Winston Churchill is on the new five pound notes.
Few people will disagree with this (or at least admit to disagreeing.) But if you ask them why Churchill is such a revered figure they usually won’t be able to offer much that stands up to scrutiny. ‘He was a great war leader.’ Why’s that then? ‘Those speeches he made.’
Rhetoric doesn’t win wars. If it did, the Germans would have won easily. The speeches weren’t all written by him. Some of the recordings weren’t even spoken by him. What is certain is that he is responsible for producing and protecting the myth that has surrounded him in our imaginations for the past seven decades. The ‘iconic’ photo which appears on the new fiver shows a pose; in real life he was a small, dumpy man with a rather benign, sleepy expression on his face, only an inch or two taller than the Queen’s mother, and she was tiny! Something to remember the next time you see that looming bronze giant in Parliament Square.
What’s objectionable here is that our minds are being made up for us, by people with an agenda. Since the war these people have been tinkering with the facts to present us with a cosy fiction rather than what really happened.
Churchill’s charge-sheet is always lengthening; political commentators dismiss him as a rank opportunist and contemptuous enemy of the working class, while military historians accuse him of ‘dispersalism’ and madcap ventures, extending the war by as much as a year.
But even if we ignore all this and simply accept (or deify) him as a sort of national grandad-teddy-bear, he leaves, I think, a graver legacy: it is the notion of ‘legacy’ itself.
Most Tories plan their lives as follows: school (you know the one,) PPE at Oxford, special advisor to a minister (friend of the family,) slither your way to the cabinet and wait for things to fall out just right, then into number ten.
All that’s left to think about…is the legacy.
Usually this involves leaving a pile of corpses in a land far, far away. Thankfully, most leaders in ‘democracies’ stop short of wearing military uniforms, although Thatcher went through a fantasy-tank-commander phase, and Bush couldn’t wait to think of himself as a ‘war president.’
Only one PM has left anything like a real legacy: the one we voted to replace Churchill in 1945. Let’s put him on the fivers. Or John Lennon. Van Morrison. Cilla Black.