• U.S.

GREAT BRITAIN: Dizzy Eminence

5 minute read

He was a great leader to have during the blitz. His personality was all roast beef and there was something of the thick British fog in the voice that uttered the inspiring words. When Winston Churchill donned his flat-topped bowler and walked among the bomb craters, the people felt that they were seeing the very image of a modern, improved, but deeply traditional and indomitable John Bull. His crusty vigor also suggested the coat of mail of a new St. George, fronting the snorting dragon, Hitler (“that wicked man”).

The blitz failed to conquer Britain, but the Government was criticized for later defeats and for rank inefficiency in war production. But always the surging eloquence and parliamentary skill of Winston Churchill overwhelmed criticism. Always the streamlined John Bull, the 20th-Century St. George, could get a vote of confidence. And always the same chorus rose: the Government’s faults were attributed to the stodgy or obstructionist Old School Ties around the Prime Minister, rather than to the Prime Minister himself.

By last week, however, many Britons were reflecting that Winston Churchill, after all, bore a responsibility for the capabilities of the men around him. It was widely suspected that, if they had been at fault, the fault had been as much, if not more, the Prime Minister’s.

This was a delicate subject and difficult to get at. Tory-baiter Harold Laski told why in the New Statesman, and, in so doing, showed why so much criticism of Churchill had been ineffective. Said he: “There is, it appears, no method available by which . . . dissatisfaction can be expressed without a threat to the unity of the nation, which no one desires. . . . Direct challenge is impossible, for the information upon which alone it could be made effective cannot be revealed without aiding the enemy.” Mr. Laski went on to place himself clearly among the suspicious. Said he: “Personal contact is rare, save for those who do not compel the Prime Minister to the fatigue of high argument; for he has reached that dizzy eminence where a request for the re-examination of his premises of action is regarded by him as factious opposition.”

For a New World, or the Old? The central suspicion regarding Winston Churchill was that either he did not realize, or he did not care to admit, that the war was really global, that on his side the fighting effort, the lives and the post-war hopes of many races and colors were involved. Winston Churchill had traveled far to dramatic meetings with Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. He had closeted himself with high U.S. officers. But he had shown no disposition to draw Russian and Chinese officers into a unified command. While his Government censors kept news of Indian rioting from the British public, he could still talk about India with the imperialist arrogance of 1931, when he said: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace … to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor.”

All around Winston Churchill, Britain was stirring with hopes that the war would bring great democratic changes. It seemed no more than a minor symptom last week that the Archbishop of Canterbury, plump, vigorous William Temple, should continue the trend of his Malvern conference (TIME, Jan. 20, 1941) by proposing that the Government take over the issuance of credit (i.e., banking). Referring to Britain’s five great banks, * he declared: “Money, or credit which does duty for money, has become in effect a monopoly.

. . . It seems to me a primary political principle that wherever you have something which is universally needed, but which is governed as a monopoly, that monopoly should be taken over by the state.” Nor did it seem outlandish to most Britons that the 25,000 members of the National Association of Schoolmasters should petition the Board of Education to abolish Britain’s ancient and exclusive public schools, as “unsuitable for democracy.”

For Freedom or the Empire? Winston Churchill’s only comment on his post-war hopes was contained in the vague phrases of the Atlantic Charter. They were so vague as to make many Britons uneasy. And recently the 20th-century St. George seemed to have expended an amazing amount of energy on nothing more than parliamentary jockeying.

Winston Churchill’s critics knew that the British Empire represented billions in investments—with iron representation around No. 10 Downing Street. They knew that as Britain lost or relinquished her empire she would face an increasingly racking economic problem. Wrote Albert Viton last week in Asia: “[Britain’s] whole economic system has been built on a foundation of imperialism, and to expect them to destroy with their own hands that foundation is to expect them to make greater sacrifices for the new world order than any people has made thus far. . . .”

What the critics of Winston Churchill wanted to know was, simply, whether the old warrior was looking forward to the economic, political and technological battle to make Britain free from the need for empire, or whether he was among those who hoped for a revival of the old dominations and privileges; whether he was fighting for England and empire, or for the United Nations and world freedom. It was bound to affect his every war decision. If he was fighting for freedom he might have to risk Britain’s greatness. If he was fighting for empire, he might risk losing the war.

* Barclays Bank Ltd., Lloyds Bank Ltd., Midland Bank Ltd., National Provincial Bank Ltd., Westminster Bank Ltd.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com