Churchill lessons

May 5, 1995

Unhappy the land that has no heroes . . . Unhappy the land that has need of them." Brecht's dialogue over the role of the hero will have deep resonance this weekend as Britain commemorates the 50th anniversary of VE Day.

The exchange, taken from his play, Galileo, crystallises the ambivalence surrounding heroes and mythology. Are they expressions of the collectively-held values essential for building a socially cohesive society or just distortions of history which aid social control?

No individual encapsulates these debates better than Winston Churchill, whose voice, personality and achievements will permeate this weekend's commemoration. His hold on the national imagination is confirmed in continuing serious fascination with his life and work. The rise to prominence over the past couple of years of both John Charmley and Andrew Roberts confirms that young historians looking to make a name for themselves should find some aspect of the legend to deconstruct and preferably demolish. And fascination is not confined to right-wingers. The impeccably liberal David Cannadine argues: "Any historian writing about modern Britain is bound at some point to encounter the Churchillian colossus."

Like the reactions reported in our Perspective section, those regarding Churchill are a surrogate for more contemporary concerns. Treatment of icons has always been a significant indicator of belief.

The furore over the possibility that his papers might go abroad and the use of large amounts of National Lottery income to prevent it has, like America's unease when it was revealed that Pearl Harbor is now Japanese-owned, taken its force from perceptions of national decline. If we cannot keep the papers of national heroes, what can we retain ?

Churchill is news at any time. Add in the timing, debate over the lott- ery and Winston the Lesser's stereotypical personification of the undeserving rich, and it is little wonder that the story has received such attention.

It may well have done the study of history a service, highlighting the contentious business of trading in archives. Archivists, thrown suddenly into the limelight as purveyors of soundbites, have been able to point out that there is nothing new about important collections coming under threat. A large amount of material on deposit in libraries and archives is there on licence, with the ever-present possibility that it might one day be taken away and sold.

It happens all the time, with national institutions weighing up whether or not the commitment of time and fund-raising energy involved in matching commercial offers outweighs the loss of their going abroad. Worse than the threat of whole collections being acquired by cash-rich American or Japanese institutions is that of their being broken up. It may be time-consuming and/or expensive to visit Austin or Osaka, but it is not quite so bad if the archive is all together in one place.

How to combat this while both collectors and academic institutions are prepared to pay for papers, remains a serious problem. A National Heritage department inquiry rejected the suggestion that important papers should be listed like buildings as impracticable and unworkable.

So deals over personal papers are likely to remain with us. But, even if we accept the argument that the Churchill archive is entirely personal rather than a state collection, it is doubtful whether it represents the best history available for Pounds 13 million.

National institutions have been prepared to let iconic papers go, where it is considered that academic research has been sufficient to make them widely accessible. Thus the correspondence between Elizabeth and Essex was allowed to go abroad. It might be argued that the exhaustive and exhausting labours of Martin Gilbert have had the same effect on the Churchill collection.

If the lottery money were really to be used to help historians, there are more deserving causes. County record offices, much used by the amateur and the professional scholar, are under pressure, both from council cash shortages and impending reorganisation.

No British institution contains more of the raw material of modern history than the National Newspaper Library at Colindale, which has escaped the largesse awarded to its British Library parent and to the Public Record Office. Forced into an endless battle with the bulk and intractibility of newsprint, ever-increasing reader demand and the grimness of its premises and surroundings, Colindale is vital to professional and amateur historians alike. Even Churchill, a frequent contributor to the press, might have seen it as worthier of largesse than his male heirs.

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