The Lion Caged

Churchill, who had so little in common with the average Briton, was in fact bound to him.

It seemed artless, but anyone who had spent his most impressionable years translating Euripides or Horace every evening—blind to his own magnificent, living language—was unlikely to bring it off. The public school boy, bred in the tradition of “muscular Christianity,” was not only incapable of bringing tears into the eyes of others; he could not cry himself and squirmed with embarrassment when Churchill faced a cheering crowd with glistening cheeks, weeping without shame. The crowd, far from mortified, would rise in a standing ovation. Winston, who had so very little in common with the average Briton, was nevertheless bound to him. A. P. Herbert, an admirer of Neville Chamberlain, observed that Chamberlain “was tough enough....But when he said the fine true thing it was like a faint air played on a pipe and lost on the wind at once. When Mr. Churchill said it, it was like an organ filling the church, and we all went out refreshed and resolute to do or die.” Lady Violet wrote more penetratingly that the “intellectual granaries” of her father and his friends “held the harvests of the past,” while “to Winston everything under the sun was new—seen and appraised as on the first day of creation. His approach to life was full of ardour and surprise. Even the eternal verities appeared to him to be an exciting personal discovery....He did not seem to be the least ashamed of uttering truths so simple and eternal that on another’s lips they would be truisms. This was a precious gift he never lost. Nor was he afraid of using splendid language....There was nothing false, inflated, artificial in his eloquence: It was his natural idiom.”

Actually he spoke other languages, though few knew it. To have acknowledged fluency would have been a squandering of political capital. Instead he deliberately mispronounced foreign names and phrases. Everyone with an ear for the Gallic tongue shuddered when he addressed his allies: Français! Ici moi, Churchill, qui vous parle! But they were flinching at his accent; his grammar and choice of idiom were flawless. And every time he called Marseilles “Mar-sales,” British voters in the lower classes, resentful of upper-class linguistic snobbery, were delighted.

Eventually the issue became political. MPs from the lower classes felt insulted by Greek and Latin epigrams. Churchill knew how to resolve the tension. At midpoint in a speech, he said: “ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. I shall venture to translate for the benefit of—” He broke off. Every Labourite was perched on the edge of his bench, prepared to leap up in protest, when he broke up the House by finishing, “those old Etonians who are present....”


Those old Etonians who were present chuckled politely. So did the old Harrovians, and those wearing the ties of Shrewsbury, Rugby, and the rest. The other side of the old chamber rollicked with laughter. Now—as later, in England’s hour of maximum danger—it was Labour that rallied to him, while Conservatives remained aloof. He was accustomed to that. In the forty years since he had slipped away from Harrow alone, like a fugitive, he had revisited his old school but once, on a whim. The consequence had been calamitous. The struggle to strip the House of Lords of its political power had reached its peak; he and Lloyd George were leading it, and public school boys, the sons of privilege, regarded him as a traitor to his, and their, class. He hadn’t thought of that. It just happened that he and F. E. Smith—Lord Birkenhead—were motoring nearby, and, on the spur of the moment, Churchill decided to show Smith his old school grounds. The boys, recognizing Winston from newspaper pictures, booed and jeered until, humiliated in the eyes of his best friend, he raced away.

The incident was symbolic. It was the supreme irony of Winston’s parliamentary career that he never won the trust of his own party and social class. Twice he had turned his political coat—from Conservative to Liberal and then (”reratting,” as he called it) back to the Tories. But his greater stigma was peculiar to his country, the times, and the structure of the English patriciate.

In the century before World War II, Great Britain’s political stability derived from a paradox. England was a democracy in which the yeomanry tacitly agreed to be ruled by an oligarchy. Theoretically, aristocrats in Parliament sat only in the House of Lords, but until Labour’s great surge the House of Commons was dominated by the sons of England’s greatest families. In breeding, in education, in manners, mores, dress, and even in the pursuit of leisure, they lived in a different world from their constituents.