It used to be said, even while she was still Prime Minister, that Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure. She probably was – it is almost impossible to be a country’s leader and not be divisive since those who voted in favour of the leader will feel one way and those who voted differently the opposite.
That said, it is also probably true that some Prime Ministers have had a greater approval rate across the country than others; some party leaders have been generally disliked but have still won at least one general election. There have even been one or two party leaders who have never won a general election but were otherwise so well-thought of that they have been described as ‘Great Prime Ministers the country never had’.
So what of Winston Churchill? And of course, the now well-reported answer by Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell to the question of ‘Churchill: Hero or Villain?
I am not one of those who have attacked or will attack McDonnell for his answer that Churchill was a villain. I do not agree with the Shadow Chancellor but as long as we live in a free country and have the right to free speech, I will defend his right to describe Churchill as a villain if he so chooses, just as I will defend the right of Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames, to describe John McDonnell as a ‘Poundland Lenin’.
Neither description is particularly flattering but nonetheless, it is the inalienable right of both men to express their opinion. John McDonnell’s mistake was in answering what was a rather silly question to begin with however. Had it been me in his place, I would have said ‘The question cannot be answered.’ I would have said so because all politicians have done villainous things and all have done good things. It is in the nature of politics that it must be so and it is because whatever you do as a politician, somebody will be happy, somebody won’t.
In Winston Churchill’s case, his leadership of the UK during World War II did indeed place him at the very top of greatness – after all, there were those in government here during the 1930s who would have appeased the National Socialist German Workers Party, who had been an elected government to begin with in Germany at the start of their rule. Usually known as the Nazis due to the German pronunciation of the word ‘National’, they were led of course by Adolf Hitler, who undoubtedly falls into the category of villain. Winston Churchill was the very opposite and was steadfast and resolute in his leadership. Even so, like all leaders, Churchill had done things that were not so good and today, he is criticised by some for them.
Winston Churchill however was and is like everybody else; he was a product of his time, just as John McDonnell is, just as Jeremy Corbyn is and just as we all are. The Shadow Chancellor’s reply to the question of hero or villain was accompanied by ‘Tonypandy’, the name of the Welsh mining village at the centre of the strike that brought about the decision by Churchill, Home Secretary at the time, to send in troops to help the police. One question that has not been posed however, was why that decision was made; it was made because striking miners had turned violent and were smashing up shops and mine owners property. The right to withdraw one’s labour (and thus go on strike) is very precious but it does not give strikers the right to destroy the property of others. Hence the decision to help the police, at their request, by using troops. That request for help by the Police was by the way, initially denied by Churchill but the use of violence has been a feature of strikes almost since the first was called. One thus needs to be rather careful before criticising members of any government for wanting to quell that violence. It is also worth noting however, that Churchill’s use of troops was far removed from that used in France recently.
Nevertheless, what might have been standard procedure at the time of the Tonypandy incident, is not necessarily the same today, at least in the UK. We have, broadly speaking, advanced our thinking somewhat in many areas of life and would not dream of going about things in the way that our predecessors did. So many things have changed, in many cases beyond recognition, that to do things the same way would be entirely wrong. Which is why criticism of Winston Churchill is, in essence, also wrong.
This is not to say Churchill was ‘right’ to do things that, ultimately, were shown to be wrong – he did things that were thought to be acceptable then, in his time. But one cannot take away the good that he did either. Look at another example; we once had a King, Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 until 1547 and went through wives like no other King before or since; he had six of them. Since he could only have one wife at a time, he had a habit of executing them so he could marry the next one. Could a King do that now? Of course not – but it was okay back then. Did this particular King do anything that was good? Advocates of the Church of England would say he did as his quarrels with the Pope resulted in the Reformation. One can of course, criticise King Henry for his actions towards his wives but such criticism is pointless as life then was very different from today, just as it is now when compared to Churchill’s time.
It occurs to me therefore, that rather than ask a loaded question like ‘Churchill: Hero or Villain’ of John McDonnell when, given his political beliefs, one can be reasonably certain of what the reply will be, it would make more sense to simply learn from history without being so judgemental and applying the standards of today to those of yesterday. And one of the lessons of history is that by restricting free speech, so much more becomes restricted also.
That is far more of a danger than placing a label on somebody and it is why I do not criticise John McDonnell for his opinion. Or for that matter Sir Nicholas Soames either.
© Kevan James 2019
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