Many sacred icons of British society are being smashed in the white heat of the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite late-bourgeois revolution, from the monarchy, sliding towards a state of apparently terminal crisis, to the red buses which have begun to disappear from London’s streets in the process of privatization. Until recently, however, no-one has dared to lay a hand on the most sacred icon of all, the figure of Winston Churchill, the ‘saviour of his country’, as he was described in A.J.P. Taylor’s standard English History 1914-45.
Even to breathe a word of criticism of the ‘Greatest Englishman of All Time’ was regarded as virtually treasonable in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s the multi-volume official biography by Martin Gilbert added massively researched detail in a further act of hero-worship. Such criticisms as there were tended to come from sources marginal to the mainstream of British intellectual life—the far left, who never forgave Churchill for his behaviour to the miners when he was Home Secretary before the First World War, or the far right, notably in the person of the Hitler-admirer David Irving, who portrayed Churchill as a drunken, egotistical warmonger who worked deliberately to bring the Second World War about. These criticisms were taken seriously by few people. During the 1980s, indeed, the Churchillian myth was actively exploited by Mrs Thatcher, who referred to the great man cosily as ‘Winston’, although he had hardly been an intimate acquaintance, and appropriated his rhetoric for that classic example of history repeating itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as bloody—the Falklands War of 1982.
Now, however, a new iconoclast has suddenly emerged, and a flurry of angry reviews, debates on radio and television, and—that most certain sign of ruffled feathers in the Establishment—outraged letters to The Times, shows that he has succeeded in hitting his target. In his Churchill: The End of Glory, the young historian John Charmley attacks Churchill’s reputation head-on. Far from being the hero who rescued Britain from the humiliations of appeasement and led the country to victory over Hitler by his indomitable spirit, Churchill, says Charmley in the concluding passage of his book, was a failure: