Winston Churchill funeral anniversary - closet leftie, failure or our greatest leader?

Experts give their views on former Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the 50th anniversary of his state funeral

Prime Minister Winston Churchill visiting Liverpool in June 1945
Prime Minister Winston Churchill visiting Liverpool in June 1945

The state funeral of Winston Churchill 50 years ago today brought a memorable end to a spectacular career.

While his political life was pock marked with as many failures as successes, there is one thing people generally agree upon.

If Churchill hadn’t become Prime Minister in 1940, the Second World War would in all likelihood have been lost.

What has caused a bit of a debate this week in the run up to the anniversary is whether or not he would be electable today.

Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman appeared to conclude not in his documentary about the funeral, ‘A Nation’s Farewell’.

He was too much of a maverick, a rough diamond, too prone to go off message.

Interesting, political expert Dr Martin Farr of Newcastle University, outlined another reason why Churchill, a political pin up of Margaret Thatcher, wouldn’t quite make leader of today’s Tory party. He was too left wing.

The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill is carried down the steps of St Pauls Cathedral followed by his widow Lady Churchill, January 1965
The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill is carried down the steps of St Pauls Cathedral followed by his widow Lady Churchill, January 1965

Dr Farr said: “He was a Liberal - a Lloyd George Liberal who believed in state intervention.

“He was not a small state and low tax person. Churchill believed in the purpose of the state.

“Margaret Thatcher cited him because of his resolution, his steadfastness and his style of leadership. In policy terms to her, he was dripping wet.”

Churchill was born in 1874 into an aristocratic family. He served in the army and as a war correspondent before becoming a Tory MP in 1900, switching to the Liberal party in 1906 where he served under Herbert Asquith and then David Lloyd George in a number of Cabinet posts.

In the 1920s he returned to the Tory party, resuming his seat in Parliament in 1924.

Peter Atkinson, former Tory MP for Hexham said this constant switching would not be stood for today.

“He started life as a Conservative then became a Liberal. He was very unpopular as a consequence with his fellow Tories. I can’t imagine with that sort of record he was likely to be trusted.

“The great thing about him was he was the right man at the right time, that was what was so special about him.”

Winston Churchill's state funeral in January 1965
Winston Churchill's state funeral in January 1965

Mr Atkinson added: “He was a maverick, a tremendous risk taker - some risks ended disastrously, like Gallipoli.”

More about Gallipoli later but today, speaking your own mind and going ‘off message’ is a political no-no, particularly in the 24/7 world of news.

So it is perhaps unfair to be too judgemental of modern day politicians as the environment they operate in is so different to that of Churchill’s time.

Dr Farr, with reluctance, admitted that perhaps the politician nearest to Churchill today was London Mayor Boris Johnson.

“But he has never held serious office in Government. Churchill had been through about 15 Cabinet posts before he became Prime Minister.”

Surprisingly, Dr Farr added that there were more parallels between current Prime Minister David Cameron and Churchill.

“They have similar backgrounds. Attitude-wise they’re both reactive - they know what they are against rather than what they’re for.

“Cameron is at his best when he has been backed into a corner, when he’s thinking on his feet, like Churchill. And like Churchill, his attention to detail isn’t good, both let things drift.”

The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill on board the Havengore with the Grenadier Guards bearer party standing to attention - 30/01/65
The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill on board the Havengore with the Grenadier Guards bearer party standing to attention - 30/01/65

While Dr Farr said Churchill was more left wing than Mrs Thatcher, he added: “He was no friend of Labour.”

Or the unions. In 1910 and 1919 as Home Secretary Churchill was held responsible for sending in the troops to break up strikes in Wales and Scotland.

And his overall record was blighted by failures notably in 1915 when as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was a prime mover behind the Gallipoli campaign, aimed at landing troops on the shores of the Dardanelles strait prior to capturing Istanbul and forcing route through the Black Sea to Russia. In nine months of fighting the Allies sustained 140,000 casualties and the ensuing defeat damaged Churchill’s political career.

Then in 1925 when Churchill was Tory Chancellor his Budget became infamous for returning Britain to the gold standard. The resulting higher exchange rate, many believe, made British industry uncompetitive and prolonged the slump.

Even during the Second World War his policies weren’t without their failings.

In the spring of 1940, with Churchill back as First Lord prior to becoming Prime Minister, he was responsible for the disastrous invasion of Norway.

Intended to prevent the country from being occupied by Nazi Germany, the operation’s failure saw a German invasion and led to the downfall of prime minister Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor in Downing Street.

The flag-draped coffin of Sir Winston Churchill leaving St Paul's Cathedral, London on 30/01/65
The flag-draped coffin of Sir Winston Churchill leaving St Paul's Cathedral, London on 30/01/65

Then at the Yalta conference in 1945, Churchill gave in to Stalin’s demand for control over eastern Europe in return for a guarantee that Greece would not fall into the Soviet sphere of influence. This, critics say, effectively sealed the fate of countries including Poland, Hungary and Romania, which only regained their independence in the late 80s and early 90s

Dr Gidon Cohen, senior lecturer in politics at Durham University, said: “He was a disaster as a political leader.”

An example he gave was in the run up to the 1945 general election which many thought Churchill was a shoo-in to win.

Dr Cohen said: “He made a speech at the start of the campaign warning that the introduction of Socialism into Britain would require some sort of Gestapo. That lost the Tories support.”

And he added that Paxman’s comments that he was unelectable today echoed comments made of his back in the 1930s.

“A lot of people would have said he was unelectable then. He was instinctively a troublemaker. He every nearly didn’t serve. Circumstances were the obvious key. “

Circumstances were that Britain needed a war time leader. Churchill in effect became a “dictator” with his control of Parliament and the army.

PA Wire The gun carriage carrying the coffin of Sir Winston Churchill through Trafalgar Square, London
The gun carriage carrying the coffin of Sir Winston Churchill through Trafalgar Square, London

It is ironic perhaps that Churchill believed in the post war consensus which revolved around the use of an extensive public policy in a mixed economy, something Mrs Thatcher smashed.

So, was Churchill our greatest leader? Dr Cohen said: “In terms of people who are remembered, I don’t think there is anyone else.”

Achievements-wise, he said it was Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of the Labour party which beat Churchill after the Second World War.

It was responsible for the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State.

Dr Cohen said: “Attlee was the antithesis of Churchill. He had very little personality and operated in a different way.”

Churchill, famously, summed up Attlee as “A modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about”.

However it was reported he later regretted the comment as he respected Attlee’s service in the War Cabinet.

Other contenders as great leaders to some include Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher.

PA Wire The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill leaving St Paul's Cathedral, London
The coffin of Sir Winston Churchill leaving St Paul's Cathedral, London

While Blair was good at winning elections, his image was irreparably damaged by the Second Gulf War.

Mrs Thatcher is seen as too divisive - a figure whose domestic policies have backfired on the country.

As a result, unlike her great hero and despite a campaign, she had a ceremonial and not a state funeral.

Churchill died on January 24, 1965 and his body lay in state for three days in the Palace of Westminster.

His state funeral was held on January 30 at St Paul’s Cathedral. Famously, as his coffin passed down the Thames, dockers lowered their crane jibs in a salute.

While many who saw the gesture were moved thinking it showed even the ‘common man’ respected him, it now transpired that the dockers salute was not so much inspired by warm feelings to Churchill, but cold hard cash.

Paxman’s documentary included an interview with docker John Lynch who revealed: “They were paid to do it – they didn’t work Saturday afternoons.”

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