Jeremy Havardi is a teacher, journalist and broadcaster. He is also the author of The Greatest Briton: Essays on Winston Churchill’s Life and Political Philosophy, which you can buy now. In a wide-ranging interview we discussed Churchill’s life, his influence, plus his attitude to Zionism and Israel among many other topics.
Here is part one of the interview…
What inspired you to write this book on Churchill?
I have long been interested in British political history, especially this nation’s prime ministers. But my passion for Churchill was really ignited by my study of British war films from the 1940s and 1950s. Some of those war classics centred on Britain’s Finest Hour and some were inspired by Churchill’s iconic war speeches. After watching many of them, I decided to examine Churchill’s own contribution to the war in more detail and later his remarkable life in its entirety.
What is so different about this Churchill book?
It is a collection of analytical essays on Churchill’s life and political philosophy rather than a biography. Very few such books have ever been written and this one directly tackles the many controversies in his public career. It is the kind of book that people can just dip into for a few minutes a day rather than reading in one go.
Do you really believe that Churchill was ‘The Greatest Briton?’
Yes, equal with Shakespeare whose genius for understanding human nature is unparalleled. As Britons, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to both.
Do you feel that Churchill’s career has a lot to teach today’s leaders?
I do. One of the reasons I wrote this book was to point out that Churchill had tackled many of the issues with which today’s generation of leaders are still grappling. These include a host of domestic questions concerning tax, trade unions, the welfare state, unemployment, crime and punishment and the democratic process generally. Over a period of 60 years, Churchill also tried to resolve conflicts in places as far apart as South Africa, Iraq, Greece, Ireland and Israel. Many of these problems persist today, making a study of Churchill’s statesmanship immensely valuable.
The last US administration cited Churchill after the 9/11 attacks. Do you think this was fair?
I do. Churchill has long been a source of inspiration to the American people, largely because of his vigourous stand against communism in the post war years. But after 9/11, American politicians needed Churchill’s indomitability and sense of moral purpose in order to maintain public morale. That was why they delved into the Churchillian vernacular in the days after 9/11 and why they sought to apply lessons from Churchill’s WW2 leadership.
Did he not have rather negative feelings towards Islam?
Yes, as a young soldier in Sudan, he witnessed a form of Islamic extremism at first hand. In his book The River War, he wrote that Islam was a ‘militant and proselytising’ faith, that it ‘paralysed’ social development and was a ‘retrograde’ force in the world. He was aware of the intolerance of Saudi Wahhabism and condemned its effect on women. I doubt he would have been surprised by the current spread of radical Islam or its toxic effect on impressionable Muslim minds.
What do you feel was Churchill’s greatest achievement?
His war leadership, in particular the period from May 1940 to June 1941, in which Britain fought a triumvirate of enemies without the back up of a superpower. A lesser man might have bowed to Nazi Germany in 1940 but Churchill remained undaunted and led the nation to victory. Another achievement was his consistent opposition to Nazi Germany in the years preceding the war and his prediction that it was futile to appease Hitler.
He switched political parties twice. Does this make him the supreme opportunist?
Not really. He had ideological reasons for leaving the Conservative party in 1904 (free trade) and leaving the Liberals after the 1922 election defeat (the strength of socialist Labour). It is true that he sensed the tide of fortune was swinging away from those parties but his intellectual stance should be viewed in its own terms and not just as a cynical response to changing political fortunes. He often adopted political positions (supporting Edward VIII in the Abdication Crisis, attacking the Munich agreement) even when they harmed his career.
Did he believe in democracy in the modern sense?
Churchill cherished Parliamentary government in which freely chosen political representatives could debate the great questions of the day. He wanted the legislature to hold the government to account, especially during wartime when there was a tendency towards secretiveness. He also believed in ‘liberal’ democracy; that is, that ordinary people had the right to free expression, open justice, a relatively unfettered media and other fundamental liberties in a civilised society. But he did not believe in what we might call ‘populist politics’ where politicians had to frame their policies according to opinion polls, the news cycle or public opinion.
So he would presumably find much to disapprove of in today’s 24/7 political culture?
Indeed. He would have disliked the relentless use of focus groups and spin doctors and what we might call the ‘Americanisation’ of politics. He didn’t want politicians to live in the temperamental atmosphere of public opinion but to lead that opinion in an informed manner. He would also have been horrified by Parliament’s declining influence over the executive in recent decades.
He is sometimes described as a warmonger. Is this a fair charge?
Not really. As a young soldier, he had seen the ugly side of war and realised that any major confrontation between the world’s great powers would cause immense suffering and loss. That is why he strove to mitigate the animosity that existed between Germany and Britain before WW1 and why he sought to deter Germany from embarking on territorial expansion before WW2. He also became the earliest exponent of the ‘summit conference’ between the superpowers during the Cold War because he knew that nuclear war would be the end of civilisation. He was far ahead of his time in this sense. Naturally, once war started, he relished the chance for leadership and for applying his strategic vision to the battlefield. But that does not make him a warmonger.
Turning to the Second World War, did Churchill ever contemplate a compromise peace with the Nazis?
No, though others did. Towards the end of May 1940, with British troops facing annihilation at Dunkirk and with France on the verge of defeat, a series of Cabinet meetings were held in which the prospect of a compromise peace was discussed. Halifax and, to a lesser extent, Chamberlain, warmed to the idea and Churchill had to use all of his skills to argue for continuing the fight. As we now know, his view prevailed. Thank heavens that he had the vision, the courage and the resolution that was so lacking in others.
According to one of the great wartime controversies, Churchill allowed Pearl Harbour to be bombed to force the Americans into the war. Is there any truth in this?
This is a myth, and a somewhat pernicious one too. There is no evidence that Churchill knew in advance about Pearl Harbour though he was aware that the Japanese might attack a range of territories in the Far East. In fact, it is unlikely that the US knew either because they had not fully cracked the latest Japanese naval code. Pearl Harbour was in fact a triumph of Japanese secrecy and planning, as I show in one of my essays.
After the war, Churchill championed a ‘united Europe’? Are Eurosceptics wrong to claim him as one of their own?
Churchill had a great deal of experience dealing with European issues from his earliest days as a politician to his triumphant post war statesmanship. He believed in the loosest sense in what we might call a ‘united Europe,’ particularly if that meant a stable and harmonious relationship between France and Germany. But what he meant by European unity was not always clear, nor did he envisage that Britain would be part of any federal arrangement. This was because Britain had other political and economic commitments, both to the United States and to the Commonwealth.
So he might not have been too happy with the current EU set-up then?
Given his profound belief in British sovereignty, Churchill would have been appalled at the judicial, economic and political powers adopted by the EU at the expense of Britain and fellow member states. He could not have accepted laws and regulations being imposed on Britain by a foreign legislature or by unelected Commissioners.
Coming up in part two: Churchill’s attitude to Zionism and his performance with regards to the Jewish people during the Second World War. Plus – who did he regard as the greatest Jew?
You can visit Jeremy Havardi’s website here.