisis and they’re looking for the man, they will say: ‘Here’s a fellow who is consistent, let’s try him.’ ”
Lloyd George rose to power because his burning zeal for social reform marked him out from his fellows. Joseph Chamberlain blazed his way on tariffs. Baldwin had a policy of toleration in an intolerant world and though it ended in tragedy it gripped the imagination of the time. Neville Chamberlain made his way on slum clearance. And what of Churchill?
He is in Downing Street today because, as someone put it the other day, he was determined to “destroy Carthage.” In other words, from the moment that Hitler rose to power Churchill stood for one thing and one thing only, the destruction of Nazism.
As a result an amazing situation developed. Although Churchill was only a private member Hitler recognized him as the supreme enemy that stood in his path. In his speeches he ignored Chamberlain who was Prime Minister and denounced Churchill in wild and venomous language. Once, during that period, Churchill said in the House: “I really do not understand why so great and powerful a man as Hitler should spend so much time denouncing one who is not even in the Government and who obviously commands very little support from any section of the House.”
But Hitler’s instinct was right. With his feminine intuitive genius he saw that if war came the British nation would be certain to turn to the man who had shouted “Wolf, Wolf!” so loudly rather than remain true to the Prime Minister who had endeavored to turn the wolves into sheep by appealing to their better nature. Ribbentrop too had taken the measure of Churchill.
One night at a large private dinner party in London, shortly after his arrival in this country, Ribbentrop was laying down the law as to how we should treat the Communists in Britain. Churchill, who was present, listened for a while and then said blandly: “Just a moment. Don’t forget that these are our Communists.” Ribbentrop never forgot or forgave the roar of laughter that followed Churchill’s intervention. It was one of a score of incidents that soured the soul of the man who used to sell bad champagne in Montreal.
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Yet even consistency would not have raised Churchill to the peak if it had not been for another quality which he possessed. Never from his boyhood would he accept the thesis that life could ever be commonplace. While the rest of us mere mortals were worrying about trade slumps and unemployment and falling exports he continued to see the British as a race chosen by fate to lead the world. We were not shopkeepers but citizens of a new and greater Roman Empire.
He himself never admitted he was a journalist but claimed to be a historian. He had no small talk and could be overbearing to a degree when any was introduced in his presence. He knew everyone and could claim a thousand friends but in reality he had no close friend save on the basis of Tristan and the faithful Kurvenal who was so devoted to his master that when Tristan died Kurvenal died too. On the other hand his affection for his own family was simple and genuine.
The truth is, I suppose, that men who alter human destiny must do
without the luxury of that essence of friendship which is equality. That is left as compensation for the rest of us who do not drink nectar or walk with the gods.
So Churchill came to power. His policy of destroying Carthage had survived the shifting tides of the pre-war years. At last he was called to power, first as the head of the Navy and finally to lead the nation in a stricken field when disaster was at our very gates.
Now he has been Prime Minister for two years. That is a long time to hold supreme political office in a war. Asquith fell within that period and Lloyd George nearly went down in the spring of 1918. The strain of war takes its toll of nerves and temperament both in private and public life. Friendships are easily severed, loyalties often become confused and impatience is a spur which is used with too much persistence.
AS I WRITE, Churchill has once more reached a difficult situation with Parliament, a situation
which could have been avoided if Parliament had nagged a little less and if Churchill had not proved so defiant.
Parliament felt, and most of us believe Parliament was right, that Churchill was doing too much. That was not Churchill’s opinion; he is quite willing to do the whole job himself. When, however, Hong Kong, Malaya and the Prince of Wales disasters took place Churchill could no longer maintain his defiance and made a partial capitulation.
He did not say it in these exact words hut I imagine that this is what lie meant: “My parliamentary critics say that I am a great leader but object because I lead. They say that 1 am a great leader hut a had judge of men. They say I am a great leader hut that the country has lost confidence in me. In the name of sanity how can a man he a great leader when at the same time he is told that he has failed in every department of leadership?”
But wisely he made concessions. “Since I am doing too much,” he said in effect though not in words, “you can have Attlee as Vice-Premier and he will answer questions put down to me. You can have Cripps as the Leader of the House. And now having removed the star from the cast you can see how you like the understudies.”
It is not without humor. Poor Attlee gives his colorless answers to the House. Cripps does his best but is still in the process of learning his lines. The old star hardly comes near the place. “You said I was doing too much. Very well I will give up Parliament.”
The M.P.’s don’t like it. The critics are becoming more vocal all the time. Attlee is greeted with yawns and Cripps has lost his magic. Over in Downing Street Churchill governs, knowing that his place in history will not be determined by
defeats or triumphs at Westminster hut on the battlefields.
Like all great war leaders he has j something of the gambler in him. 1 As I am writing these words the ! Russians are pummelling the Germans badly while the Royal Air Force is pounding Germany without ; respite. Churchill feels that the tide ! has turned and that the coast line of victory can be seen beyond the spray. Right or wrong that is what he feels at this moment and he does not need either the sustenance of Parliament’s loyalty or the spur of Parliament’s impatience.
He is still a lone figure as he has always been although the faithful Kurvenal, Brendan Bracken, still sleeps at No. 10 Downing Street when he is in town and follows his master as faithfully in his glory as he did in his days of discouragement and despair.
No one can harness Churchill, no curb can restrain him. To the dismay and indeed the undue hardship of his Chiefs of Staff Churchill sleeps for a couple of hours nearly every afternoon and then stays up into the early hours of the morning growing in freshness the nearer it is to dawn. But he is a law unto himself, a rebel clothed in high authority.
I do not believe Churchill will try to remain in power after the peace is signed. If he looks at the example of the great Duke of Wellington and Mr. Lloyd George he will see the error | of trying to add to a greatness that can carry no more laurels. Conscious as he is of his place in history I cannot think that he would jeopardize it by adding an extra act to the play.
Truculent, dogmatic, brooding, gay, determined, arrogant yet gentle, magnanimous yet often unforgiving, prone to errors of judgment but inspired by genius and a lofty conception of humanity, this man’s name will reverberate down the centuries, a legend which came true.
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