Here, it was obvious, was what they call a great man. Propped up, glassy eyed, at the window, flapping his hand at the crowd outside. Oozing in his senility, like the old Disraeli with his corsets and lacquered hair. Famous visitors came and went. An enormous cake was carried in, with sacks full of cards and telegrams. The flashlights popped and the television cameras whirred. Winston Churchill was ninety years old.
Most people were agreed that this was a remarkable achievement. Perhaps it was, in a way. An impressive feature of the many newspaper reminiscences of the old man in his hey day was the amount of hard liquor which he has put down. One article said that when he was Prime Minister, he drank champagne and brandy with every meal and sipped at tumblers of whisky and soda all through the day. A man of lesser constitution would almost certainly have been killed by such a deluge of alcohol.
Churchill’s consumption of drink is typical of the gusto with which he has lived his life, and it is this gusto which has been the subject of much recent hypocrisy. First, the business of those ninety years. It is too obvious that to be born into a family like the Churchills gives a person a built in advantage in their prospects of longevity because, everything else being equal, they are going to get the best of everything. The best food. A secure and comfortable home. The best education and, if they want it, an interesting job.
It is a different matter for the people who were cheering so enthusiastically outside Churchill’s window on his birthday and it is worthwhile to take a look at how they live. Their lives may be summed up in one word poverty, although it is a different kind from the poverty their parents knew, in the days when Churchill was a young man. They are, first of all, the people who make the wealth of the world. They design the factories where it is made, they plan its production and they work on the benches and assembly lines where the wealth comes rolling off. They transport the wealth all over the world. Some of them sit in offices, adding up how much profit their employers have made and how much they can hope to make in the future. Without these people, capitalist society would collapse.
But that is not likely to happen. Because not only do those people make the world’s wealth but they do their best to make sure that their employers get the profit which comes from production. Almost all of them are fervent protectors of property rights and readily join up, and if necessary die, to protect the property of one set of employers against the intrusions of another. Patiently, willingly, they trudge through their meagre lives bearing the burden of a parasite class which lives off their labours. They keep this class in luxury, so that one of its members can be a burbling old man at a window—yet rich beyond any dreams of the people outside.
These producing, organising, protecting, patient people are the working class and it is sadly typical of them that they should be so enthusiastic about the birthday of a man who has never entirely hidden his contempt for them.
It is no exaggeration to say that working class life is itself a health hazard. Inferior, constricted housing and sub-standard food is a health hazard. So are typical working conditions—the remorseless assembly line, the endless flow of paper across a harrassed desk. So is the essential insecurity of employment—the fact that a worker’s livelihood depends upon his holding down a job. The strains of working class existence are very real, but they are unknown to a Churchill. Randolph Churchill, in an illuminating passage in his autobiography, shows what a Churchill conceives as poverty by claiming that his family was “poor but honest’’—although they could afford to send him to Eton.
There is a lot of evidence to show that illness or lack of it —is not entirely a matter of chance but one of social background. The Registrar General’s Decennial 1958 Supplement pointed out that the places in this country where the average person stood the greatest chance of an early death were Salford, Liverpool, Manchester and Wigan. It is no coincidence that these are areas of dense population and that the death rates are largely caused by the high incidence of bronchitis. A few years after, in September 1963. Dr. Ian Richardson, of the school of social medicine at Aberdeen, said that among the people of North East Scotland chronic bronchitis was four times more prevalent in what he called the “lower” social classes than in the “ upper.”
What this means is that if we are born rich we have a better chance of staying healthy and living longer than if we are born poor. Churchill, ninety years old, was born rich.
Next, the business of the great man. It is a long time since the Second World War started, but there is no need for distance to lend enchantment to the part which Churchill is supposed to have played in the Allied victory. In the organs of capitalist opinion no praise is too lavish, no phrase too extravagant, to describe his period as wartime Prime Minister. Only a few small voices are to be heard trying to balance this picture, to point out the misjudgments which Churchill made and those of the men in whom he put his confidence. The late Lord Cherwell was one of these men and he made many mistakes. He was hopelessly wrong in his estimate of the effect of the allied bomber offensive. A recent book The Battle of the V. Weapons reveals that there was plenty of evidence that the Germans were preparing to launch rockets against this country, but Cherwell refused to believe it until it was too late. Yet Cherwell stayed in Churchill’s favour, and was still there after the war.
Such evidence puts Churchill into perspective as a less than infallible man. who came into the Premiership with the customary history of mistakes. His name has always been linked with the massive, bloody muddle of Gallipoli. Randolph Churchill tells how a schoolmate refused to be his chum because his father had been killed at the Dardanelles, for which he blamed Winston Churchill. The periods which Churchill spent in posts like Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary were not outstanding for their brilliance he did the jobs in much the same way, and with much the same futility, as any other politician.
For only one thing did he stand out. Between the wars he became the spokesman of the group which saw German capitalism as the greater threat to the established European powers. To stifle this threat Churchill was prepared to do a deal with any other country—even the Soviet Union, which he so quickly turned against after the war. An unforeseen twist to events between the wars might have made Churchill wrong, but in fact he tuned out to be right: Germany was a bigger threat than Russia. This was what gave him the job of Prime Minister at the crucial time, and subsequently loaded him with the myth that he beat German capitalism almost on his own.
The Allied victory did not end Churchill’s miscalculations and indiscretions. In 1945, British capitalism needed a political party which was prepared to push through a big programme of nationalisation, a State health scheme and the like. It needed a continuation of government control over things like building and direction of labour. It needed a party with an image of freshness, one which might repair the morale of a war weary working class by giving the impression of a determination to get on with the job of rebuilding Britain.
The Labour Party seemed to fill these needs pretty well and so they rode to power. Against this impressive tide of events, Churchill offered only an appeal to working class sentiment and his attempt to frighten everyone with his ruinously unwise “Gestapo” speech. When the votes were counted, the great man theory had once more been put in its place. The British working class had faithfully decided that the needs of British capitalism should take precedence over the ambitions of one man.
As the newspapers were anxious to point out, the 1945 election result did not mean that the voters had lost their respect for Churchill. Everywhere he went he was feted. They all loved his funny bowler, his cigar, his V sign. With his jaw clamped, he epitomised the outraged nostalgia of every patriotic slum dweller for the days when the map was covered in pink and a British gunboat was enough to put any number of natives in their place. Good Old Winnie, they cried, in an ecstasy of admiration.
What did they have to thank Churchill for? Did they thank him for always being so militant in defence of the interests of the British ruling class? Did they thank him for urging them on to the battlefields of the world—on to the dusty fly blown slopes at Gallipoli, or into the icy death of an Artic convoy ? Did they thank him for the slaughter of Dresden? For managing the British Gazette during the General Strike ? For always, in fact, fighting the working class tooth and nail whenever they tried to stand out for their own interests ?
A sardonic opinion, perhaps, bred by years of hammering against the solid brick wall of working class ignorance, is that the workers actually enjoy absorbing punishment. Treat them mean, a Tory minister once said, and keep them keen. Churchill has never treated the working class other than meanly; he has never disguised his contempt for them, be has never relaxed in his demands that they should accept whatever burdens and terrors capitalism has imposed on than. And the workers have kept keen. Now Churchill has reached ninety, and presumably has not much longer to live, they are actually grateful to him for all that be has done to them.
Could gratitude, or devotion, or plain damned stupidity, go farther than that ?