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Churchillism

The 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death brought forth a spasm of second-rate musings and hagiographical blather about the great man by the London media, but little understanding of the transformation of Britain which, despite himself, he personified. Here, by contrast, is the 1982 analysis of Anthony Barnett.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
27 January 2015
churchill.jpg

Flickr.MsSaraKelly. Some rights reserved.

In an attempt to understand the Falklands War, I wrote Iron Britannia, Why Parliament Waged its Falklands War in 1982 (now republished by Faber Finds). It led me to name and then analyse what I called 'Churchillism', in the chapter reproduced below. Today I would thicken the description to include science and liberty, as I discuss in the forward new edition, but the central argument holds. Thatcherism, already named as such by Stuart Hall, which I also discussed, then in its early days, was an attempt to replace Churchillism with a Gaullist modernisation, based on the global market and North Sea Oil rather than an interventionist state. It seems to have run its course. Labour may be able shake off its Blair-Brown embrace of Thatcherism but it cannot go back to its formative, Churchillist, moment, as it now seems to wish. It is doomed unless it forges a new grand strategy.  But this is another story. Here, it is simply worth noting that half a century after he died, the entire Anglo-British political class and its media seems incapable of understanding the formative history of its political-cultural system, that took place under the sign of Churchill's cigar.

[The first comment below, from Michael Conroy, is generous about my analysis but points out that while the world is interested in Winston Churchill, readers who are not British know little or nothing about the Falklands War, and it needs a brief introduction. It was indeed an intensely parochial affair, so here goes if you want to know:

In 1833 the British seized Islands in the South Atlantic from Argentina, which knows them as the Malvinas, and called them the Falklands. They were then used as a coaling station for the imperial navy. Like other small places where the population speaks English and claims a loyalty to the Crown, they hung on to British rule after decolonialisation. Population seems too grand a word for what was a settlement of less than 1,800 souls in about 600 families in 1982, mostly tenant farmers who looked after 600,000 sheep. According to the official history there were 589 residential buildings in the islands, only 262 of them outside its 'capital' Port Stanley, spread across an area of over 12,000 square kilometers (4,700 square miles) ie larger than Jamaica, The Lebanon or Cyprus. After Margaret Thatcher ordered the removal of the UK's symbolic naval presence, the Argentinian dictator, the thuggish General Galtieri, sought to compensate for the unpopularity of his regime by invading the islands, 200 miles of the coast, and seized them on 2 April 1982. The British sent a Task Force 8,000 miles, with logistical and equipment support from the US, landed on an undefended part of the main island. Thanks to this and other examples of gross incompetance by the Argentinian command, the quality of the British troops, and the inexperience of the Argentian conscripts, on 14 June 1982, just days before the Antarctic winter set in that would have made the archipeligo invulnerable, the Argentinian garrison surrendered. The British lost 256 killed and over 750 wounded, the Argentinians over 1,800 dead and injured, not to speak of those traumatised by the fighting. Galtieri fell and Thatcher went on and on - timing her 1983 re-election so that it coincided with the first anniverary of the war.  As an Englishman it is my duty to add that while the UK government claimed it was acting to support the principle of the right to self-determination of the islanders, it had overseen the expulsion of an equivalent number of islanders, the Chalgossians, from their home on what was known as Diiego Garcia (for some oD coverage of this see here). I deal with all the issues of rights and self-determination posed by the whole episode at length in Iron Britannia and also engaged with them here in oD.]

TO LISTEN to the House of Commons on 3 April 1982, when its debate over whether to go to war for the Falklands was broadcast live, was like tuning in to a Wagnerian opera. Counterpoint and fugue rolled into an all-enveloping cacophony of sound and emotion. Britannia emerged once more, fully armed and to hallelujahs of assent (accompanied by fearful warnings should She be again betrayed). A thunderous 'hear, hear' greeted every audacious demand for revenge wrapped thinly in the call for self-determination. Dissent was no more than a stifled cough during a crescendo of percussion: it simply confirmed the overwhelming force of the music.

Later, opposition would make itself heard above the storm. But it was drowned out at the crucial moment. In part this was arranged. As we have seen, scheming took place to ensure a 'united House'. MPs took six days to debate entry into the Common Market in 1973. They went to war for the Falklands in three hours. The result was to preempt public discussion with a fabricated consensus. In the immediate aftermath of Argentina's take-over of the islands, most people could hardly believe it was more important than a newspaper headline about some forgotten spot. Suddenly they were presented with the unanimous view of all the party leaders that this was a grave national crisis which imperilled Britain's profound interests and traditional values. The decisive unity of the Commons was thuggish as well as inspired. The few who feared the headlong rush were mostly daunted and chose the better part of valour. Innocent islanders in 'fascist' hands, the nation's sovereignty raped: it seemed better to wait and let things calm down. The war party seized the occasion with the complicity of the overwhelming majority of MPs from all corners of Parliament. On 3 April there was scarcely an opposition to be outmanoeuvred. The result was that even if one continued to regard the Falklands as insignificant, there clearly was a Great Crisis. Within what is called 'national opinion' there was no room to disagree about that: one had either to concur or suffocate. The Commons united placed British sovereign pride upon the line; and sovereignty is not a far away matter, people feel it here at home just as they identify with their national team in a World Cup competition, however distant. With a huge endorsement from the press, Parliament had ensured that the nation—so we were told—spoke with one voice, had acted with purpose and solidarity and had thus gambled its reputation on a first-class military hazard.

Many trends were at work—consciously or blindly—to prepare for such a moment. But much more important, and what gave the militants the 'unity' essential to their cause, was the general condition that allowed them to succeed so handsomely. It held the Commons in the palm of its hand. It orchestrated the one-nation sentiments of the three geniuses of the occasion—Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and David Owen—who bound Thatcher so willingly to Hermes. To analyse this general condition properly would take a thick book, for it has many symptoms. Moreover the condition is so deeply and pervasively a part of England, so natural to its political culture, that it is difficult to see, impossible to smell as something distinct. Like the oxygen in the air we breathe, and which allows flames to burn, it is ordinarily intangible. Perhaps the Falklands crisis will at last bring the mystery into sight.

To provoke and assist this discussion of the pathology of modern British politics, I will be bold and assertive. Yet it should be borne in mind that I am only suggesting a possible description; one which will certainly need correction and elaboration. First, we need a name for the condition as a whole, for the fever that inflames Parliamentary rhetoric, deliberation and decision. I will call this structure of feeling shared by the leaders of the nation's political life, 'Churchillism'. Chuchillism is like the warp of British political culture through which all the main tendencies weave their different colours. Although drawn from the symbol of the wartime persona, Churchillism is quite distinct from the man himself. Indeed, the real Churchill was reluctantly and uneasily conscripted to the compact of policies and parties which he seemed to embody. Yet the fact that the ideology is so much more than the emanation of the man is part of the secret of its power and durability.

Churchillism was born in May 1940, which was the formative moment for an entire generation in British politics. Its parliamentary expression was a two-day debate which ended on 8 May with a crucial division on the Government's conduct of the war. Churchill himself had already entered the cabinet, which remained under Chamberlain's direction. After the hiatus of the 'phony war', an attempt by the British to secure control of Norway had ended in disaster. Although Churchill also bore responsibility for the misadventure, it was Chamberlain who was felt to be out of step with the time. Attlee asked for different people at the helm. From the Conservative back-benches Leo Amery repeated a testy remark of Cromwell's, "In the name of God, go!". The Government's potential majority of 240 crashed to 80. In the aftermath Churchill emerged as Prime Minister with, as I will discuss in a moment, the crucial support of Labour to create a new National Coalition. Within days, the war took on a dramatically different form, and then a catastrophic one, as the Germans advanced across Holland and into France. The British army was encircled and the order to evacuate given on 27 May. Through good fortune some 300,000 were pulled back across the Channel and Dunkirk became a symbol not only of survival but also of'national reconciliation' and ultimate resurgence as it coincided with the emergence of Churchill's coalition.(1)

At that moment Churchill himself was a splendid if desperate enemy of European fascism, while Churchillism was the national unity and coalition politics of the time. Among those who participated most enthusiastically, there were some who wanted to save Britain in order to ensure the role of the Empire, and others who wanted to save Britain in order to create a new and better order at home. But Churchillism was more than a mere alliance of these attitudes. It incorporated imperialists and social democrats, liberals and reformers.(2) From the aristocrats of finance capital to the autodidacts of the trade unions, the war created a social and political amalgam which was not a fusion—each component retained its individuality—but which nonetheless transformed them all internally, inducing in each its own variety of Churchillism and making each feel essential for the whole.

Today Churchillism has degenerated into a chronic deformation, the sad history of contemporary Britain. It was Churchillism that dominated the House of Commons on 3 April 1982. All the essential symbols were there: an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator, and finally the quintessentially Churchillian posture—we were down but we were not out. The parliamentarians of right, left and centre looked through the mists of time to the Falklands and imagined themselves to be the Grand Old Man. They were, after all, his political children and they too would put the 'Great' back into Britain.

To see how the Falklands crisis brought the politicians at Westminster together and revealed their shared universe of Churchillism, it will help to note the separate strands which constituted it historically: Tory belligerents, Labour reformists, socialist anti-fascists, the liberal intelligentsia, an entente with the USA (which I will look at at greater length as its legacy is crucial) and a matey relationship with the media.

1.     Tory Imperialists

In 1939 only a minority of the Conservative Party supported Churchill in his opposition to appeasement. Their motives for doing so were mixed. The group included back-bench imperialists like Leo Amery—the father of Sir Julian Amery, who spoke in the Falklands debate—and 'one nation' reformers like the young Macmillan. A combination of overseas expansionism and social concessions had characterized Conservatism since Disraeli: a nationalism that displaced attention abroad plus an internal policy of gradualist, paternalistic reform.

Churchill, however, stood on the intransigent wing of the Party. (He had left the Conservative front bench over India in 1931 when he opposed granting it dominion status.) Unlike Baldwin, Churchill had ferociously resisted the rise of Labour, and his militancy in the General Strike made him an enemy of the trade unions until he finally took office in May 1940. Three years previously Baldwin had retired and been replaced by Chamberlain who was efficient but also aloof and stubborn. He proved incapable of assimilating Labour politicians into his confidence, while he saw the imperative need for peace if British business interests were to prosper. By continuing to exclude the restless Churchill from office, Chamberlain perhaps ensured that he would see the opposite and indeed, Churchill gave priority to military belligerency. Thus Churchill, who had initially welcomed Mussolini as an ally in the class war, became the most outspoken opponent of Nazism, because it was a threat to British power. There was no contradiction in this, but rather the consistency of a Toryism that in the last instance placed the Empire before the immediate interests of trade and industry.

2.    Labour and Reformism

As emphasized earlier, it is essential that Churchill and Churchillism be rigorously distinguished. While the man had been among Labour's most notorious enemies, the 'ism' contains Labour sentiment as one of its two major pillars. In terms of Churchill's own career, the transformation can be seen in 1943, when he sought the continuation into the postwar period of the coalition government with Labour. Conversely, the Labour Party's support was crucial in Churchill's accession to power in May 1940. Chamberlain had actually maintained a technical majority in the vote over the failure of the Norwegian expedition; but the backlash was so great that his survival came to depend on Labour's willingness to join his government. It refused, asserting that it would only join a coalition "as a full partner in a new government under a new Prime Minister which would command the confidence of the nation". Within an hour of receiving this message, Chamberlain resigned.(3)

It is important to recall that Chamberlain's regime wa's itself a form of coalition government. At the height of the depression in 1931, Ramsey MacDonald had decapitated the Labour Movement by joining a predominantly Conservative alliance. This incorporation of part of the Labour leadership into a basically Tory government was a triumph for Baldwin, vindicating his strategy of deradicalizing the Labour movement through the cooptation of its parliamentary representatives. By the same token, the creation of the 1931 National Government was a defeat for the hardline approach of Churchill. The great irony of 1940, then, was that Labour attained its revenge by imposing the leadership of its former arch-enemy on the Tory Party. The alliance which resulted was also quite different from the National Government of 1931: that first coalition broke the Labour Party while in 1941 it was the Conservatives who were "shipwrecked".(4)

Churchill dominated grand strategy but Labour transformed the domestic landscape. Ernest Bevin, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, became Minister of Labour and a major figure in the War Cabinet. Employment rose swiftly as the economy was put on a total war footing and for the first, and so far only time in the history of British capitalism, a significant redistribution of wealth took place in favour of the disadvantaged. While adamant in his attitude towards strikes and obtaining a more complete war mobilization than in Germany, Bevin ensured the extension of unionism and improvements in factory conditions. Both physically massive men, the collaboration of Churchill and Bevin personified the contrast with the earlier pact between Baldwin and MacDonald. The 1931 National Government was a formation of the centre based on compromise at home and abroad. The two prime actors in 1941 were men of deeds, determined to pursue their chosen course. Once enemies, they now worked together: an imperialist and a trade unionist, each depending upon the other.

Within the alliance, the centre worked away. To compound the ironies involved, some of the Conservatives who most readily accepted the domestic reforms were from the appeasement wing of the party. Butler, for example, who disdained Churchill even after the war began, put his name to the 1944 Education Act that modernized British education (though it preserved the public school system). But the administrative reformists of the two main parties never captured the positions of ideological prominence. Bevin was more a trade union than a Parliamentary figure, Attlee led from behind, and Labour in particular suffered from its inability to transform its "moral equality" into an equivalent ideological hegemony over the national war effort.

3.    Anti-Fascism

Overarching the centre was an extraordinary alliance of left and right in the war against fascism. Those most outspoken on the left were deeply committed to the war effort (even when their leading advocate in the Commons, Aneurin Bevan, remained in opposition). The patriotic anti-fascists of both Left and Right had different motives, but both had a global perspective which made destruction of Nazism their first imperative. When the Falklands war party congratulated Michael Foot—the moral anti-fascist without equal on the Labour benches—for his stand, it was like a risible spoof of that historic, formative moment in World War Two when the flanks overwhelmed the centre to determine the execution of the war.

Yet it was not a hoax, it was the real thing; though it related to 1940 as damp tea-leaves to a full mug. The Falklands debate was genuinely Churchillian, only the participants in their ardour failed to realize that they were the dregs. This is not said to denigrate either the revolutionaries or the imperialists of the World War. Their struggle against fascism was made a mockery of in Parliament on 3 April: for example, when Sir Julien Amery implicitly, and Douglas Jay explicitly, condemned the Foreign Office for its 'appeasement', just because it wanted a peaceful settlement with Buenos Aires; or when Patrick Cormack said from the Tory benches that Michael Foot truly "spoke for Britain".(5)

Above all, it was a histrionic moment for Foot. Although frequently denounced by the Right as a pacifist, he was in fact one of the original architects of bellicose Labour patriotism. Working on Beaverbrook's Daily Express he had exhorted the Labour movement to war against the Axis. In particular, in 1940 when he was 26, he inspired a pseudonymous denunciation of the appeasers called The Guilty Men, published by Gollancz. Foot demanded the expulsion of the Munichites—listed in the booklet's frontispiece—from the government, where Churchill had allowed them to remain. The Guilty Men instantly sold out and went through more than a dozen editions. It contains no socialist arguments at all, but instead is a dramatized accounting of the guilt of those who left Britain unprepared for war and the soldiers at Dunkirk unprotected. It points the finger at Baldwin and MacDonald for initiating the policy of betrayal. On its jacket it flags a quote from Churchill himself, "The use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action at the present". Thus while the booklet attacks both the Conservative leadership of the previous decade and the Labour men who sold out in 1931, it impeaches them all alike on patriotic grounds: they betrayed their country. Churchill's foresight and resolve, by contrast, qualify him for national leadership—for the sake of the war effort, the remaining "guilty men" had to go.

It was precisely this rhetoric—the language of Daily Express socialism—that was pitched against the Thatcher government in the 3 April debate by the Labour front-bench. Foot denounced its leaders for failing to be prepared and for failing to protect British people against a threat from dictatorship. The "Government must now prove by deeds ... that they are not responsible for the betrayal and cannot be faced with that charge. That is the charge, I believe, that lies against them". (my emphasis) Winding up, John Silkin elaborated the same theme, only as he was concluding the debate for the opposition he was able to bring the 'prosecution' to its finale, in the full theatre of Parliament. Thatcher, Carrington and Nott "are on trial today", as "the three most guilty people".

4.      Liberalism

The political alliance of Churchillism extended much further than the relationship between Labour and Conservatives. The Liberals were also a key component, and this helps to explain why an important element of the English intelligentsia was predominantly, if painfully, silent at the outbreak of the Falklands crisis. In 1940 the Liberals played a more important role in the debate that brought down Chamberlain than did Labour spokesmen, with Lloyd George in particular making a devastating intervention. Later, individual Liberals provided the intellectual direction for the administrative transformation of the war and its aftermath.

Keynes was its economic architect, Beveridge the draughtsman of the plans for social security that were to ensure 'no return' to the 1930s. Liberalism produced the 'civilized' and 'fair-minded' critique of fascism, which made anti-fascism acceptable to Conservatives and attractive to aristocrats. Liberalism, with its grasp of detail and its ability to finesse issues of contention, was the guiding spirit of the new administrators. Because of its insignificant party presence, its wartime role is often overlooked, but liberalism with a small L was the mortar of the Churchillian consensus. One of Beveridge's young assistants, a Liberal at the time, saw the way the wind was blowing and joined the Labour Party to win a seat in 1945. His name was Harold Wilson.(6)

5.      The American Alliance and 'Self-Determination'

Churchillism was thus an alliance in depth between forces that were all active and influential. Nor was it limited to the domestic arena; one of its most important constituents has been its attachment to the Anglo-American alliance, and this was Churchill's own particular achievement. Between the wars the two great anglophone powers were still as much competitors as allies. During the 1920s their respective general staffs even reviewed war plans against one another, although they had been allies in the First World War. The tensions of the Anglo-American relationship four decades ago and more may seem irrelevant to a discussion of the Falklands affair; yet they made a decisive contribution to the ideological heritage which was rolled out to justify the dispatch of the Armada.

When Churchill took office in 1940 Britain was virtually isolated in Europe, where fascist domination stretched from Warsaw to Madrid, while the USSR had just signed a 'friendship' treaty with Germany and the United States was still neutral. Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador in London (and father of the future President), was an old intimate of the Cliveden set and a non-interventionist. He had advised Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that the English "have not demonstrated one thing that could justify us in assuming any kind of partnership with them".(7) But Roosevelt, eminently more pragmatic, saw that genuine neutrality would allow Hitler to win; it would lead to the creation of a massive pan-European empire, hegemonic in the Middle East and allied to Japan in the Pacific. On the other hand, by backing the weaker European country—the United Kingdom—the US could watch the tigers fight. Continental Europe would be weakened and Britain—especially its Middle East positions—would become dependent on Washington's good will. In other words, it was not fortuitous that America emerged as the world's greatest economic power in 1945, it simply took advantage of the opportunity that was offered. But this opportunity also provided Britain with its only possible chance of emerging amongst the victors. At issue were the terms of the alliance.

On May 15, immediately after he became Prime Minister and just before Dunkirk, Churchill wrote his first letter to Roosevelt in his new capacity. He asked for fifty old American destroyers and tried to lure the President away from neutrality. The Americans in turn suggested a swap arrangement that would give them military bases in the Caribbean, Newfoundland and Guyana. The trade of bases for old hulks was hardly an equal exchange, but by deepening American involvement it achieved Churchill's overriding purpose, and allowed the President to sell his policy to Congress. Later, as Britain ran out of foreign reserves, Lend-Lease was conceived. The United States produced the material of war while the British fought, and in the meantime relinquished their once commanding economic position in Latin America to Uncle Sam.(8) (So when Peron—whose country had been a British dominion in all but name for half a century—challenged the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon bankers in 1946 by resurrecting the irredentist question of the Malvinas, it was a demagogic symbol of already fading subordination that he singled out. The real economic power along the Plata now resided in Wall Street rather than the City.)

Four months before Pearl Harbor, the 'Atlantic Charter' (August 1941) consolidated the Anglo-American alliance and prepared US opinion for entry into war. The Prime Minister and the President met off Newfoundland and agreed to publicize a joint declaration. The main argument between them was over  its fourth clause. Roosevelt wanted to assert as a principle that economic relations should be developed "without discrimination and on equal terms". This was aimed against the system of 'imperial preferences' which acted as a protectionist barrier around the British Empire. Churchill moderated the American position by inserting a qualifying phrase before the clause. Behind the fine words of the Atlantic Charter there was a skirmish and test of wills between the two imperialisms. Although we can now see that the Charter was determined by self-interest, its function was to enunciate democratic principles that would ensure popular and special-interest support in both countries for a joint Anglo-Saxon war. Both governments announced that they sought no territorial aggrandizement or revision that did "not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned". Churchill later denied that this in any way related to the British colonies. He was to declare in 1942 that he had not become Prime Minister to oversee the liquidation of the British Empire. Nonetheless he also claimed to have drafted the phrase in the Charter which states that the UK and the US would "respect the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live".(9) There is a direct lineage between this declaration and Parliament's reaction to the Falklands.

By the end of the year America had entered the war as a full belligerent. On New Years Day 1942, twenty-six allied countries signed a joint declaration drafted in Washington which pledged support to the principles of the Atlantic Charter. Henceforward the alliance called itself the 'United Nations', and three years later a world organization of that name assembled for the first time. In its turn it enshrined the principles of 'self-determination' codified by Roosevelt and Churchill.

In his memoirs Churchill is quite shameless about the greatness of the empires, British and American, that collaborated together against the 'Hun'. But he cannot hide the constant tussle for supremacy that took place between them, within their 'Anglo-Saxon' culture, in which each measured its own qualities against the other. From their alliance, forced on the British by extreme adversity, came their declaration of democratic aims. Its objective was to secure support from a suspicious Congress that saw no profit in bankrolling an Empire which was a traditional opponent, and which was detested by millions of Irish and German-American voters. It had, therefore, to be assuaged with the democratic credentials of the emerging trans-Atlantic compact. Thus, in order to preserve the Empire within an alliance of 'the English speaking nations', Churchill—imperialist in bone and marrow—composed a declaration of the rights of nations to determine their own form of government. In international terms, this ambiguity is the nodal point of Churchillism. By tracing, however sketchily, its outline, we can begin to decode the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons on 3 April this year. Above all, it clarifies the ease with which those like Thatcher utilized the resources of the language of 'self-determination'. When she and Foot invoked the UN Charter to justify the 'liberation' of the Falklands because its inhabitants desire government by the Crown, they reproduced the sophistry of the Atlantic Charter. What particular resonance can such terms have for the British Right, when in other much more important circumstances like Zimbabwe they are regarded as the thin wedge of Communist penetration? The answer is to be found in Churchillism, which defended and preserved 'Great' Britain and its imperial order by retreating slowly, backwards, never once taking flight, while it elevated aspirations for freedom into a smoke-screen to cover its manoeuvre.

In 1940 what was at stake was Britain's own self-determination. Invasion was imminent and an embattled leadership had to draw upon more than national resources to ensure even survival. Together with the invocation of specifically British values and tradition, Churchill revived the Wilsonian imagery of "the great democratic crusade" (a rhetoric that had been improvised in 1917, in response to the Russian Revolution). Such ideals were crucial not only for the North American public but also for anti-fascist militants in the UK and for liberals, who loathed warfare—the experience of 1914-18 was still fresh—and who distrusted Churchill, especially for his evident pleasure in conflict. They were uplifted by the rallying cry that gave both a moral and political purpose to the war as it coupled the UK to its greatest possible ally. While Churchill saved Great Britain, preserved its institutions and brought its long colonial history to bear through his personification of its military strengths, he did so with a language that in fact opened the way for the Empire's dissolution. The peculiarity of this explains how Britain could shed—if often reluctantly and with numerous military actions—so many peoples and territories from its power after 1945 without undergoing an immediate convulsion, or any sort of outspoken political crisis commensurate with its collapse. Instead a long drawn-out anaemia and an extraordinary collective self-deception was set in train by Churchillism.

Perhaps the Falklands crisis will come to be seen as a final spasm to this process of masked decline. Many have seen it as a knee-jerk colonialist reaction. Foreigners especially interpret the expedition to 'liberate the Kelpers' as a parody of Palmerstonian gunboat diplomacy, out of place in the modern world. It may be out of place, but in British terms its impetus is modern rather than Victorian.

The stubborn, militaristic determination evinced by the Thatcher government, her instant creation of a 'War Cabinet' that met daily, was a simulacrum of Churchilliana. So too was the language Britain had used to defend its actions. Both rhetoric and policy were rooted in the formative moment of contemporary Britain, the time when its politics were reconstituted to preserve the country as it 'stood alone' in May 1940.(10) A majority of the population are today too young to remember the event, but most members of Parliament do. The mythical spirit of that anxious hour lives on as a well-spring in England's political psyche.

6.      The Incorporation of the Mass Media

There is one final aspect of Churchillism that needs to be mentioned: the relationship he forged with the media. He brought Beaverbrook into the Cabinet, attracted by the energy of the Canadian newspaper proprietor. He himself wrote in the popular press and took great care of his relations with the newspapers, in sharp contrast to Chamberlain who disdained such matters. Then, from 1940 onwards, Churchill's broadcasts rallied the nation: he skilfully crafted together images of individual heroism with the demand for general sacrifice. No subsequent politician in Britain has been able to forge such a bond between leader and populace.

The policies of the modern State are literally 'mediated' to the public via the political and geographical centralization of the national press. London dominates through its disproportionate size, its financial strength and the spider-web of rail and road of which it is the centre. Its daily press has long provided the morning papers for almost all of England, and they are taken by many in Scotland and Wales. A journalistic strike force has been developed, which strangely illuminates the way British political life is exposed to extra-national factors through its peculiar inheritance of capitalist aristocrats and overseas finance. Astor, an American, bought The Times in 1922; Thompson, a Canadian, acquired it in 1966; Rupert Murdoch, an Australian, took it over in 1981. But Astor, educated at Oxford, became anglicized and conserved the paper's character. The hegemonic organ of the nation may have been in the hands of a foreigner financially, but it was edited by Old England all the more because of it. Thompson pretended only to business rather than political influence, but he too made the transition across the Atlantic to become a Lord.

Thompson's son, however, shifted himself and the company back to North America, allowing a Catholic monetarist to lead the paper into the abyss of British labour relations and a year-long, futile closure. Now losing money heavily, The Times was sold to Murdoch, who already controlled the News of the World and the Sun. But he sojourns in New York rather than London. His papers endorsed the Falklands expedition with such a ludicrous enthusiasm that they managed to blemish vulgarity itself. But there remains a sense in which the relationship Churchill established with Beaverbrook came to be faintly echoed in Thatcher's reliance on Murdoch. The bombastic irrelevance of down-under helped Thatcher to storm the enfeebled ranks of gentry Conservatism, and gave her a major working-class daily—the Sun. Yet the Sun's very lack of seriousness was a signal that the militarism of the Falklands War was bursting out of the carapace of Churchillism. The cardinal world issues adjudicated by Britain in the past could hardly be applied to taking on Argentina over 1,800 people in 1982. UP YOUR JUNTA!, was one headline in the paper as it welcomed an initial British success. Was this the way to fight the scourge of fascism?

In 1940 Churchill was willing to do anything and everything for victory. Yet, as we have seen, the meaning of 'victory' became increasingly ambiguous in the course of the war. Churchill fought tooth and nail to defend the Empire, but in the end—to save British sovereignty itself—he formed, and was a prisoner of, a politics which accepted the liquidation of the Empire (except for a few residual outposts like the Falklands ...). The 'regeneration' was sufficiently radical to concede decolonialization and the emergence of new states, yet it was not radical enough to adapt the British State itself to its reduced stature. This, indeed, was its fatal success. Galvanized by total war, but, unlike continental Europe, spared the ultimate traumas of occupation and defeat, Britain survived the 1940s with its edifice intact. This fact has often been alluded to as a principal cause of the 'British disease'—the country's baffling postwar economic decline; moreover, it distinguished Churchillism from Gaullism.

The contrast is illuminating. Gaullism was born of defeat at the same moment as Churchillism (May 1940), and was also personified by a right-wing militaristic figure of equivalent self-regard and confidence. But in the long run Gaullism has inspired a far more successful national 'renewal' and adaptation to the increasingly competitive environment. Was this not partially due to the paradoxical fact that the fall of France, by reducing the Third Republic to rubble, ultimately provided a convenient building site for institutional modernization? In Britain, by contrast, the institutions held firm—like St Paul's defying the blitz—with corresponding penalties for this very durability. The most ingenious of Britain's defences against destructive change and forced modernization was the conserving collaboration between labour and capital. The relationship was the very core of Churchillism.

If Churchillism was born in May 1940, it had at least a twenty-year gestation. Keith Middlemas has shown that state, capital and labour sought to harmonize relations in a protean, tripartite affair after the crisis of the First World War. In his view, "crisis-avoidance" became the priority after 1916 and has dominated British politics ever since. A significant degree of collaboration was achieved between the wars, often covertly, sometimes called 'Mondism' (after the man who headed the cartel that became ICl). One of the key figures on the Labour side was Citrine who led the TUC; another was Bevin, whose direction of manpower was, as we have seen, the backbone of Labour's contribution to Churchillism. Thus wartime corporatism radically intensified and made explicit an already established relationship. In Middlemas's words, 1940 instituted a 'political contract' where previously there had been an unwritten economic one.(11)

It is not my purpose here to try and add further to the list of elements involved. In academic terms it can be said—and it is important to say—that the picture is incomplete. Yet even when the skeleton is fully delineated we might still miss the unifying tissues. For Churchillism was essentially the political flesh of national life: its skin, muscle tonality and arthritis. Churchillism combined the contradictions of capital and the workforce, as well as the desires for political freedom with those of imperial grandeur. Furthermore, it wedded these two distinct sets of opposites into a single enveloping universe of demagogy.

To help show that 'Churchillism' was not a momentary thing, born complete and fully armed from the jaws, of defeat in 1940, but was itself a historical process we can glance at the events of late 1942. Churchill's role was contested to some degree from both left and right after May 1940, in the House of Commons and outside, especially as military defeats continued. It was only in November 1942 that the protests against his leadership ebbed away. That month was in fact the turning point of the war in Europe. It saw the Red Army turn the scales at Stalingrad and begin the destruction of Hitler's forces. It was also the month that the Americans landed in North Africa. This opened a small second front as far away as possible from the main theatre, and signalled the arrival of the United States from across the Atlantic. The huge pincer movement that was to divide Europe between Moscow and Washington was underway, and it meant 'victory' for Britain as well.

Coincidentally, the Beveridge Report was published to massive acclaim at home. It held out the promise of full employment, a health service, adequate pensions and social benefits, at the end of the war. Not only was victory forthcoming, however hard the battles ahead, but the peace would be worth fighting for. Within two weeks of its publication in December 1942, a Gallup survey in the UK discovered that 19 out of 20 had heard of the Report and that 9 out of 10 thought that it should be accepted.(12)

Yet it was none of these things that ensured the supremacy of Churchill. The combination of American power and Beveridge could reassure the liberals, the coincidence of Stalingrad and the Report seemed to confirm hopes on the left. But what mattered most, pathetically so, was the victory at El Alamein. Finally, after months of bungling and defeats in Egypt and Libya, a huge concerted effort by the Empire swung the battle against Rommel, who was massively outgunned. In comparison with the Russian front, the adventures in the North African desert were a small sideshow (even then the British had at one point begun to evacuate Cairo). Yet for Churchill it was El Alamein that was the 'Hinge of Fate'. Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat", he suggested as his conclusion to the campaign.(13) In so far as 'we' meant the Allies, it was not only wrong (Midway had given the Americans control over the Pacific six months before); it was also fortuitous, as it preceded the far greater Russian breakthrough at Stalingrad by only a fortnight. But of course, the 'we' also meant the British, as if the entire course of the conflagration had been determined by the UK and its Empire. As the war was being won, it seemed that Churchill's Britain was winning the war; El Alamein secured his position at home politically. The battle also received disproportionate coverage in the UK, and has continued to do so across four decades of war books. The number of pages dedicated to North Africa has been an index of the desert war's ideological role in preserving British face, not its actual contribution to the world conflict. In this respect the current Falklands fanfare is its descendent.

The contrast in the aspirations represented by the conjuncture of El Alamein and the Beveridge Report was never reconciled by Churchill. His passion for Grand Imperial Strategy blinded him to the upsurge of hope amongst millions of his fellow countrymen, who longed simply for health and security. He took "strong exception" to the Report and refused to commit the Coalition to its implementation after the war, pointing out that the financial demands it might make could conflict with the costs of occupying enemy countries.(14) When a Commons' debate on the Report was finally held, the Cabinet's prevarication and crassness left it remarkably isolated. All Labour members (bar one) who were not actually in government jobs voted against the Coalition's social paralysis. This firmly associated the Labour Party with the prospects for a new future; one historian considers that its Commons' vote then was probably responsible for winning the 1945 election.(15) The debate over Beveridge also led to the formation of a Tory Reform Group that sought to reconcile the Conservatives to social change.

Which brings us to the party aspect of Churchillism and its legacy: the alternating two-party system, once heralded as proof of Britain's attachment to democracy and now under attack from the SDP as the cause of its decline. Not without reason, for each blames the other for the cocoon the two spun together after 1940. The reformers gained the ascendancy within the Conservative Party as Churchill remained aloof. The result was that despite his dominating national role, it was really Baldwin who was 'the architect of mid-century Conservatism' in attitude and spirit.(16) Yet Churchill's presence as leader of the opposition until 1951, and as Prime Minister again until 1955, prevented the overt expression of reformed Toryism from obtaining a positive, modern profile.

After his disastrous handling of the Beveridge Report, Churchill sensed the public swing away from him. In March 1943 he broadcast his own partial conversion to its principles and proposed a national coalition to continue into the postwar period. The Labour Party was unable to tolerate permanent institutionalization into a subordinate place, at least in such a naked form; it smacked too much of 1931. Rank-and-file militancy stiffened the resolve of the leaders to fight an election after the war. This opened the way for those merely sensible measures of nationalization undertaken by Labour after 1945 to be assailed as the most dreadful socialism by the Tory press. It has long been recognized that Labour's formative moment was not so much 1945 as 1940—Attlee was continuously in the Cabinet (first as Deputy Premier, then as Prime Minister) for over a decade. Labour, rather than the Tories, built the postwar consensus which was then utilized by the Conservatives.(17) To preserve this creative tension, with its invariable centrist bias, violent parliamentary attack was modulated with bipartisan understanding: Churchillism intensified and legitimized the operatics of pseudo-debate. And this was the price for so panoramic an incorporation.

Labour also inherited the full costs of Churchillism internationally. No sooner had Germany been defeated than the United States summarily severed Lend-Lease, making the abolition of the imperial preference system the precondition of any further financial aid. 'The American Loan' thus became the terrain of a major domestic and international battle over the financial and monetary autonomy of Labour reformism. With the installation of the coalition in May 1940, the old omnipotence of the Treasury over the national economy had been temporarily eclipsed—"in total war it was essential to plan resources first, leaving the financial side to be adjusted  accordingly".(18)   In 1945  stringent  American conditions helped clear the path for the restoration of the Treasury's authority. Moreover, the immediate financial crisis in war-exhausted Britain—fueled by the continuing foreign exchange shortage and gigantic debts to the dominions—was exacerbated by commitments to a high rate of military expenditure. One year later, for example, Britain still retained a garrison of 100,000 troops in both Egypt and Palestine. Despite Attlee's flirtation with a withdrawal from the Middle East, Bevin and the Chiefs of Staff persuaded him otherwise.(19) Soon the relative costs of Britain's military budget would become a major factor in the slippage of its economic power. Internalizing the Churchillian delusion of the country's destiny in the 'Grand Scheme', the Attlee government and subsequent Labour governments paid on the instalment plan the double costs of Churchillism: economic subordination to America and the projection of an independent world military role.

To sum up: Churchillism condemned to a slow death that which it saved from catastrophe. Its impulse was to preserve the Empire but Churchill was pragmatic enough to pay the costs of commitment to democracy—to 'self-determination' abroad and social reforms at home—that were anathema to the bedrock of his views. His militancy against Nazism made him welcome to the left, and Labour was crucial in putting him into office: it sustained the war effort that he spoke for. Thus Churchillism opened the way for the Labour victory in 1945, the creation of the welfare state, the legislated independence of India, and American domination. So too British socialism made its compromise with the capitalist nation under the benediction of Churchill's cigar and 'V sign, which in turn crippled the modernizing, radical impulse of the social democrats and liberals who provided the brain power of the Labour Party in office. At the same time, Labour's international independence was clipped by the Cold War, itself dramatically announced by Churchill's famous 'Iron Curtain' speech of March 1946, where, in front of Truman, he called for Anglo-American military co-operation to be formalized into an anti-Soviet alliance.

At this point it may be pertinent to return to the analogy with Gaullism. Churchillism, as I have tried to show, is not a coherent ideology. Rather, it is an ideological matrix within which contending classes are caught, none of them being the 'true' exemplar since each is in some way equally constitutive. (Michael Foot was probably flabbergasted and bitter when Margaret Thatcher donned Churchill's mantle.) Gaullism, on the other hand, developed as an ideologically specific class force. It combatted Communist domination of the resistance movement and was not structurally penetrated by, or indebted to, the organized working class. This allowed the Gaullists a far greater confidence in their exercise of state power. Dirigism and extensive nationalization were essential for the modernization of French capital, and under Gaullist colours the national could comfortably dominate over the social. In contrast, the legacy of Churchillism has been twofold: not only did it prevent the emergence of a nationally hegemonic Brandt/Schmidt type of social democracy, but it also blocked the Right from creating a dynamic party of national capital.

Andrew Gamble has distinguished three main schools of explanation for Britain's decline since 1945, and notes that there are Marxist as well as bourgeois variants of each. Respectively, these are: (1) the UK's over-extended international involvement and military expenditure; (2) archaic institutions of government including the party system; (3) the 'overloading' of the state by welfare expenditures, compounded by the entrenched position of the unions.(20) Each is partially true, but instead of arguing about which is the root cause of decline, we can note here that Churchillism fathered them all. Churchillism ensured that all parties were committed to a British military and financial role that was spun world wide; it conserved the Westminster system when it should have been transformed; it brought the unions into the system and initiated a welfare-state never efficiently dominated by social democracy. In short, Churchillism ensured the preservation of the Parliamentary Nation and thus Westminster's allegiance to a moment of world greatness that was actually the moment when the greatness ceased. Churchill's National Coalition ensured an astonishing recuperation, one that left the patient structurally disabled for the future and obsessed with magical resurrection from the dead.

For the footnotes, please see the Faber Finds edition of Iron Britannia

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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