The Lion Caged


Steeped in understatement and erudition, the Old Boys of the upper class who managed Britain’s worldwide Empire in the 1930s viewed Churchill with hooded, sardonic eyes. He was a Harrovian, they had to give him that, but he had been so wretched a scholar that he had never mastered Latin or Greek. His knowledge of Demosthenes and Cicero had been acquired through translation. He spoke only English, the language of the common people. In his youth, England’s great universities were closed to applicants, like Churchill, who lacked a classical education. So he was an alien among elegant Tory MPs who, by the time they had left the Sixth Form in their late teens, had refought the Punic Wars, and completed what their headmasters called the “grand old fortifying curriculum”—a phrase within which lies the mystique of imperial Britannia.

They had been fortified with the conviction that they were the beneficiaries of a legacy reaching back twenty-four hundred years, when learned men had begun constructing an exquisite structure in which the elite of future generations would dwell and rule. It was an article of faith for them that gentlemen who, after passing through the privileged classes’ private educational system, and then being subjected to polishing by polite society, knew every cranny of that edifice—knew, in fact, everything that was worth knowing.

Doubtless the motives of those who disapproved of Churchillian rhetoric were plural—there were so many reasons to find Winston objectionable in the 1930s—but his Victorian style was certainly one. And here, precisely here, lies the irony. Why had their ancestors become obsessed with the ancient world? It was because the Empire had been approaching its high-water mark then, and seers like Benjamin Jowett of Balliol were comparing it to the glories of its predecessors, particularly imperial Rome. Romanticizing their own global possessions, Englishmen saw their role as a continuum of the majestic past.

Churchill, in the 1930s, was still a child of the Victorians. Though indifferent to dead languages and fallen empires, he once more plighted his troth to the salvation of his sovereign’s global realm. Victoria, in whose name he had been commissioned in 1895, would have understood. The old queen would instantly have known which Englishmen were betraying her heritage and who, alone in one of those last stands so dear to Victorian hearts, remained her faithful champion.

He saw life and history in terms of the forces of good against the power of evil.

He championed not only her realm; he saw himself as the defender and protector of the values Englishmen of her reign had cherished, the principles they had held inviolate, the vision that had illumined their world, that had steadied them in times of travail. He saw life and history in terms of the forces of good against the power of evil, for the two would always be in conflict and be therefore forever embattled. He was accused of inconsistency and of capricious judgment. Actually, as Isaiah Berlin found, “far from changing his opinions too often, Churchill has scarcely, during a long and stormy career, altered them at all.” It was MacDonald and Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain who were driven by the prevailing winds of fickle, uninformed public opinion—uninformed because they chose to keep it so. Churchill’s binnacle remained true. “Death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey,” he told the House; “hardship our garment; constancy and valor our only shield.”

And, he might have added, grief as their reward. He was sure they could take it. Despite his high birth he had an almost mystical faith in the capacity of ordinary Englishmen to endure and reach greatness at the eleventh hour. “Tell the truth to the British people,” he begged the devious prime ministers of the 1930s. “They are a tough people, a robust people … if you have told them exactly what is going on, you have insured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are not very pleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion.”

But His Majesty’s governments in those shabby years believed that there were some things the country ought not to know, and that in the end their policy of duplicity—which at times amounted to a conspiracy—would bring them muddling through. So Churchill, faithful to his star, resolved that he must somehow find a way to persuade Britain and her Empire that they must prepare for one last great struggle; to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the strength to suffer and still prevail; to arouse and incite them to jettison the policy of drift and then, with the reins of power firm in his own grasp, to inspire them and create in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death.