Saturday, 19 February 2011

Amongst the Gods

Alexander Cockburn does a wonderful demolition job on the Reagan cult, reminding us, or at least those who had foolishly forgotten, just how bad he was: nasty and incompetent, with a natural stupidity that slid smoothly into the onset of earlier dementia.  He was the perfect figurehead, allowing the executive to carry quietly on in its own efficient way.  The trick was repeated twenty years later with more or less the same crew behind a different talking head; George W. Bush wasting acreages of newspaper space as journalists debated his laziness and lack of attention; as if those matter, in the slightest.

Britain is not immune from this insanity.

…the saviour of his country, a mythical hero who belongs to legend as much as to real life, the largest human being of our time.

In an uneven collection of essays[i] Isaiah Berlin looks to resurrect the reputation of Churchill, both as a politician and a writer.  Sounds odd doesn’t it?  Resurrect the man who single-handedly defeated the Nazis?  Surely there was no need for this; after all, here was Britain’s greatest man...

The Prime Minister was able to impose his imagination and his will upon his countrymen, and enjoy a Periclean reign, precisely because he appeared to them larger and nobler than life and lifted them to an abnormal height in a moment of crisis.  It was a climate in which men do not usually like – or ought not to like – living; it demands a violent tension which, if it lasts, destroys all sense of normal perspective, overdramatises personal relationships, and falsies normal values to an intolerable extent.  But, in the event, it did turn a large number of inhabitants of the British Isles out of their normal selves and, by dramatising their lives and making them seem to themselves and to each other clad in the fabulous garments appropriate to a great historic moment, transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armour.

…it was Churchill’s unique and unforgettable achievement that he created this necessary illusion within the framework of a free system without destroying or even twisting it…

It seems to me that Berlin conflates the nature of the times with the personality of its leading politician.   So that as he looks out across London, the massed crowds below him, the imposing bulk of Churchill glides in between himself and the window…

Reading Berlin, the patron saint of present day liberalism, a political creed that is quite different from its origins in the 17th century, and even more so than its heyday in the 1960’s, I see a world insulated behind thick walls and triple glazing; where powerful men, there are few women in his pages, plot and plan the country’s destiny; their actions free from the pressures of the world outside – economic and social forces do not count; only the moves of those other great rulers, Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler.  Something similar happens with ideas, where in Oxford, and the country houses that surround it, clever young graduates play with them as if they were strange toys or crossword puzzles.  It is a world where ideas appear to have no reality beyond themselves, or any relation to the wider society.  J.L. Austin and the Oxford linguistic school, to which Berlin was closely connected, perfected this art, turning philosophy into a trivial parlour game; an approach that reflected the culture of a university which had become a finishing school for the upper classes.[ii]  It is a terrible irony, for an intellectual pursuit so rarefied, and so arrogant in its mandarin detachment; caught well in this book – for a time they believed that in philosophy they were the only ones who mattered. 

We watch them in the park laughing at the balloons, their bright colours and cartoon faces; laughing as they argue with each other about why they don’t fly away… so intent are these fine young men on the balloons they do not notice the strings that attach them to the ground.

These are great men.  We cannot touch them.  They are too big for us.  Indeed, we submit, and are shaped in their likeness.   In London in 1940 there were thousands of Churchills walking the streets; while in the evenings you couldn’t hear the radio for the homespun Homeric speeches…  In his essay on Chaim Weizmann Berlin writes that Israel is “constructed, whether or not it knows it, in his image”.  This is embarrassing, a terribly sentimental comment, which is based on no knowledge of the history; it is the desire to acquaint a country with the qualities of a moral man, at least moral for a politician, but there is no respect for the empirical reality.  They are the views of someone who lives inside a sealed room, with no doors or windows, and spends all his time playing with words and concepts.  It is the world of the academic, and the establishment insider.[iii]  

My relatives agree with Berlin: the Second World War was the great time of their lives.  Although in all the stories they told I never once heard Churchill’s name.  He had, if truth be told, little effect upon them.  He was a distant figure, who was doing a good job, they no doubt believed; but his personality had little impact on their thoughts or feelings.   Living in London, sleeping in the underground, and returning home the next morning not sure if their house would still be there; hearing the doodlebugs; or in Wales living close to a temporary barracks with strange soldiers, and rumours of Americans, these are the events that stimulate excitement and interest; and what people remember.  Daily life is what counts, for most people, not the words of politicians.  Churchill’s radio broadcasts, his strange persona, with its quirks and eccentricities, all helped endear him to the population, it gave them confidence that the government was going to fight.   But this is very different to attributing the spirit of the times to this singular man.  It is the romanticism of elite intellectuals, who do listen to the words, and take them far too seriously; and inhabiting the same establishment circles meet these characters, who impress them mightily.  It is the insider, the backroom boy of Whitehall, who has confused his own personal impressions, he was so close he could smell the cigars and brandy, with that of the rest of the country.  Sunbathing in the warmth of his leader’s personality, he believes everyone else has got a tan too.

We forget that Churchill was never liked that much; certainly not by the political establishment, while the majority of the population were ambivalent – large support during the war, with little either later or before it. 

In 1915, as First Lord of  the Admiralty, he had borne personal responsibility for the disastrous Dardanelles expedition, which had confirmed his reputation for rash aggression.  In 1919, as Secretary of State for War, he had been the chief advocate of British intervention to quell the Russian Revolution…  At the Treasury, he had been responsible for Britain’s foolish return to the Gold Standard in 1925…  Many… still remembered his role in the General Strike of 1926.  With the trade unions solid in support of the coal-miners, Churchill had pursued deliberately provocative tactics and had emerged as the strikers’ most bitter enemy.  (Angus Calder, The People’s War)

Kenneth O. Morgan comments on Churchill’s decision to send troops to South Wales in 1910 during a hard and violent strike in the collieries:

Churchill was unpopular in the Welsh valleys for decades to come, even as late as the general election of 1951…  Since Churchill’s reaction, when challenged in the House in 1910, was to congratulate police and troops for maintaining law and order, while a ‘savage war’ was going on in the Rhondda, and to refuse any further inquiry, he and his defenders could not complain.  (Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980)

Churchill was a thug.  He also had terrible political and military judgement.  And he loved power, for his class and his country.  After the war he invaded Greece to defeat the resistance, and was keen to rollback nationalist risings elsewhere.  All in the name of anti-Communism, of course, but really to maintain the British Empire; his most abiding passion.

The years fade away, and sun sets its rosy glow over the steep valleys and mountain crags of a political life.  The warmonger and hothead is turned a leader of almost godly powers – the greatest man of the last hundred years.  We see this in Simon Schama ‘s otherwise good popular history of Britain: the last volume is more a biography of Churchill than a narrative of the first half of the 20th century.  And we see the tributes everywhere: on the TV, in newspapers columns, and filling up the shelves in our national bookshop.   Berlin is at the beginning of this trend, and therefore is reasonably restrained.  He notes that Churchill was an imperialist, obsessed by the past, which he wanted to protect.  Although in his mellifluous prose it all sounds so benign; a civilised, liberal society and its ramshackle empire….

Churchill is one of the diminishing number of those who genuinely believe in a specific world order: the desire to give it life and strength is the most powerful single influence upon everything which he thinks and imagines, does and is. 

You can almost see the tears in the writer’s eyes as he strains to see his hero high up on Olympus, ordering the world on the best classical lines.  It is so uplifting.  We forget Greece was a slave state, where most of the people didn’t count for much.  Britain’s empire was no welfare state:

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. …  I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. …  It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses; gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.  (Churchill quoted in Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy)

He was a liberal thug; he preferred terror to outright killing, wherever possible.  It is this sort of liberalism that appeals today, as Britain helps America protect her imperial power.  This may explain Churchill’s popularity; his canonisation by the new liberals, who want to kill people in the name of humanitarian intervention.  These liberals are no longer tied to a political party or a political tradition, but tend to be free floating intellectuals (or not even that, often just bureaucrats) that work for private institutes and think tanks; or moonlight from their university fellowships.  Like Berlin, they inhabit a world disconnected both from the facts on the ground and the people who live there; who cease to exist as real presences.  For if you live on top of a skyscraper you won’t see the pedestrians below; they become abstractions, and it doesn’t matter if they live or die, providing the theories are fulfilled – democracy in the Iraq, free markets in the Soviet Union, or multiculturalism in Bosnia…  Meanwhile, as they turn their faces away from the cruelty they have encouraged, the hard men revel in their power and wealth.

Churchill was an instinctive authoritarian, and for a few years he was the perfect leader for a country at war.  We needed someone tough and ruthless to save from us from the evil insanity on the other side of the channel.  Though it would be a mistake to think that Churchill won the war.  It was the Russian people who did that.  And it seems the British electorate knew this, for the first chance they had, after the war was won, was to remove him in a landslide general election.  They had a feel for democracy that their rulers so sadly lacked.

[i] The original piece written in 1949 appears in Personal Impressions.  The book has some brilliant essays on L.B. Namier and the Russian writers he knew – including Pasternak and Akhmatova -; but others are quite poor: too many are too similar, with too many respectful eulogies of departed friends who are always clever, rational, and liberal. 
[ii] See Ernest Gellner’s devastating attack: Words and Things
[iii] Gellner seems to have held a similar opinion.  There is a discussion in John A. Hall’s recent biography.

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