GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT: How Tony Blair hijacked Churchill's legacy to launch a new age of war
United Kingdom

GEOFFREY WHEATCROFT: How Tony Blair hijacked Churchill's legacy to launch a new age of war

Dawn on that unforgettable winter's day saw a chilly, misty London at a standstill. Four thousand people an hour had filed past Winston Churchill's body as it lay in state at Westminster. 

Now, a week later, on January 30, 1965, a military tribute such as the nation had rarely seen was about to unfold, with millions worldwide watching on television.

'I want lots of soldiers and bands,' the great wartime leader had once said when looking ahead to his own funeral. And that is what he got.

Only two people outside the Royal Family – the Duke of Wellington and William Gladstone – had ever previously been granted state funerals. 'It wasn't a funeral,' his widow Clementine said at the end of the day. 'It was a triumph.'

From that moment, a legend was born: an extraordinary myth surrounding one single man which continues to affect our lives today. Books, films, TV series, statues, posters, murals and recordings ensure that memories of Churchill are never far away. Many people regard him as the greatest Briton ever.

When Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, nobody envisaged a new age of war. Neither he or the then US President, Bill Clinton, had any military experience or had shown any previous interest in foreign politics

Historian Andrew Roberts has noted that in his lifetime, Churchill had been determined to create his legacy as the man of the 20th Century and beyond.

When Churchill's grandson Sir Nicholas Soames was a little boy, he went into his grandfather's bedroom and asked: 'Grandpa, is it true that you're the greatest man alive?' Churchill replied: 'Yes. Now bugger off.'

But even Churchill himself, the politician, soldier and writer who inspired Britain in its darkest hour, could never have predicted just how far his influence would stretch. Nor, as I will explain, how dangerous his legacy would become.

His name and image have been endlessly hijacked in support of all manner of causes and events. Brexit, Remain, wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Ukip, multi- culturalism, even the battle against coronavirus have all seen his spirit invoked.

'Churchill would have approved,' is a familiar refrain. But rarely has the legend of Winston Churchill been more outrageously misappropriated than it was by Tony Blair.

When Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, nobody envisaged a new age of war. Neither he or the then US President, Bill Clinton, had any military experience or had shown any previous interest in foreign politics. But their rise to power had coincided with a renewed obsession in America with Churchill's war. It was a phenomenon easily explained.

As a means of recovering from the despondency and lack of national self-confidence in the 1980s that followed the humiliation of Vietnam, the idea of reliving the days of America's role in the Second World War was hugely appealing.

Hollywood took up the theme. Whereas the war movies of the 1970s and the 1980s had been about Vietnam (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now), Churchill's war was rediscovered. Heroic films and TV programmes could be made again, Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers being prime examples.

Harder to foresee was that, after such healing balm, the Americans might be ready for an actual war again. In Britain, too, Churchill mania was flourishing, with his name proving highly bankable.

A victory watch given to him at the close of the war fetched £485,000 at auction. Later, even his false teeth sold for £15,200.

Historian Andrew Roberts has noted that in his lifetime, Churchill had been determined to create his legacy as the man of the 20th Century and beyond

In November 1995, Clinton visited London and announced the building of the guided missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill, the first US warship to be named after anyone but an American.

It was in one of Churchill's other legacies that Tony Blair was to find his first true mission: Yugoslavia.

The country had been created by the Allies after the First World War and its boundaries redrawn after the Second World War, with Churchill closely involved in the decision-making. But by the 1990s, the country had disintegrated into a bloody civil conflict. A peace of sorts was imposed in 1995, but in 1998 fighting broke out again in Kosovo between the Albanian majority and the ruling Serbs. A year later, Clinton agreed to a bombing campaign against Serbia under the auspices of Nato.

When Nato was created with Churchill's approval in 1949, it was as a treaty of mutual defence 'in the North Atlantic region' when any member state was attacked.

In 1998, no one offered any explanation why Serbia might in any way have threatened a Nato member. Nor, two years later, how the mountains of Afghanistan were anything to do with Nato.

And yet many Americans now found a new Churchill.

While Clinton's bombing was under way, Blair gave a speech in Chicago which won him huge credit among US liberals.

'No one in the West who has seen what is happening in Kosovo can doubt that Nato's military action is justified,' he said. 'We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work.

'If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.'

An American cult of Blair blossomed. He was hailed 'the Prime Minister of the United States'. US columnist Dana Milbank declared that at last the US had 'a leader who is acting presidential' on the international stage, before adding ruefully: 'Unfortunately, this leader is Tony Blair.'

It remained only for English historian Timothy Garton Ash to add breathlessly: 'Not since Churchill has a British leader had such a magnetic resonance.'

Clinton caught up with Blair, and justified the bombing of Serbia by musing: 'What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?'

And yet, crucially, at no point in the 1930s had Churchill ever suggested or endorsed the idea of any sort of pre-emptive strike against Hitler. Nor was his supposed aversion to peaceful negotiation as clear-cut as the myth has persisted in suggesting. The evidence for this can be found in two highly significant, but largely forgotten, Churchill speeches.

The first was shortly after the declaration of war on Sunday, September 3, 1939.

The then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who would be unfairly vilified as the man who tried to pursue a policy of 'appeasement' with Hitler, had told the nation: 'You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to find peace has failed.'

Abridged extract from Churchill's Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, published by Bodley Head on August 19 at £25

Later that day, Churchill spoke simply but beautifully. 'In this solemn hour, it is a consolation to recall and to dwell upon our repeated efforts for peace,' he told the Commons.

'All have been ill-starred, but all have been faithful and sincere.

'This is of the highest moral value – and not only moral value, but practical value – at the present time, because the wholehearted concurrence of scores of millions of men and women… is the only foundation upon which the trial and tribulation of modern war can be endured and surmounted.

'Outside, the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales, but in our own hearts there is peace. Our hands may be active, but our consciences are at rest.'

In other words, by refraining as long as possible from taking up arms, and fighting a war of necessity rather than a war of choice, the British had, as he said, gained an incalculable moral advantage.

Just over a year later, and now Prime Minister himself, he paid a powerful and heartfelt tribute to Chamberlain, who had died only months after leaving office. It was one of Churchill's greatest and most moving speeches. 

'It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man,' he said.

'But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed… They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace.'

For all his well-documented opposition to appeasement and stirring battle cries, Churchill's complete repudiation of pre-emptive war could not have been clearer.

Tony Blair once revealed that he read in the Chequers library about the 1930s, and gradually came to think how weak and wrong the appeasers had been with their arguments for conciliation.

Once again, a misguided version of Churchillism was to shape policy with lamentable, practical consequences, as a happy warrior began to nurture visions of glory.

In 1940, Churchill had said he felt he was walking with destiny. Blair said he 'felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny… I could see it like… an artist suddenly appreciates his own creative genius.'

While Churchill spoke of a war 'against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime', Blair began to see himself as a new Churchill, with more monstrous tyrannies to fight.

He quickly found another outlet for his Churchillian zeal.

George W. Bush became US President in 2000 having emphasised the need for America to be 'humble' as it dealt with the larger world. 

But this proved highly misleading, since before long, he would wage international war with little sign of humility. And he would outdo all his predecessors in his addiction to Churchill.

His administration was filled with devoted Churchillians, who had long been advocating a war to destroy Saddam Hussein.

Less than eight months after Bush entered the White House, the US watched in horror as New York's World Trade Center exploded in flames in a cataclysmic terrorist attack. One ghostly figure seemed to emerge from the rubble.

It was Winston Churchill. Never had one name been invoked by so many. Until that day, New York's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, had been widely disliked. Suddenly, he found his moment of greatness.

'Who Knew Rudy Was Really Churchill?' one newspaper headline asked. Even Churchill's granddaughter, Edwina Sandys, chipped in: Giuliani was 'Churchill in a baseball cap.'

Blair joined in. He claimed that he had felt 'eerily calm' when he heard about September 11. Then, after a memorial service for British victims, at St Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue, the PM spoke from the steps: 'My father's generation knew what it was like. They went through the Blitz. There was one country and one people that stood side by side with us then. That country was America, and the people were the American people.'

This was untrue. Many people had 'stood side by side with us', from Commonwealth countries to the conquered and occupied countries of Europe. But not the Americans. Seemingly plausible at times, Blair was intellectually second-rate, and woefully ignorant of history. But even he might have been expected to know that the US was conspicuously neutral while Britain 'went through the Blitz' in 1940 and 1941.

Worse was to come. On his return home, Blair addressed the Labour Party in what he later called a 'visionary' speech – although what was truly significant about it was what he didn't say.

He had recently promised Bush that Britain would give full support for a campaign in Afghanistan, from where Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, had organised the New York massacre. But Bush had also told Blair: 'When we've dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq.'

Instead of revealing this to his party or to the British people, Blair spoke of 'the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they, too, are our cause. 

The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us'.

Visionary or delusional, the next day Blair was garlanded in the media. One newspaper rapturously saluted him with the headline 'Blair's Finest Hour'. This exaltation of Churchill as war approached was no accident.

The Bush administration skipped almost lightly from Afghanistan, where it might have had a plausible case for military action, to Iraq, where it had none, despite mendacious attempts to link Saddam with the September 11 attacks and to suggest a patently false analogy between those attacks and Pearl Harbor. (Whereas Japan had been a great military power, Al Qaeda was just a group of zealots.)

All the while, Bush quoted Churchill at every opportunity and Blair was convinced that, just as he occupied the war leader's former seat in the Commons, he could take over his role. When David Owen, a former Foreign Secretary, pleaded caution over Iraq, Blair told him: 'Saddam is Hitler. You are Chamberlain. I am Churchill.'

He was, in that case, a very inferior version. In the 1930s, Churchill had wilfully exaggerated the danger from the Luftwaffe, although he was not wrong about the threat that Hitler posed to peace and freedom.

Now Blair wilfully, and disgracefully, distorted evidence of Saddam's weaponry, and also falsely claimed that the Iraqi leader represented a 'serious and current' threat to British interests.

Even so, and after two utterly specious 'dossiers' were published by Downing Street, a poll in January 2003 found 30 per cent of British people in favour of war and 43 per cent against.

Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's Defence Secretary, was the oldest man ever to hold the office, and maybe the most Churchillian.

While explaining the need for a missile defence programme, Rumsfeld stated: 'Winston Churchill once said, 'I hope I shall never see the day when the forces of right are deprived of the right of force.' ' 

On the day after September 11, Rumsfeld told Pentagon staff: 'At the height of peril to his own nation, Winston Churchill spoke of their finest hour. Yesterday, America and the cause of human freedom came under attack.'

Asked if he would allow deliberate deception of the press in the course of military operations, the US Defence Secretary replied: 'This conjures up Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he said… sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.' That particular Churchillian line, too, had been wilfully abused.

Although speaking of wartime deception and disinformation – at which the British had excelled –Churchill meant deception of the enemy, a 'bodyguard of lies' once the war was being waged.

What Rumsfeld, Bush and Blair had engaged in, though, gave the concept fresh meaning: deception of their own people to persuade them to go to war in the first place.

In 2002, a decision was taken to invade Iraq, and Blair promised, come what may, British troops would take part in the invasion.

This was followed by a campaign of unprecedented mendacity waged by both Bush and Blair on behalf of a preventive war – the type that Churchill had repudiated many years before.

Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003. 'Now that the United States is again engaged in battle,' the American critic Edward Rothstein wrote, 'Churchill is again an inescapable presence.'

Amid all these specious invocations of the past, Blair was undone by personal and national vanity, seduced by the notion of Bush and himself as the new Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

On May 1, 2003, when Bush would have been better advised to echo Churchill's 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end', he unwisely pronounced: 'Mission accomplished.' Blair was no less hubristic.

Over his long life, Churchill made very many mistakes. His name is clouded by his dark prejudices – not least his contempt for Arabs and for Islam.

He might perhaps have supported a brutal assault on Saddam Hussein, but at least he wouldn't have been so foolish as to think that Iraq was ripe for turning into a constitutional democracy, or that it would then become friendly to the West.

In the lead-up to that war, Tony Blair had quoted a newspaper editorial published after Chamberlain's return from talks with Hitler and about the policy of appeasement.

He said the British people's great hopes back then had been disappointed and he concluded: 'Now, of course, should Hitler again appear in the same form, we would know what to do.'

But Hitler had not appeared again, in the same form or any other form.

© Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 2021

Abridged extract from Churchill's Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, published by Bodley Head on August 19 at £25. To pre-order a copy for £22.25, including free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before August 22.

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