The Churchill Myths
By Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye Oxford University Press, 224pp, £20/$25.95
This is not a book about Winston Churchill, insist its co-authors Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye. The three, all professors of history, introduce us instead to “mythic Churchill”. They finished their work as the Covid-19 virus struck; readers may conclude that historic myths share much in common with the virus. Nobody is sure where either comes from, how it spreads or whether it ever goes away.
The professors are to be congratulated on the first documented research into “mythic Churchill”. The result suggests the myth might more aptly be named “May 1940”, because it is the events of that month that they identify as its first breeding ground. The myth is also manifested in the form of “English exceptionalism”, which transformed after the end of the war in 1945 from an achievement of the people onto the shoulders of Churchill as iconic war leader. A further wave followed Churchill’s state funeral in 1965. Then the myth waxed and waned for a generation while Britain experimented with membership of the European Union.
A more recent wave of exceptionalism, early in the 21st century, required a referendum in June 2016 to test the entire adult population. It turned out that well over half of adult Englishmen were infected at the time, though the proportion of Scots was noticeably smaller.
The professors disclaim any inclination to judge whether “mythic Churchill” has proved healthy for the British politic, but their answer would clearly be “no”. Their analysis of a recent manifestation of the myth, in the London Underground scene of the 2018 film Darkest Hour, is entertaining but almost contemptuous. Temporarily uncertain whether to fight on or not, this Churchill conveniently slips the leash of his pusillanimous establishment advisers before finding himself travelling between St James’s Park station and Westminster. In that short journey, he is magically able to consult his fellow travellers. They are all for fighting on. The die is cast. The people overcome the establishment. (Even better, a black passenger finishes Churchill’s recital of a poem by Lord Macaulay. He earns an affectionate pat on the arm, thus – the professors note – neatly sanitising any ethnic jeopardy that might otherwise attach to the myth.)
Each author takes on a different habitat of the myth. I would have reversed their order and opened with Steven Fielding’s accomplished account of how “mythic Churchill” has fared in each art form – film and television, art and sculpture, history and literature – over the past 70 years. (It is interesting that the BBC forbade the broadcasting of any representation of contemporary politicians during the Cold War, lest the result undermine democracy.)
Toye takes on the political world’s treatment of “mythic Churchill”. He has previous form in tweaking the tail of Churchill loyalists, but he is bravely balanced here. He gives a valuable account of how the myth spread to the American body politic, accelerating after 1963 when JFK awarded Churchill honorary citizenship of the United States. Among subsequent presidents, only Bill Clinton can claim full immunity. Even LBJ succumbed in order to pray “the icon of toughness” in aid of the Vietnam war.
These two accounts of how the myth worked its way through the political and cultural worlds would prepare us more thoroughly to absorb the chapter by Bill Schwarz, which he calls “Brexit May 1940”. It is comfortably the most compelling section of the book, if sometimes dense. Schwarz defines historical myths such as English exceptionalism at one point as “a vernacular form of collective historical consciousness”; in a world whose attention span is short, it can be seen as a form of shorthand through which politicians fight their campaigns.
Schwarz explains how leaders shape the myth to their own ends by the use of rhetoric. He credits Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher historian, with first recognising Churchill’s genius at creating “a voice able to convey the urgent imperatives of a human life”. The author finishes by dissecting the words of a more recent Churchill admirer. In the eyes of (you guessed it) Boris Johnson, Churchill uses his command of rhetoric first to “capture the imagination of the masses”, then to bind them to his leadership and finally to change the course of history. What a shame for Johnson that the virus appears impervious to rhetoric.
David Lough is the author of No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money