Who remembers Winston Churchill?
Born in 1874, the son of a Chancellor of the Exchequer contemporary with Gladstone and Disraeli, he made his name as a journalist covering the Boer War, became an MP at 26, President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the scapegoat of the catastrophe at Gallipoli in 1915. He was rehabilitated in his father Lord Randolph’s old post in 1924, but by 1930 – with the Conservatives in Opposition – he was in the wilderness.
There he might well have stayed. On 13 December 1931 when visiting New York, he looked right rather than left crossing Fifth Avenue and was hit by a cab. He nearly died. His autobiographical My Early Life (1929) would have been his epitaph. What a farewell it would have made to one of the nearly men of the twentieth century!
My youth was the age characterized by the ‘management of decline’, of the Suez fiasco, the collapse of Empire and – most dreaded of all on the early evening news – the Balance of Payments Deficit. The precise meaning of those words eluded me but their implications were transparent. Great Britain was on the wane, en route – had I but known it – to Little Britain.
Churchill, whose story I learned from a BBC TV series, The Valiant Years, the imagery of which I can still remember from fifty years ago, was manna. Here was a British hero (by adoption if not wholly by birth), a giant on whose shoulders I might stand, an antidote to Dean Acheson’s crushing comment: ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.’ Churchill was a man to
worship, a reminder of our finest hour, a standard around which my nascent identity could coalesce.
My Early Life, which I devoured at this time, tells how he became a politician. It describes his days at Harrow and Sandhurst, as a young cavalry officer in the 4th Hussars in the heyday of Empire, how he made his name as
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