In his book, Great Contemporaries, Churchill wrote that the nineteenth century political world was full of big figures at a time when the problems were small; the contrast was designed to be drawn with the time he was writing – the 1930s, when, as he saw it, the opposite was true. One of his favourite comments was that men ‘fell below the level of events’ – it was a damning phrase, and one which comes much to mind at the moment. In the eyes of posterity, Churchill came to epitomise the maxim ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. It is easy to forget the situation he occupied by the late 1930s. In his seventh decade and out of office since 1929, Churchill was a pariah in his own party, and an object of deep distrust to the Left, who saw him as a potential British Mussolini. It was said that his judgment was bad, his impulsiveness dangerous, and that he was, in the words of one commentator ‘a busted flush’.
His analysis of Hitler was not underpinned by any real critique of Nazism, which he failed to understand; what he did see was that Hitler was another Napoleon type, and needed to be stopped. The wiser figures, like Chamberlain, much respected for their sound judgment and lack of impulsiveness, thought this unlikely. It was, of course, and it wasn’t the first time Churchill had used highly-coloured language; his version of Gandhi is unrecognisable to posterity. One can say that sky is falling in so often than no one believes you; but in 1938/39 Churchill happened to be right. What all the wiseacres thought was wrong; what the impulsive man with the dubious career behind him said was right. It took nothing less than the crisis of 1939 to bring Churchill back to office, and the sky falling in in 1940 to propel him to the premiership. One can see why most politicians pursued a more ‘nuanced’ line; but then by the late 1930s Churchill had nothing to lose – he could afford to go for broke.
But there was something else at work too – a knowledge of history. Churchill was a self-taught man, and he read much history. He read it with, to use a modern terms, a particular narrative. His history was Whig history. He was, himself, an Anglo-American, and he saw the story of the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’ as one of broadening freedom; he passionately believed in freedom. One reason he could say what he said in 1940 was he believed it. More sophisticated historians in 1940 might have taken another view about the chances of victory, but Churchill did that thing historians tell their students not to do, he adjusted the facts to fit his theory. That theory was that history was moving in the direction of freedom, therefore Hitler was bound to lose.
This was, to be sure, an odd theory in the face of the facts of the time. The democratic tide seemed to be ebbing: France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and the Scandinavia nations were, to be sure, democracies, but east of the Rhine and south of the Kiel Canal, there were precious few such; the extinction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 meant the loss of the sole democratic nation east of the Elbe. Nazi German and Soviet Russia were the antithesis of democracy, and even in the USA there were those calling for a more ‘efficient’ way of Government.
Churchill stuck to his vision and prevailed. He knew nothing about focus groups, and only poll he cared about was on election day; and he had a hinterland. We can’t expect a Churchill every time we have a crisis, but I am not sure that focus groups and ‘nuance’ are appealing to leaders. We get, perhaps, what we deserve.