Christopher Reeve, a traveller and a teacher with an interest in the 20th century history of the United Kingdom, is talking to Pawel Rogalinski about Winston Churchill, his charisma and popularity.
Pawel Rogalinski: – What do you think about British politicians?
Christopher Reeve: – I have to confess that I do not have very much confidence in politicians generally and the bias will probably show through. There are, however, some politicians who have made a contribution to the country in hard times.
– So what do you think about their popularity in the British society in general?
– I cannot imagine that the phenomenon of politician-popularity in the UK is very different from the same in other countries.
– Probably yes, but still there are some differences. Let’s start from Winston Churchill – why was he so popular in the British society? Why did so many people trust him?
– Winston Churchill was before my time, but when he was appointed Prime Minister in 1940, it was a matter of Parliament making the decision because of its discontent with the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. Churchill had not been popular with a large section of society since the Gallipoli debacle of 1915 and the sterling crisis of 1925 – both of which were blamed on him. Many thought that the fate of the country could not be left safely for Churchill to manage.
– Yet he became a statesman…
– Churchill had a strong character and a determined outlook which appealed to the people in a time of crisis. Due to many years’ experience of debating in Parliament and with his knowledge of European history, Churchill appeared as “the man of the moment.” Churchill felt that he had a mission to save the country. His ancestor, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, had been in a similar position when he fought and defeated the armies of Louis XIV of France. In his House of Commons speeches and radio presentations, through skillful oratory, Churchill galvanised national resistance to the Nazi threat – now only twenty miles away in France. He promised that tenacity would bring victory – which it eventually did in 1945.
– It was a Pyrrhic victory and weakened the United Kingdom so much that it was no longer a global superstate… so Churchill’s policy was not ideal.
– I think Churchill benefited from the fact that he was head of a coalition government, so internal disputes were forgotten for the sake of fighting at the war. He liked to be photographed and filmed in military situations, at conferences and with ordinary people in their bombed-out shops and homes. He always appeared to be working to win the war and at one with the people. He constantly gave confidence-building speeches on the radio, but was honest with the people about the scale of the task to be faced. The public therefore felt that they had a natural war leader.
– This is why people have loved him. I think even now in the UK we can feel the spirit of Churchill’s leadership, for example in a widely used slogan “Keep calm and carry on”. Do you think he could simply create an image of a charismatic politician?
– Of course, some of his undertakings were staged for effect – there were disagreements among MPs and the generals about Churchill’s strategies. This knowledge was kept from the public. No one doubted the sincerity of his convictions and all were buoyed up by his conviction that the war would eventually be won.
– But when he won the war, at the same time he lost the general election in 1945.
– An electorate will always eventually want change. Dictators overcome this by manipulating the political system to stay in power indefinitely. In the case of Churchill, by 1945, peace had come and the wartime background which had made Churchill such a success had gone. In changed circumstances, and with a desire for improved post-war living circumstances, Churchill was voted out of office and replaced by Clement Attlee – the new Labour Prime Minister. Despite this, Churchill was held in high regard for his courage, his standing by the people and his final war victory. He was Prime Minister twice again before retiring from public office.
Interview by Pawel Rogalinski
University of Greenwich, Chatham 06.08.2013.