Remembering Churchill: fifty years on his opinions still matter

ChurchillVsign
Churchill giving his famous ‘V’ sign public domain via Wikimedia Commons

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death and funeral of Winston Churchill, Cambridge history fellow and Churchill author Dr Warren Dockter, analyses the complex legacy of the wartime leader who is believed by many to be the ‘lion who roared when the British Empire needed him most’.

Winston Churchill is one of the most important and iconic leaders of the 20th Century. His legacy looms large in the British national psyche and commands reverence from all quarters of the globe. The 30th of January marks the 50th anniversary of his state funeral and offers the world a chance to commemorate his memory and celebrate his life. This has already begun at ChurchillCentral.com  which acts as a hub that brings together numerous Churchill-related organisations for the year-long celebration which has been entitled, Churchill 2015.

Certainly, 2015 will also feature much debate on Churchill’s memory. Though Churchill undoubtedly resonates more with the Right than the Left, political ideologies will compete to claim his achievements. The Right will celebrate Churchill’s devotion to Britain, free trade, and tradition, while the Left will venerate his championing of social reform during the early 1900s and his inclusive approach to the formation of his wartime government. Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, Churchill’s failures (such as the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaign) and his more archaic views (such as his support for eugenics and his ill-fated crusade to keep India firmly in the grasp of the British Empire) will also bear some reflection.

Major historical figures often have positive and negative effects which reverberate in history. In Churchill’s case, these effects can at times appear paradoxical. Some of the contradictions in Churchill’s legacy, like his absolute belief in liberty and his steadfast imperialism, might be explained by his long career of public service. He had a Parliamentary career for the better part of a century. His deeply rooted belief in the virtues of imperialism (which is perhaps unsurprising for a man born while Victoria was on the throne) became anachronistic in the context of the post war world. Of course, this mirrors the legacy of British imperialism which is inexorably linked to Churchill’s legacy.

For good or for ill, we continue to grapple with this legacy; finding new applications for it in the 21st century. Churchill’s name has been invoked more than once during our struggles with radical Islamists and in the face of increasingly aggressive Russian foreign policy. ‘What would Churchill do’ or ‘think’ is often asked of historians and politicians. Fifty years after his death, his opinion still matters and that is no small thing.

So as we remember Winston Churchill in this anniversary year, we should also remember that his legacy is a complex one. It should not be approached with rose-tinted nor with jaded glasses. In summary, Churchill’s memory requires more historical analysis to be fully appreciated. That way history can determine if people will say, as Eisenhower said 50 years ago, ‘Here was a champion of freedom.’

Dr Warren Dockter is author of the forthcoming monograph Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and gained his PhD at the University of Nottingham in July 2012. He has taught at the Universities of Exeter and Worcester and was an Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge. He is now a Research Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge. His research interest lies in British imperialism in the Middle East during the late 19th and 20th century.

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