Squeamish

Peter Clarke

  • Lloyd George: War Leader by John Grigg
    Allen Lane, 670 pp, £25.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9343 X

For the British, fortunate to escape the traumas of both Communism and Fascism, the two world wars were the defining experience of the 20th century. In both the country avoided invasion and ultimately evaded defeat, if only because in each case France was in the front line, because Russia suffered most of the casualties, and because the United States tardily but effectively identified its own interests with those of Great Britain. So it seems natural to expect recognition for the two war leaders who emerged bloody but unbowed from these struggles. In Great Britons, the excellent book published by the National Portrait Gallery to accompany the BBC series of the same name, Brian Harrison, the editor of the forthcoming Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, observes that we are hardly alone ‘in placing the great at the centre of our national myth’:

If Lloyd George and Winston Churchill epitomise national resistance to Germany in two world wars, Joan of Arc and General de Gaulle are central to the French national self-image and F.D. Roosevelt is central to the story of America’s interwar economic recovery, and Nelson Mandela is central to South Africa’s new-found racial harmony.

Exalted company for our two great heroes – but surely justified?

Not according to the great British public. The poll which the BBC commissioned in 2001 to recruit its initial shortlist of 100 Great Britons predictably included Churchill, who was fancied as the favourite from the start and duly emerged as the winner. But he did not win by a short head from David Lloyd George. You have to scour the list to find him in 79th place, listed as ‘English, born Manchester (1858-1928)’. The part about Manchester is correct: Lloyd George’s father – who was not the only Welsh schoolteacher to move there – died there prematurely only two years after his son was launched (in 1863) on a long life that did not close until 1945, when Churchill, at the height of his own fame, paid his former colleague a lavish tribute which nobody at the time thought excessive for the man who won the (previous) war.

Yet the posthumous contrast in reputation between the two men is striking. Churchill’s continuing popular appeal is fed in many ways. His whole career is packaged into a few serviceable stereotypes which can readily be dusted down for duty whenever the occasion demands. The fact that he did some of the packaging himself was helpful in shaping his own legend. He deployed the same rhetorical arts which had rallied the nation to stimulate retrospective admiration of his achievement and to distil his improvised responses to the problems of his own day as timeless watchwords of wisdom. Defiance, which served the British well enough in 1940, subsequently became a mantra for a nation in denial about its reduced place in the world, with, as time passed, increasingly bizarre acts of atavistic self-assertion to proclaim national identity: a sub-Churchillian declension from the major fiasco that was Suez to the folly of the Falklands and thence via football-led xenophobia to mindless slogans in defence of a patriotic pound. Above all, appeasement, which the historical Churchill had the good sense to recognise as sensible politics in many contexts, was reincarnated from the time of Munich on as an axiomatic object of scorn for new generations of do-it-yourself Winstons. Suez in 1956 was the classic example of a historical lesson, mindlessly learned by rote and misremembered, and then misapplied with misplaced confidence, on the misprision that an Arab dictator could be identified as another Hitler. Nor is this a syndrome to which the British are uniquely prone. There is no need in 2003 to labour the point that Churchill’s appeals to the English-speaking peoples, which served his country opportunely when it needed to enlist American sympathy and aid, have posthumously contributed to his own transatlantic apotheosis.

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