Obituary – Winston Churchill , Sunday 24 January 1965
In Winston Churchill has died the greatest Englishman of his time, full of years and honour. The days when his shoulders held up the sky are still fresh in the minds of all but the young; and then he served and saved not his own countrymen only but the whole free world. Unlike most eminent persons he can at his death be given at once his place in history; it is not likely that posterity, when it sees him in perspective, will change to any great extent the judgment of his contemporaries. One difficulty in summing up his career is its abnormal length. He was in Parliament longer than Disraeli and nearly as long as Gladstone. Though the Victorian age was one of rapid change neither of these men found the political and social life at the one end of their career so totally different from life at the other end as did Churchill, and, of course, neither had to fight a monster such as Hitler or guide Britain in such peril. His career was divided by the year 1940. If he had died a little before that, when he was already over 60 years old, he would have been remembered as an eloquent, formidable, erratic statesman, an outstanding personage, but one who was not to be put in the class of such contemporaries as Lloyd George or even Arthur Balfour. Yet all the qualities with which he was to fascinate the world were already formed and matured. They awaited their hour for use.
The hour came when he took the leadership of the country in the Second World War: a war which could almost certainly have been avoided if the British Conservative Government had followed the policies towards Germany which he had urged in the years preceding its outbreak. As a war leader Churchill made some mistakes, as he himself admitted. But without Churchill would Britain have survived in 1940 and 1941? Would the resolution of the country, its instinct not to submit or yield whatever the apparent hopelessness of its case – would these old warlike qualities of the British people have been able to express themselves in action? And if Britain had gone down then, could any nation or group of nations have prevailed against the Nazis and their allies? By radiating his own personality among his countrymen Churchill animated them to conduct themselves with something of his own fortitude, resourcefulness, and grim gaiety.
By his light Did all the chivalry of England move To do brave acts.
Literary art proved to be a most formidable engine of war. In an age of mechanism and outward drabness Churchill’s splendour of language had the power to release great energies, and was at least one of the factors which in 1940 saved the country from ruin. And not only Britain. We remember the way his words and example – in the phrase which he used to Britain itself – glowed and burned through the night of Europe. He was far more than the great leader of the British Commonwealth. He was the man who had summoned back to life the spirit of liberty and hope in a world prostrate and stunned beneath the shock of the Nazi onslaught. He will hold a place such as no other Englishman has ever held in the folklore of distant peoples and remote places. He will be the symbol for millions of the power of the love of liberty and the love of country to create a power of endurance that can outdare an overwhelming challenge.
In keeping with the drama which marked his life, Churchill was thrown from office by democratic vote at the moment of victory. More strictly, the Conservative Party, at the head of which he had chosen to put himself, suffered the defeat which had long been waiting for it. But the setback was in a sense personal, too. It was his fate that in spite of his gifts he had only at exceptional moments the full confidence of his fellow-countrymen. This lack of trust cut across all parties. Labour feared what it called his class bias. Some Conservatives thought that he was not biased enough; they felt that, with his past, he was not a sound party man, and they did not like the warmth for his former associates, the Liberals, which he never wholly extinguished. A sentiment very widespread was that Churchill was to be kept only for great occasions: he was too incalculable – or dangerous – for politicians’ daily food. All these feelings helped to keep him out of office for six years until October, 1951. He fumed and fretted; to many the Leader of the Opposition seemed a much dwindled figure compared with the war leader. Not that he was ineffective at this time: his speeches at Fulton and in Europe helped on the movement towards European union.
As soon as he was again Prime Minister he set himself to build one of his “grand designs,” this time for peace. Though age had lessened his vigour, except on great occasions, he was the undisputed author of the foreign policy of his Cabinet. He also gave purpose and direction to Britain’s effort to share in the “great deterrent” of the nuclear and thermo-nuclear age. The influence of these decisions will be with us for years yet. But to-day it is his lifelong character rather than particular policies which are to be commemorated. Among his many superlative qualities, one endeared him particularly to his countrymen. He was a great man of action who displayed by instinct, even in the heat of struggle, the admirable virtues of moderation and compassion. Coleridge, speaking of Napoleon, said that all great men are apt to be great and relentless hunters of men. Churchill enjoyed struggle, but was not a political Nimrod. His country-men never had to fear from him for their liberties or moral values, and he never regarded them as pawns in a game for world power. If one word can sum up his career it is magnanimity – greatness in combat and also greatness in tolerance and reconciliation.