Mourning Britain's new dawn

July 7, 1995

John Ramsden suggests that the postwar era in Britain really came to an end with the death of Churchill in January 1965. With the passage of time, "post-war" has become more or less synonymous with "the second half of the 20th century", but in the immediate aftermath of 1945 it carried specific and more useful connotations. I would suggest that about 20 years after 1945 is the longest period that can usefully be described as "post-war" and that the reappraisal of Britain's international position occasioned by the death and funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in January 1965 makes a convenient punctuation point.

This is not to suggest that everything changed on January 24 1965, for it is a popular historians' parlour game to trace continuities across the so-called turning points of history. From the perspective of the 1990s it is all too easy to see the fall of the Soviet empire as the last chapter of a sequence of events that began as much in 1917-18 as in 1944-45, or to regard the two world wars merely as episodes in a single European civil war. Such Wellsian perspectives do illuminate our analysis of what Churchill himself called the "march of events", patterns which in his own histories he was fond of identifying, but they do not help us to understand how it felt at the time - and how it felt at the time was all too often the limiting context in which strategic decisions were taken.

In important ways, the core of the second world war's limiting of the horizons was already under threat before 1965, and indeed no event could have had a shaping significance if it had not focused attention on pre-existing trends. This was in part merely a matter of time. Churchill in 1951 had reconstructed a government as close to the heroic days of the Blitz as he could (Jock Colville wrote of Auld Lang Syne ringing down the corridors of power), but even he could not keep it up for long. Deaths and retirements had already robbed Churchill of his wartime cronies by his own retirement in 1955.

Perceptions of the second world war itself also underwent a change in the early 1960s. Alan Taylor's path-breaking Origins book began only in 1961 the historiographical revolution, with its shocking assumption that the most recent war was not inherently different from earlier conflicts and Hitler (perhaps) no different from earlier German statesmen. This challenge to the assumption that 1939-45 was unique took time to seep through after Taylor's book was so outrageously reviewed by his foes, but gradually had a profound effect.

Over the same period, came the rediscovery of the first world war which not only undermined the "specialness" of 1940, but also planted the thought that the earlier conflict had been both a worse experience and a more formative one. A trigger for this reappraisal was Alan Clark's, The Donkeys. Clark, then 33 years old, wrote in 1961 that "my generation did not fight in the second world war. To many of us the first is as remote as the Crimean, its causes and its personnel obscure and disreputable". This could hardly have been written by a military historian four years later, after the stage show Oh What a Lovely War, partly based on Clark's book, John Terraine's The Great War series commissioned by the BBC television to mark the 50th anniversary of 1914, and the insertion of Wilfrid Owen into every O level syllabus in the land. By the 1965, it was difficult to talk of "the war" without ambiguity.

By this time too, the diplomatic, colonial and economic record since 1945 could no longer support the comforting view that Britain had simply suffered a temporary setback. In particular, the rehabilitation and economic success of the "defeated" of 1945, Japan and Germany, had cast a gloomy shadow over the idea of "victory" for Britain. This is a familiar argument, as is the view that in the early 1960s British policy-makers could still not bring themselves quite to draw the logical conclusions from it. In part at least, Churchill, enjoying a steadily expanding place in the public's affection as he aged, was a barrier to that fundamental reappraisal. It was absolutely commonplace for columnists (and even more for pub conversationalists) to harp on the decline of British political leadership by contrasting Churchill with his successors; in 1965, the cartoonist Trog drew Churchill as a Russian doll, from which a family of dolls - Eden, Macmillan, Home - emerged, each successively smaller. In such circumstances, it was difficult for political leaders to challenge those things that were inseparably mixed in the public mind with Churchill's own reputation.

The death of Churchill, whatever else it was, was certainly seen at the time as an event of historic importance; the Daily Express editorialised that "history was with us while he lived", and the Sunday Times that the funeral had been "an act of history in itself". President De Gaulle, more pointedly, is said to have remarked when told of Churchill's death, "now Britain is no longer a Great Power", a conclusion he reached without visible regret. In public though, De Gaulle (who after all believed strongly in the role of men of destiny) joined in the world's homage by attending the funeral, visited the lying-in and issued a dignified statement.

Within Britain, there is no doubting popular involvement in these funerary rites. While Churchill lay dying, crowds gathered in Hyde Park Gate, speaking in whispers as the Salvation Army distributed tea. There was a record television audience for the funeral, huge crowds in London (on a day so cold that there were even casualties among the police horses on duty), and another queue of 80,000 in the churchyard at Bladon within hours of the private interment. Apart from the television audience (which can have excluded few who were of an age to watch and were able to get to a set), it seems that the crowds on the streets were predominantly older people, many of whom told reporters that they were motivated by memories of 1940. The most analysed part of the phenomenon was the mile-long queue that snaked around Westminster and over Lambeth Bridge, as people waited their turn to troop past the coffin in Westminster Hall, memories of the Blitz no doubt kept alive by the WVS ladies who ministered to them with soup and sandwiches. Over three days and nights, nearly a third of a million people filed past the coffin.

The "elevated patriotism" that the Sunday Times detected in that week of pageantry united Churchill's past with the country's present in a powerful brew of emotion; it was, the paper wrote, a mood "without which Winston Churchill knew that the nation could not survive", but it was also an emotion that few others had ever been able to conjure up.

Man is, as Dr Johnson remarked, not on oath in lapidary inscriptions. Overall, the parliamentary, press and broadcast tributes were written in a tone that confirmed inherited views about Churchill's role in 1940 and the impossibility of separating his finest hour from that of the nation's "victory". Anthony Eden, for example, suggested that the government should institute Churchill Day as a bank holiday, timed to coincide with one of the great dates in the calendar of 1940, so that British history and Churchill's name would be imperishably combined. This was a typical view.

But by far the most interesting analysis was John Grigg's column in The Guardian. He began by suggesting that "we have already learnt - indeed, we should have learnt - to live without Churchill", but went on in a vein that betrayed less confidence. The funeral should be a national tonic, not a sedative, for Churchill had achieved "a delusive victory for Britain" in 1945, when British power was actually shattered in the process. He added, in a tone that might have been adopted by John Charmley in the 1990s, that Churchill "successfully defied the power of our enemies, but he could not defy the power of our friends". What then was the lesson? "The death of Churchill robs us of an august and (in his old age) a well-loved presence, but it also relieves us of a psychological burden. England's great old men are, as it were, canonised, and for some years past Churchill's basic assumptions in foreign affairs have largely shared the immunity from criticism which Churchill himself enjoyed. Now we can take stock . . . , face contemporary facts unblinkingly and shape our policies accordingly." Likewise, The Economist concluded of Churchill's funeral that, "with his end, an era, even the memory of an era, fades into the past. We participate today in a great recessional, and at a time to start afresh". The postwar period was over. John Ramsden is dean of arts and history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London.

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