Which political qualities enabled Churchill his ‘success’ as wartime Prime
Being hailed by many as ‘the greatest living Englishman’1, Churchill played probably the most decisive role in Britain’s 20th century politics.
Churchill’s unconditional love for the British Empire combined with his determination for expanding and defending it were his overall motivation for an active political life that spanned a period of more than half a century. His career embodied a diverse array of events but peaked in his appointment as Prime Minister (PM) in Britain’s ‘blackest’ hour. Leading a country in wartime is undeniably one of the most difficult exercises of power and to secure victory, thus demands consummate political skills from its leaders. Winston Churchill did possess extraordinary abilities and utilized them pragmatically at one of the most crucial times of British history. This essay looks at Churchill’s personal and political qualities which not only helped to circumvent a permanent establishment of a Nazicontrolled Europe but also secured his position as PM.
An essential contribution to Churchill’s ‘success’ as a war leader was his unflagging commitment. According to Callahan, Churchill believed himself to be a man of destiny, who saw all his past life as a preparation for becoming PM one day, a vision he had repeatedly imposed on strangers.2This vision and its final implementation generated his incredible force and conviction in wielding power during the war. Despite the clear fact that the British army’s leadership, equipment, training and techniques were insufficient to defeat Hitler Germany, he never lost faith in the war’s final outcome.3Churchill showed his fierce determination by sustaining a ninety-hour week during his whole premiership. Even a heart attack and a bout of pneumonia in his late sixties could not dissuade him from running the office.4However, it was not only his unbreakable commitment that built up his popular constituency within the common citizenry but also his ability to relate to common people. Developing his own trademarks - the two-finger ‘V’ sign, the ever-present cigar- he toured embattled cities and soon became ‘Good old Winnie’5.6This popularity was reflected through rather uncommonly high ratings, such as the Gallup Poll in October 1940 immediately after the battle of Britain, which gave a popular approval rating of 89% for Churchill.7
The high level of these ratings can also be attributed to Churchill’s rhetorical skills, which Brendan and Callahan consider his primary strength as war leader.8As described by Attlee, it was Churchill’s ‘principal weapon in [his] arsenal’9. His year-long experience as public speaker proved to be worthwhile, within the ranges of parliament but in particular for the common citizenry. Brendon notes that the galvanizing effect of Churchill’s oratory on the nation was unique among British leaders.10The nation in war longing for hope of final victory was convinced by Churchill’s ‘blood and thunder rhetoric […] [that] was perfectly pitched for popular appeal during war’11. His brilliant and stirring speeches succeeded in radiating confidence, even in the darkest hours of the war. The sudden defeat of France in 1940 is undeniably one of those darkest hours. Having lost an ally and losing its own battle, Britain had to face the threat of the Third Reich alone. Churchill then delivered his most famous speech and transformed the dramatic moment into Britain’s ‘finest hour’. He emphasized what the decisive battle would be fought for - the sake of Christian civilization, the British way of life, and the continuity of the empire. The following quotation once again provided the moral justification for fighting this battle:
“If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the world […] sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age”.12
The powerful imagery of this brilliant speech underlined the need for national unity in order to fulfil the nation’s duties. Doing so in a time when the prospect of victory is the lowest would define Britain’s ‘finest hour’.
Therefore, with the facts established above, it is fair to say that Churchill’s character, rhetoric and actions “lifted [the British people] to abnormal heights in their nation’s supreme cri sis…dramatizing their lives and making them seem to themselves and to each other as acting appropriately for a great historic moment”13.
In looking at the strenuous effort Churchill put into building up a popular constituency in the nation, the question arises for his motive to do so. Churchill was well aware of the importance of public support for the government and holding a strengthened position as wartime PM. To fully understand the need of popular support, it is important to remember that Churchill being second quality for the position of the PM had a rocky start in the government; distrust and detest were widespread within his own party14. In addition,
Churchill’s position was much more vulnerable than that of the other major figures of the war. In case of any discontent with his way of conducting the war, members of parliament had the power to vote him out of office.15
From the beginning of Churchill’s premiership some politicians, among them Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, favoured negotiated peace with Germany, whereas Churchill refused to consider an armistice.16These parliamentary disagreements posed a severe threat to his position as PM. However, a removal of Churchill emerged to be more difficult than expected since he had cunningly won trust, respect and affection of the British people. David Day, Professor of Australian Studies at the University of Tokyo, states that his position was particularly threatened and weakened, when during 1940-1942 serious military crises led to political disruptions. Nonetheless, his popularity, which was again and again confirmed in the approval ratings, was the ‘trump card’ against potent rivals to his position and he knew well about it. ‘Despite having ‘many enemies in the Tory party,…I know I have the people and I don’t much care about anything else’’17, Churchill declared once to Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King.
However, Churchill was to find that he could not only rely solely on his popularity with the British people in order to secure his position as PM. Skilful use of patronage and deft footwork can also be regarded as political weapons of Churchill’s armoury because they kept Churchill from being out-manoeuvred by opponents. In other words, his most potent rivals for his prime ministership, Halifax and successive Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, were integrated into Churchill’s government, where they were expected to serve him loyally.
Although Halifax strongly favoured peace negotiations, he was kept as Foreign Secretary, and thus was unable to create public opposition. In the end, he suffered the same fate as Menzie and was sent into exile, and thereby he could no further hamper the Churchillian strategy of running the war.
After the fall of Singapore in February 1942 Churchill’s leadership was seriously questioned by parliament as well as the public. As Halifax’s successor, Eden had become discontent with Churchill, whom he described as ‘nuisance’18. Eden, longing for political promotion and considering himself as a possible alternative for the PM position, finally fell prey to Churchill’s skilful use of patronage, too. Brendan Bracken, a close ally of Churchill, displayed the image to Eden that Churchill’s health was rapidly worsening.
1Paul Addison, ‘Churchill’s Three Careers’, in David Cannadine and Roland Quinault (eds.), Winston Churchill in the Twenty-First Century, London, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 9
2Raymond A. Callahan, Churchill: Retreat from Empire, Wilmington, Delaware, Scholarly Resources Inc., 1984, p. 70; Keith Robbins, Churchill, London, New York, Longman, 1992, p. 120
3Callahan, Churchill: Retreat from Empire, p. 150
4Robbins, Churchill, p. 127
5Robbins, Churchill, p. 126
6David Day, ‘Churchill and his war rivals’, History Today, vol. 41, 1991, p. 21
7Richard Lamb, Churchill as war leader: right or wrong?, London, Bloomsbury, 1991, p. 74
8Piers Brendon, Winston Churchill: a brief life, London, Secker & Warburg, 1984, p. 144; Callahan, Retreat from Empire, p. 150
9Piers Brendon, Winston Churchill, p. 153
10Piers Brendon, Winston Churchill, p. 144
11David Day, ‘Churchill and his war rivals’, p. 21
12The Churchill Centre, ‘Their finest hour’, Speeches & Quotations, <http://www.winstonchurchill.org /i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=418> (accessed 22 July 2008).
13David Jablonsky, Churchill, the Great Game and Total War, Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge, pp. 122-23
14Bernd Martin, ‘Churchill and Hitler, 1940: Peace or War?’, in RAC Parker (ed.) Winston Churchill: studies in statesmanship, London, Washington, Brassey’s, 1995, p. 92
15Robbins, Churchill, p. 120
16Martin, ‘Churchill and Hitler’, p. 92
17Day, ‘Churchill and his war rivals’, p. 18
18Day, ‘Churchill and his war rivals’, p. 18
- Quote paper
- Kathrin Rosenbaum (Author), 2008, Which political qualities enabled Churchill's 'success' as wartime Prime Minister?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/311072