Remember the man, not the myth. Part 10: Churchill on our doorstep


02 November 2020
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In part 10 of his Churchill series, Alastair Stewart asks, where are the books dedicated to Churchill and Scotland?

“In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting.”

- Winston Churchill’s eulogy to Neville Chamberlain, House of Commons, November 12, 1940

The final part of this series has gone through several quite different iterations. But as a five-year period of writing and research draws to a close, one omission has become apparent: where are the dedicated books to Churchill and Scotland? 

Winston Churchill led the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1916. His two deputies were future leaders of the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Party respectively. He was MP for Dundee over nearly fifteen years, and his wife was of Scottish descent.

While most communities are proud of their connections to significant historical figures, Scots today don’t seem overly eager to claim Churchill. One Dundee historian once said a statue of Churchill would be as welcome “as a swim through vomit.”

One search on social media and Churchill is either the epitome of Britishness or the embodiment of English oppression in Scotland. To others, he’s even a villain on par with his greatest nemesis. Indifference seems to be the break-even best bet. 

It doesn’t take much digging to see that, objectively, Churchill’s Scottish connections are plethoric. The International Churchill Society is among the first to begin consolidating Churchill’s Scottish ties. There is one title about Churchill’s time in Dundee. There are a smattering of chapters mentioning Scotland across hundreds of books, but nothing dedicated to Scotland.

The links are certainly as in-depth as other countries and the facets of Churchill’s life which have been documented at length. Churchill and Scotland is a topic which more than qualifies for a central resource and significant analysis and consideration. 

Churchill affected the Scots, and more critically, the Scots affected him. So why have we forgotten? 

The lay of the land

In 2019, Ross Greer, an elected Member of the Scottish Parliament, courted controversy when he tweeted that Churchill was a “white supremacist” and a “mass murderer.” The tweet was interspersed with hand-clapping emojis and posted on January 25th, the day after the anniversary of Churchill’s death. The shock value aside, the tweet quickly revealed the pantomime view of Churchill that underpins his legacy in Scotland.

Pervasive myths continue to abound that Churchill abandoned the 51st Highland Division in 1940, set soldiers of the Black Watch on his Dundee constituency in 1911, ordered tanks into Glasgow in 1919 and would have abandoned Scotland if the Nazis invaded in 1940. 

When Ivor Roberts-Jones’ statue of Churchill was vandalised in Parliament Square few in Scotland were surprised. Yet Scots were left looking around for a comparable statue of Churchill to protest. For all the lingering trappings of empire scattered Scotland, there is a remarkable lack of tribute to the man voted the country’s greatest Briton in 2002. 

In Dundee, there is barely any touristic acknowledgement that Churchill was there at all. In the lobby of the Queen’s Hotel, there is a privately funded plaque commemorating his campaign headquarters that went up in 2008. There is also a copy of a letter he sent to his wife Clementine famously complaining about a maggot in his kipper that “flashed his teeth.”

The formal Dundee acknowledgement is dire: there is one ‘official’ plaque. Unveiled in 2008 by Churchill’s daughter Lady Soames, the marker commemorated the centenary of Churchill’s first election to Parliament from the city in 1908. It was vandalised in the summer of 2020.

There are a smattering of other tributes to be found to Churchill across Scotland including a bust in the City of Edinburgh Council building and a Churchill suite in the capital’s Prestonfield Hotel. At the Dalmeny Estate, the family seat of the Earldom of Rosebery, there is a tree planted by Churchill in 1946. And in the Edinburgh Central Library there is a plaque honouring suffragist Elsie Inglis that includes a tribute from Churchill reading, “She will shine forever in history.”

In Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, there is a four-foot bronze figure of Churchill by Scots sculptor David McFall. Rather aptly, this is a miniature version of the full-size statue erected in Churchill’s former constituency of Woodford in 1959. 

Over on the Orkney Islands, Willie Budge’s 2011 monument to the Churchill Barriers at Scapa Flow is, appropriately, just a shadow of Churchill made from a rudder.

The social revolution 

It is impossible to pronounce in absolutes, but observation, particularly of social media, reveals several core explanations and myths which reinforce general Scottish despondency over Churchill.

Firstly, there is the recurring belief that Churchill simply did not care about or was indifferent to Scotland. Nature abhors a vacuum, and without a coordinated academic pushback and a broader acknowledgement of his connections to Scotland, this will not change. 

Secondly, Churchill is falsely condemned as having tried to crush Scottish strikes. This in itself is considered an extension of perceived English and aristocratic suppression of the Scottish working class. Grievance myths make for better soundbites than the truth on social media. 

Thirdly, the case for Scottish independence is nearly always made in reaction to the British state, Brexit, and British history (of which Churchill is a giant). Churchill - as evidenced by repeated attacks on his London statues - has become an extension of modern debates, politics and questions of cultural and historical legitimacy. He is something larger than ‘just’ another historical figure. Churchill is as much a target of hate and love as any politician living today. In many ways, he represents Britishness. 

Fourthly, the prevalence of social media, in tandem with the absence of a single source or leading voice speaking about Churchill and Scotland, has allowed grievance politics to fill the void. There is a tremendous amount of evidence, stories, pictures and diaries from which to read, but no central resource from which to spearhead a reconciliation. 

Finally, modern Scottish education generally focuses on the deeds of the British Empire, including slavery and colonialism, with no broader context of the time. This moral rigidity makes even passing praise for British imperialism or Churchill taboo and implicitly racist. While Churchill was not perfect, it’s quite the claim to say he actively hated Scotland. 

The lack of consolidated material of Churchill’s ties with Scotland is again taken as a warped case in point, particularly on Twitter, where he is condemned as an English nationalist and imperialist. 

A Great Man? 

Social media, sound bites, and ferocious campaigns for Scottish independence and Brexit have bled nuance dry. Churchill is either a bogeyman or a hero; a visceral stand-in for debates on Scottish and British nationalism - usually in 280 characters. 

There needs to be more an acceptance that great people can be flawed, and are not mere proxies for modern arguments. Great Man Theory, put forward by Scotsman Thomas Carlyle, is precisely the kind of thinking which is required to understand the importance of heroes and villains in our history. As the former president Barack Obama observed:

“The world is messy; there are ambiguities...People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

That there are myths about Churchill or that he said controversial things are not enough to justify the eradication of his memory in Scotland. 

Churchill lived for 90 years. He was born in the age of the cavalry charge and died when the Beatles were at their zenith. Issues on race, women’s suffrage, and Irish Home Rule all should be anchored to their time to judge what he said about them conclusively. 

It has taken a further 55 years to consolidate the output of those years into something approaching complete. New material is still being found, which in turn leads to revision, interpretation and opinion. 

There have been press op-eds and features over the years discussing Churchill’s links to Scotland, but they've never been able to overturn the grievance, the hate and the total rejection of Churchill in Scotland.

If reconciliation is to occur in Scotland, it might first work in contrast. Counterfactual histories are an increasingly popular method by which to imagine how history might have panned out. To appreciate Churchill and why he is worth reconnecting with Scotland, there is a benefit to studying the ‘what if? of history.

If one doubts the importance of Churchill, a look at Nazi proposals for a conquered Britain is a sobering, terrifying look at mass murder, incarceration, torture and destruction. The ‘Operation Sea Lion’ plans included sending able-bodied men to Europe as slave labour.  A blacklist of high profile figures would also have been handed over to the Gestapo. If he was taken alive, Churchill was to be remanded to the foreign intelligence arm of the SS. 

It lends a pronounced clarity about what is right and what is wrong to consider what one’s adversaries thought of them. Adolf Hitler was a monster, and he detested Churchill. As he said in a speech on January 30, 1942:  

“This prattler, this drink-bold Churchill, what has he in reality accomplished in his life? This perfidious fellow is a lazybones of the first order.

“But if this war had not come, who would speak of Churchill? Now he will one day be spoken of, to be sure, but as the destroyer of an empire, which he and now we destroyed. One of the most pitiful phrase-mongering natures of world history, incapable of creating anything, of accomplishing anything, or of performing creative acts, capable only of destroying.”

There is a delight in reading the insults in the early years of the war. 

Churchill, as his speech editor Charles Eade notes, is barely mentioned as Hitler’s fortunes in the war decline. The more you denigrate your opponent, the more humiliating it is having them tumble your house of cards – particularly if you’ve said: “Churchill, you have never made me afraid.” The ends speak for themselves. 

Former prime minister Stanley Baldwin and political foil to Churchill aptly said that “The furnace of the war has smeltered out all base metals from him". High praise given future Labour leader Michael Foot and others indicted Baldwin as one of the ‘Guilty Men’ of appeasement. 

Troubles Left and Right

There is a persistent myth that Scotland is more left-wing than England. Repeated polls cannot give a definitive answer. ‘Left-wing about what?’ would be a better retort - one can be socially liberal and a hawk on defence without tautology. Still, Scottish exceptionalism is a normative and predominantly nationalist ideology about being a “good global citizen.” Scotland is implicitly placed as morally superior to the UK Government, the British Empire, and Churchill.

And yet Scotland, in partnership with England since 1707, built the British Empire. At one stage, Scots were estimated to comprise one-third of all imperial governors. Scots provided vast numbers of traders, administrators and pioneers who took a considerable share of the imperial spoils. The extraordinary influence of Scots at nearly all levels of the empire makes today’s acute case of cultural amnesia all the more puzzling.

Popular history is a supply and demand industry. The popularity and awareness of Scottish tragedies such as the Highland Clearances have bolstered the politics of grievance. Scottish education has never corrected the public imbalance and focuses disproportionately on episodic wars with England led by William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. 

The Empire receives perfunctory attention at best despite Scotland’s central role (Dundee, for example, was the “Juteopolis” of the empire.) Churchill, long taken for granted alongside unionism, has fallen out of favour and cast as the villain - much like the United Kingdom itself.

Many have noticed the dichotomy between Scottish sentimentalism and rationalism. The SNP has been in power in Scotland since 2007 and has taken the majority of Scottish seats at Westminster since 2015. Yet the independence referendum held in 2014 was defeated 55% to 45%.

Since the referendum, Churchill - the epitome of British and English identity - has become the chief bogeyman. In particular, ‘Cybernats,’ the unofficial, online foot soldiers of independence, have put Churchill in their crosshairs over the last decade. Not to be outdone, unionist trolls have made Churchill a reactionary poster boy to independence arguments.

The reasons are not just the lack of education and the prevalence of social media, but the disproportionate number of young people now involved in political discourse. Scotland lowered the voting age to sixteen during the referendum, and most SNP voters were under forty at the 2019 general election. Concurrently, successive polling has shown that most UK students do not know who Churchill was or think he has been made-up. 

The broader debate around statues which has now emerged compounds existing problems. Headlines reinforce falsehoods because Churchill’s life is not taught correctly in schools. He has been reduced to his repertoire of bon mots, both real and false which have passed into common parlance. Scots left, right, and centre hold popular misconceptions about Churchill.

Many think of Churchill as an entertaining drunk despite evidence to the contrary. Some consider him representative of his aristocratic background, not knowing that as a young MP he was considered a traitor to his class for helping to found the welfare state. 

Others say he was a warmonger and murderer unaware that in 1916 Churchill led Scottish troops in the trenches. This experience led to his opposition to a premature cross-channel invasion during the Second World War, which would have resulted in mass slaughter.

Ironically, even some of Churchill’s defenders in Scotland rely on an untruth by frequently citing one the most famous remarks Churchill never made: “Of all the small nations of this Earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” The quote flourishes but with no source - like many myths in the digital age.

Why Scots Should Put a Kilt on Churchill 

The £12 billion tourism industry is vital to Scotland. Playing up the many Churchill connections could only enhance this. There is even a genuine picture of Churchill sitting in a Glengarry bonnet. Yet despite a smattering of Churchill busts and portraits spread across the country (including in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery by Sir James Guthrie), there is no mad dash to take full advantage of Churchill’s extensive connections with Scotland. 

When actor Brian Cox - a Dundonian himself - played Churchill in the eponymous 2017 movie filmed in Edinburgh, the event passed with barely a flutter of excitement. The closest one comes to finding Scottish tourism playing up Churchill is a “Fortress Orkney” site-seeing map.

But there is so much that could be done. In addition to those already mentioned, there are many other connections between Churchill and Scotland; his wife Clementine was of Scottish descent, a granddaughter of the 10th Earl of Airlie; his aptly named first biographer, Alexander MacCallum Scott, was Scottish; he made frequent trips to Balmoral to attend upon the Sovereign; he served as Rector of the University Aberdeen in 1914-18 and Edinburgh in 1929-32; he formed the Commandos from Scotland in 1940 and ordered the creation of the Scapa Flow bridges that same year. 

Churchill’s son Randolph even (unsuccessfully) contested the Ross and Cromarty by-election in 1936. Churchill mourned his daughter Marigold in Scotland shortly after her death in 1921. The saga, then, is replete with anecdotage, anger, joy, sorrow, and adventure. Churchill losing his Scottish seat in 1922 to a prohibitionist candidate is the grandest of punchlines.

And then there is the military history: Churchill’s substantial connections with Scotland during the two World Wars. During the First World War, Churchill commanded the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front. 

His Adjutant was Andrew Dewar Gibb (a future Leader of the SNP), who wrote a book about the experience. Gibb recorded Churchill saying to his troops that ‘Although an Englishman, it was in Scotland that I found the three best things in my life: my wife, my constituency and my regiment.’ Churchill’s second in command was Archibald Sinclair, who went on to become the Leader of the Liberal Party and a member of Churchill’s coalition government starting in 1940.

During the Second World War, Churchill proposed a meeting with Roosevelt and Stalin and suggested Invergordon as a venue: “the weather might well be agreeable in Scotland at that time.” The US president declined. More successfully, during the war Churchill appointed a Scot, James Stuart, to serve as Chief Whip. Churchill’s four Scottish secretaries of state during the war represented all of the major parties of government: David John Colville (Conservative MP and not to be confused with Churchill’s Private Secretary John Colville, himself the grandson of a Scottish peer), Ernest Brown (Liberal), Thomas Johnston (Labour), and the 6th Earl of Rosebery (Liberal). 

When trying to persuade Johnston to join his government, Churchill proclaimed, “Good heavens, man, come in here and help me make history!” The Prime Minister picked Johnson because he was left-wing and could help prevent a repeat of the Red Clydesdale disruption that occurred during the First World War.

The Second World War has also generated at least one example of Scots trying to prove a connection with Churchill that may not be true but would be good for tourism. In 2019, the BBC reported that the Prime Minister purportedly held a secret meeting in Scotland with General Eisenhower in 1944 to discuss the D-Day landings.

There are today Churchill connections good for Scottish trade including his preference for Johnny Walker whisky, Drambuie liqueur, Dundee cake, and Scottish grouse. Churchill even considered purchasing a small estate in Scotland before buying his lifelong home of Chartwell in Kent in 1922.

And where are the books? While there have been many articles and essays published about Churchill in Scotland over the years including one book about his time in Dundee, there has yet to be even one dedicated volume about Churchill and the Scots. The omission teeters on the bizarre given the vast library of books on seemingly every facet of Churchill’s life.

The Saltire Bulldog

So, are there any ways for Scots to think of Churchill as one of their own? 

Firstly, Churchill sincerely cared about Scotland. During his time as a Scottish MP, he served in a series of senior ministerial posts: President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, and Secretary of State for both War and Air. All of these ministries deeply involved Scotland. In a 1942 speech in Edinburgh, Churchill reflected that “I still reserve affectionate memories of the banks of the Tay.”

Churchill was, in fact, the original nationalist - and a federalist to boot. Unionism and nationalism were always complimentary and interchangeable forces in Scotland for the first part of the twentieth century - and Churchill knew this. As early as 1912, he looked forward to the day “when a federal system will be established in these Islands which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs.” 

A YouTube search for ‘Churchill and Scotland’ yields a trove of British Pathé videos now generally forgotten. Some of the best footage is from 1942 when Edinburgh authorities bestowed the Freedom of the City on Churchill (an honour he also accepted from Aberdeen, Ayr, Perth, and Stirling). Admittedly he turned down the same honour from Dundee in 1943. 

A man for all seasons 

If the Scots are looking for how to find out the truth about Churchill, it is worth remembering that the saccharine blindness of today’s acolytes is a new phenomenon. Churchill’s colleagues, his friends and even his family were not blind to his capriciousness, his boorishness and his mistakes. 

Writing in June 1940, Clementine Churchill warned her husband that: 

“One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic, and overbearing manner. 

“I cannot bear that those who serve the country and yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you. Besides you won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality. (Rebellion in war time being out of the question!)”

Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, is among the most insightful. He kept a diary throughout the war, and they were published unabridged in 2001. They’ve famously been used as praise and criticism for Churchill. 

Most forget, as many now find in the close quarters of present national difficulties, is that moods erratically change and opinions swing. Writing on September 10, 1944, Brooke wrote:

“[He] has only got half the picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to listen to his nonsense. I find it hard to remain civil. 

“And the wonderful thing is that three-quarters of the population of this world imagine that Winston Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other quarter have no conception what a public menace he is and has been throughout the war! 

“Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again… Never have I admired and disliked a man simultaneously to the same extent.”

Brooke himself admitted in a later expanded entry from July 1945 that: 

“On reading these diaries, I have repeatedly felt ashamed of the abuse I had poured on him, especially during the latter years. 

“I shall always look back on the years I worked with him as some of the most difficult and trying ones in my life. For all that I thank God that I was given an opportunity of working alongside such a man, and of having my eyes opened to the fact that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.” 

Innumerable biopics now line bookshelves, but none can beat the charm of reading primary sources first hand. All attribute a magnetism to Churchill which was rough and boorish but which helped make him great, if imperfect. 

Each of the hundreds of recollections in their way acknowledges some virtue or vice of Churchill. The most honest of intentions should be presumed of the family members, soldiers, detectives, secretaries, valets, colleagues and everyone from every walk of life who encountered him and recorded their experiences. 

Whether they are embellished, accurate or wrong, doesn’t change the fact that primary sources all add to the pantheon of the posterity proving why Churchill is so well regarded. 

In many ways, Churchill deserves the same epitaph bestowed on Abraham Lincoln: “Now he belongs to the ages.” 

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Why then Scotland’s persistent rejection of Churchill? Part of the problem is that he is considered an exclusively English figure. His daughter Mary Soames summarised it best in a letter to her father in his final years: “I owe you what every English man, woman and child does - Liberty itself.”

Scots are no more cognitively dissonant about their history than any other country, but the UK is confused. Devolution is not mutually exclusive with British identity, but there is an undoubted scramble for the future that has little space for figures like Churchill.

To promote Scottishness, we risk cutting ourselves off to our rich shared tapestry - including Winston Churchill. The rise in English nationalism (fuelled by the absence of its own devolved and exclusive assembly) is as much a challenge to the UK’s story.

But Britain is a colossus. Churchill’s time in Scotland and his story with our nation is so much more than the simplistic view of him as a “carpetbagger” who needed a constituency in 1908.

Churchill’s feats were remarkable not because he was superhuman, but because he did them despite himself, knew himself, grew from his mistakes and turned, at the moment of our nation’s peril, a lifetime of mixed accomplishment into a sonnet of defiance that saved us all.

It is an unlikely tale, but also the reason that Scotland today should give more understanding and respect to someone who consistently spoke his mind. Churchill’s ties to Scotland are immense, and at a time of such great constitutional uncertainty, to study Churchill is to explore Scotland’s past fully. 

In 1936, the Edinburgh Evening News wrote that Randolph Churchill’s Scottish by-election defeat “seems to be regarded as another nail in the political coffin” of his father. Scotland has been wrong before and needs to fix its relationship with Churchill.  There is more to Scotland and Churchill than people know. Churchill happily borrowed from Charles Murray when he told an Edinburgh audience:

 “Auld Scotland counts for something still.”

Indeed it most definitely does. 

Epilogue?

This series started with the task of challenging the pervasive hagiography and outright lies about Winston Churchill. I wanted people to remember the man, not the myth. 

I was wrong to assume that the goal could be achieved with a handful of articles. It is a never-ending challenge to remember and find the truth about significant historical figures. It is even more critical for ones who are continually reincarnated through our popular culture. Either from respect or loathing, they are inevitably politicised before, finally, only a shadow of their real thoughts, their contradictions - their life, remain. 

This was always an amateur series. I have immense respect for Churchill. It’s because of this I felt compelled, in a small way, to respond to the political pop-ups and caricatures of Churchill which are both favourable and vilifying. He was of his time and made his time. He had strengths and vices, weaknesses and virtues. 

Churchill has evolved to become a set of values, a byword for strength and character and defiance. The debt we owe is incalculable. But we honour it by acknowledging the truth as it was, not by indulging the hyperbolic or passing outright condemnation because of today’s standards. 

Access the full series from the hub page here.

Throughout this series, one truth has become clear: untangling the real Churchill from the myths and the popular zeitgeist is a call to arms. It will take time. 

 

All we can try and do is remember that Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill ‘was a man, take him for all in all, for we shall not look upon his like again.’