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“The Personality of Sir Winston Churchill”

by

SIR JOHN R. COLVILLE, C.B., C.V.O.

 

The Fourth Crosby Kemper Lecture

March 24, 1985

WINSTON CHURCHILL MEMORIAL

Westminster College

Fulton, Missouri

 

 

THE CROSBY KEMPER LECTURESHIP

The Crosby Kemper Lectureship was established in 1979 by a grant from the Crosby Kemper Foundations of Kansas City, Mo. It is intended to provide for lectures by authorities on British history and Sir Winston Churchill, himself, at the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library on the campus of Westminster College. The Lectureship was established under the auspices of the British Institute of the United States and the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library. A 1981 lecture by Dr. Martin Gilbert inaugurated this important series. The second lecturer in 1983 was Sir John Plumb, F.B.A., and the third lecturer, who spoke in 1984, was Sir William Deakin, D.S.O.

 

Copyright Sir John R. Colville 1985

Introduction

Before all else, I want to express my pleasure and gratification at having this most welcome honorary degree bestowed on me. It is the first I have ever received. The only other one I have was not honorary, and I was actually expected to work for it. Nor am I anywhere near the category of those great men who are swamped with such honour. I remember a ceremony at Quebec when the Governor-General, Lord Athlone, conferred L.L.D.s on President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Turning to Churchill, Lord Athlone, a soldier by training, said: “The Prime Minister and I have this in common: we have charged with the cavalry and we have been educated by Degrees.”

It is my pleasant duty, on behalf of the National Trust of England and Wales and the Royal Oak Society to present to Westminster College a beautifully made replica of the writing table in the library at Chartwell. It comes to Westminster College through the generosity of Heritage Arts, Ltd., one of whose Directors, Mr. Shaifer, is here this afternoon, and it was actually made by the firm of Arthur Brett of Norwich. I know the National Trust, Mr. Shaifer, and all others concerned hope it will be regarded as a worthy addition to the Museum's beautifully arranged treasures.

If I had my life all over again, I should probably opt for Holy Orders. How pleasant to be able to stand up once a week in a pulpit and address a captive audience, inhibited by the sanctity of the surroundings from throwing things at you or even interrupting.

Well, here I am, at long last, in a pulpit; though looking around, I am not quite sure how totally captive the audience is. Let me, however, now address myself to somewhat more serious matters.

* * * * *

In a great many class-rooms and lecture-halls, in every country and in each succeeding generation, the question is asked: to what extent are great men fashioned by circumstances? Does the occasion create the man more often than the man the occasion? As with most generalized questions, there is no generally valid answer.

If George III and Lord North had been more tactful, would the 13 colonies have revolted? If the German General Staff had refused to let Lenin return to Petrograd in a sealed train, would there have been a Bolshevik revolution in Russia? If Corporal Hitler had been killed on the Western Front in World War I would there have been another “Fuhrer” with a mesmeric hold on the German masses? The Ifs of history are fascinating, especially when they relate to the influence of individuals but they are food for fantasy and not for research. What does deserve careful examination are the personal characteristics, the qualities and defects, of those whose decisions did in historic fact mould our destinies; for if the characteristics had been different, the decisions might have been different too.

In his own country and abroad Winston Churchill had a notable influence on people and on policies for many years, indeed for well over half a century. But it was for a much shorter period, of some eighteen months, from May, 1940, till America came into the war, that this influence was truly vital. Under his leadership, his country held the fate of western civilization in its hand, and it was Churchill's energy, resolution, and example that provided the necessary inspiration. In those eighteen months Churchill and the British stood like King Leonidas and his Spartans in the Pass Thermopylae: they were the sole active opponents of overwhelming military might and of submission to slavery. The Soviet Union, until herself attacked in June 1941, was an ally of Hitler; the Government of the United States was as helpful as it could afford to be, but after the isolationist years it was unprepared and disarmed. The European powers were either defeated or cowed into surrender. All this, I am sure you know well, but I think that heroic stories bear repetition.

Churchill did, indeed, have behind him a united and determined people and a vast Empire, almost as woefully unprepared for war as the United States, but nevertheless embracing a quarter of the world's population and nearly a third of its territory. What seemed less impressive than the far-flung empire and the fervent good will of the United States, but was in the short term more effective than either of them, was that narrow strip of sea called the English Channel. All the same a British Government could quite easily, by bungling and miscalculation, or by faint-heartedness, have lost the battle for democracy and condemned us to see Hitler's 1000 Year Reich fill the heads — and destroy the souls — of men and women in every continent for generations to come.

That in 1940 the British Empire was united was, I have no doubt, in part the legacy of the Anglo-French Surrender at Munich. In 1938 the British people were split asunder in sentiment. If the British Government had decided to go to war for Czechoslovakia there would have been a large peace party; and New Zealand, alone of the Dominions, was unequivocal in its support. A year later all doubts had vanished: Hitler had proved his naked ambitions and there was no peace-party: Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand declared war within hours of the mother country. For unity, therefore, Churchill, the outspoken opponent of Munich, cannot claim the credit but for unfaltering determination and leadership he most certainly can.

We live in days of instant coffee — instant almost everything, including quite a lot of instant politicians. Churchill stood for the reverse of all that. He insisted on quality and he set store by experience. By 1940 he had been forty years in parliament and had held every major portfolio in the Government except the Foreign Office. He had suffered in the hard school of failure and disappointment, his greatest, and perhaps most undeserved failure being Gallipoli in 1915. So he had learned how to face disaster and, in due course, he faced triumph also. Of the two, though triumph be the pleasanter, it can also be the greater test of character. I think Churchill came well out of both tests, and though he was incontestably self-assured, and by no means disinclined to applaud his own efforts, he was not vain. That is something that can seldom be said of politicians, or indeed of successful men in any walk of life. Women are different: the Almighty intends them to be vain of their appearance, though they often underestimate their achievements in other spheres.

Churchill did, of course, have his failings. However great a man may be, it does his memory no service to pretend he was faultless. The finest emeralds have a flaw, and nobody wants 24-carat gold. So before speaking to you of Churchill's qualities, the solid foundation on which his career was built, I will say something of his defects. I would emphasize that those defects were not vices. There was never a less vicious man.

He was notably self-centred. That did not prevent his being generous, kind hearted and affectionate. I am sure, too, that he would have sacrificed his life to save another; but the generosity, the compassion and the affection were the surplus available, often a large surplus, after his own requirements had been satisfied. There have been, and are, many people like that. In Churchill this characteristic just seemed to loom larger than in others. But then everything about him was writ large.

He was inconsiderate. During the war, provided he himself had seven hours sleep (one of them in the afternoon), he seldom stopped to think how exhausted others, working perhaps 18 or 19 hours a day, might be. He often changed his plans, on a sudden whim, careless of the grave inconvenience this might cause. His servants would be kept up to all hours: dining at eight o'clock, he might stay in the dining-room till after midnight. Stenographers would have to remain on duty till 3.0 or 4.0 in the morning in case they were wanted; other people's meal-times were of no consequence; the presence of Ministers or Chiefs of Staff might be required long after they had gone to bed. Yet none of those who worked for him — Ministers, Secretaries, Servants did more than utter a few grumbles. They all loved him, and they all forgave him; for if you give affection, as he did, you receive it in return.

He was impatient. Many a time I was instructed to find the answer to some question and before I had had time to reach my desk and pick up the telephone, he would ring to enquire the answer. He had always been in a position to give orders but seldom to implement them. His understanding of administrative matters was by no means well-developed. In fact, left to himself, he would have been a thoroughly bad administrator. This presented all kinds of problems, but one valuable by-product of his impatience was that speed became an essential feature of the machinery of Government. “Action This Day” really did have meaning: delay was not tolerated.

He could be bad-tempered, especially if something to which he saw no immediate solution was worrying him. But though his anger was like a burst of thunder, and was sometimes directed at a guiltless individual, he never let the sun go down without making amends: not indeed by saying he was sorry, but by praising the injured party for a totally different virtue. I remember once when I was the object of his wrath, and he had been particularly disagreeable, just before bed-time he looked at something I had written, and said “What a beautiful hand-writing you have. I have never had a private secretary with such a beautiful handwriting.”

It was untrue; but it was typical, and I went to bed content.

He was obstinate, though finally open to conviction if the argument martialled against him were logically and convincingly presented. He might waste hours of busy men's time in pursuing his proposals, but he did not, except on the rarest of occasions, fly in the face of competent and considered professional advice, act without the support of the Cabinet (or at least its endorsement) or fail to ask the House of Commons to approve the policies he had adopted.

He did have a failing that his wife constantly deplored, an addiction to luxury, which sometimes prompted him to accept gifts and invitations that, at any rate in Lady Churchill's view, he should have declined. Perhaps it was because having himself always been comparatively poor, but impulsively extravagant, he had moved in circles where champagne flowed and luxury was the accepted way of life — whether for rich dukes, such as Westminster and Marlborough, or for self-made entrepreneurs like Beaverbrook and Rothermere. His friend F.E. Smith once said: “Mr. Churchill is easily satisfied with the best.” So he was; and I think that at the end of a long, constructive career he deserved it, however well justified Lady Churchill's strictures had been in former years. Nor can it be said that he ever failed to put the call of duty first — a long way ahead of self-indulgence. And he was always prepared to fight for his convictions without the least regard to his personal popularity or political advantage. In this he was honest to an extent for which, at any rate prior to 1940, he was not given adequate credit.

Let me now make a quite different assessment, one which will, I hope, convince you that the defects I have listed were small and insignificant drops in a far brighter ocean.

Among Churchill's most powerful armaments was simplicity. Simplicity of aim, simplicity of thought, simplicity of expression. There are some benighted, and seldom very impressive, people who think that you must be complicated in order to prove you are intelligent. Churchill had at his side, before and throughout the war, a man who could explain complex scientific and economic problems without recourse to four-syllable words or technical jargon. That man was Professor F.A. Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell. He was a great scientist, who revived and inspired the famous Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford, and he was the most brilliant interpreter I have ever known, making the arcane and the diffuse comprehensible to a normally educated layman. The vast power of his intellect was matched by its clarity.

Churchill had different but comparable gifts in making himself admired and understood by the ordinary citizen. He did not seek to dazzle an audience with sophistries. For six years he had, as he said again and again, only one objective: to win the war. And his life was greatly simplified thereby. It was clear what we were fighting for: let those who had any doubts lay down their arms and those doubts would soon be resolved. I must say that in this respect I think both President Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher have a Churchillian touch, with, of course, the added advantage of speaking from material strength rather than from weakness.

Churchill detested obscurity of thought and speech. He rejected “padding”; he believed in going straight to the point; and he was the dedicated enemy of jargon, which is indeed the poison ivy of our times. He was, as we all know, a master of the English language. He mobilized it as a war winning weapon. Whenever possible he used words of one or two syllables. “Never in the field of conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”: try to express that better or more lucidly. It is one of the tragedies of our generation that, when it comes to language, we are not like Churchill, “easily satisfied with the best.” We even find it necessary to tamper with the simple beauty of the King James Version of the Bible. “Because there was no room for them in the Inn”: I can well imagine with what scorn Churchill would have regarded some of the modern efforts to improve on that. I have to declare, with whatever lack of tact in this company, that I consider the Americans, though doubtless not those at Westminster College, to be the prime sinners in what Professor Henry Higgins called “the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue” — especially when you apply your pens to industrial, economic and philosophical matters and compete for the prize of producing long words where the short would suffice. (This is probably where the audience ceases to be a captive one.)

High among Churchill's virtues 1 rate magnanimity. He was the very reverse of vindictive. Like a pugilist, he enjoyed the fight, but however hard the punches, when all was over he thought no ill of his opponent and wanted to shake hands. In a career replete with political, and sometimes personal, antagonisms he had suffered many bruises and the scars were sometimes deep; but he seemed incapable of bearing a grudge. He often spoke feelingly of those who had helped him: he never spoke ill of the many who, in the years of his unpopularity and isolation, had done all they could to thwart and defeat him. One day during the war he said to me: “I hate nobody except Hitler — and that is professional.”

Some years before that he had written: “In place of arguments for coercion, there must be arguments for conciliation.” That was the policy he pursued with the Irish Free State in 1922, having previously been a strong supporter of the notorious “Black and Tans” in their bloody struggle with the equally notorious Sinn Feiners. It was the policy that he successfully advocated for the British treatment of South Africa after the Boer War; it was the policy towards Germany of which he spoke as early as the summer of 1940; and it was the policy he would have liked to adopt towards the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. Of that I shall say more a little later.

Allied to his magnanimity towards opponents, and especially towards the vanquished, were the twin virtues of humanity and compassion. “Tout comprendre est tout pardonner”, he used often to say; and indeed there were few things he felt unable to pardon. For cowardice, treachery and deceit he would make no excuses; but for almost every other form of human weakness, including those which offended his own code of morality, he showed sympathetic understanding, at any rate after the event. He felt deeply for people in distress. Many a time when he was Prime Minister he would read in the newspaper of some alleged miscarriage of justice, and he would allow Government Departments no rest until he was satisfied on the issue. He had had no personal contact with poverty and deprivation; but imagination supplied what experience did not.

He was never half-hearted in his pursuit of social justice and improvement in the general standard of living. There was, he argued, no virtue at all in levelling down; egalitarianism was a socialist myth; but the Virtue miracles of science should be used to provide a bountiful supply of new measures to improve the lot of all humanity. It was the great Liberal dream of the Victorians; and Churchill had the idealism of both the Liberals and the Victorians. I am sure he would have included what is now called the Third World in that dream, though he used to regard with horror and alarm what he described as the pullulating millions of Asia.

He was sometimes accused of inconsistency. It would have been impossible to be narrowly consistent in a political career which covered more than 50 years of international turmoil and kaleidoscopic change. I think he put the matter in a nutshell when he wrote: “the only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them, while preserving the same dominating purpose.” In other words consistency should be wedded to flexibility, but there are basic principles that must not be changed.

In this connection it is interesting to trace over thirty-five years Churchill's attitude to the Soviet Union. In 1919 he was an eager architect of the unsuccessful allied intervention against the Reds. He understood more clearly than many of his contemporaries the menace of international communism, the virulence of the infection Lenin and Trotsky sought to spread across the world. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Comintern was not a threat to be disregarded, though co-existence with the Soviet Union was an unavoidable penance. Churchill did not close his eyes to the ultimate threat. In 1939, the unthinkable happened: Soviet Communism made an alliance with German National Socialism. When the Russians invaded Finland, Britain and France came close to declaring war on them. And at Katyn they murdered in cold blood 14,000 Polish officers they had captured in Poland — a crime unparalleled since the Middle Ages until the Germans turned even more murderous hands against the Jews.

Then on June 22nd, 1941, the thieves fell out. Hitler invaded Russia and set out to enter Moscow. He would have been wise to listen, first, to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. As for the British Government, we had to put the helm hard over, and sail on the other tack. Churchill who had an uncanny knack for making prophetic statements, had written, nearly ten years before:

“A policy is pursued up to a certain point: it becomes evident at last that it can be carried no further. New facts arise which clearly render it obsolete, new difficulties which make it impractible. A new and possibly the opposite solution presents itself with overwhelming force.”

These words were wholly apt on June 22nd 1941. As Churchill said to me the previous evening, while we walked together on the lawn at Chequers: “If Hitler were to invade Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

So it was that for four years you and we gave all we could to Russia, Britain alone sent them 5,000 tanks and 7,000 aeroplanes, accepting the cold misery and sometimes crushing losses of the Arctic convoys. You and we received very little in exchange even by way of information; but the Russians certainly fought valiantly.

Then, in August 1944, Stalin halted the soviet army at the gates of Warsaw so as to give the Germans time to massacre the pro-Western Polish Home Army which, on the strength of a signal given by Moscow radio, had risen to fight the German occupying troops. At once, at any rate to Churchill, who had been ardent in his support of soviet resistance, a red light which had been flickering for some time began to shine fiercely. He was moved to tears by the message of anguish the Women of Warsaw sent to the Pope and the Pope passed on to us. But it was too late. The Allies, and particularly Roosevelt, put their trust in Stalin's Yalta promises of free and unfettered elections in Poland and Eastern Europe. The Allies won the war: by monolithic obstinacy in negotiation, and cynical disregard of promises, the Russians won the peace.

Once again it seemed to Churchill that he must be consistent by himself changing with the changing circumstances. So he came here with President Truman, one of the greatest of American Presidents I believe, and made the famous Fulton speech which sent shock-waves throughout the free world.

Then, in March 1953, Stalin died. Was there now a chance to bring the increasingly bitter cold war to an end? It must, of course, depend on the personality of the new men in power at the Kremlin. Churchill believed it was worth a trial, for the issue at stake was so large. His own Foreign Office did not agree, nor did John Foster Dulles and the State Department, Here, they all said, is the arch anti-appeaser, the intransigent opponent of Munich, himself setting out on the dangerous road to appeasement. So his proposals were stymied. Given the personalities in the Kremlin, it must be admitted they would probably have come to nothing in any case. But it was important to discover whether circumstances had changed with Stalin's death; for if they indeed had, it would not have been inconsistent to change with them once again.

I have subjected you to this long digression about Russia, partly because I think it shows the flexibility which Churchill adopted in international politics — indeed in all politics — and partly because it may perhaps have a certain relevance for the 1980s. I will, now, resume the catalogue of what I believe to have been Churchill's more general merits and cardinal virtues.

A Statesman must have foresight and if he is to be a great statesman, he must have imagination too. These are among the gifts that distinguish him from an ordinary politician, just as they distinguish an inspired strategist from a competent tactician. Churchill had both qualities. One example of his foresight was his insistence, despite the doubts of the Foreign Office, and the overt opposition of the American Government, ongoing to Athens at Christmas 1944 and using British troops to crush the communist ELAS rebellion. In so doing he saved Greece from imprisonment behind the Iron Curtain. He kept the eastern Mediterranean free from Soviet domination. President Truman, unlike Roosevelt, soon saw the wisdom of this policy, and in 1947, with the Truman doctrine, he took over the torch from our by then exhausted and enfeebled hands.

Churchill combined imagination, and a capacity for original thought, with independence of judgement. In his political strategy, at home and abroad, he did not rely on other people's initiatives. He saw no special virtue in gathering other men’s flowers. If he had an idea he submitted it to his Cabinet or to his professional advisers for comment and reflection; but he had to be thoroughly convinced before he dropped it. And it was no use supposing that because he held some friend of colleague in high esteem, that man would necessarily be successful in advocating a particular line of policy Churchill himself had to be sincerely convinced of its merits. He had in his youth been impetuous, but with age he grew increasingly cautious and reflective. As we see again and again in democratic politics responsibility is the sovereign remedy for impetuosity. As often as not, he several times said to me, problems can be left to settle themselves. “The trees do not grow up to the sky” was a quotation that came frequently to his lips, though he could not remember whence it came and I have never succeeded in tracing it.

It is often asserted that he interfered too much in detail, especially where military questions were concerned. He was, indeed, interested in detail, but he seldom persisted for long in interference except in relation to broad strategic designs. He wrote that “those who are charged with the direction of supreme affairs must sit on the mountain tops of control: they must never descend into the valleys of direct physical and personal action.” That was a lesson he had learned from his ill-judged personal intervention in the defense of Antwerp when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914. He was sometimes tempted; but in the end he seldom did more than urge, inquire and cajole.

Great as was both his persistence and his determination, he was sometimes obliged to give way by the sheer strength of the opposition. One such case — and I think it is fortunate he was out-gunned — was in his opposition to the Government of India Bill in the 1930's, when he did his utmost to destroy Mr. Baldwin's liberal move in the direction of giving India increased self-government. Churchill had a blind spot about India. Another example was, of course, at the time of the abdication of King Edward VIII.

There are, however, other initiatives in which he was thwarted, in my view unfortunately. One was when in 1944 he strove unavailingly to persuade the American government and Chiefs of Staff to abandon the fruitless project of a landing in the South of France as a follow-up to the landing in Normandy, Operation Overlord. He wanted the excellent divisions which were removed from General Alexander's command for this enterprise, to be used to break through the German defenses in North Italy. He hoped to seize Trieste, cut off 18 German divisions in Yugoslavia from their supplies, and take Vienna from the east before the Russian armies could forestall us. It was imaginative: it just might have finished the war in the late autumn of 1944 or early winter of 1945; and had it succeeded it would have had an incalculable effect on the post-war history of Europe and the world. For when the Russians reached Vienna they would not even allow the Western allies into the city until they had installed a communist-controlled government.

A second misfortune was his inability to persuade Eisenhower, in March and April, 1945, to take Berlin and Prague and hold them until the Russians had fulfilled their pledges over Poland and accepted the Allied Control Commissions for Berlin and Vienna on the lines previously agreed. Alas, in those two disastrous months the Roosevelt Administration, which had shown such great qualities, was determined to give away everything possible to our Russian Allies. They did so with tragic results. I feel sure that Truman would have been more far-sighted; but there was a catastrophic hiatus between Roosevelt losing his grip and Truman imposing his. It is, in retrospect, astonishing that in the last months of his rapidly draining life Roosevelt did not take Truman into his confidence and ensure that he was fully informed of the political and military situation.

Incidentally in 1952 Churchill told me that he had excised from the final volume of his war history, then on the Point of publication, some of the messages on the subject he had sent to Eisenhower. He feared they might be used for political purposes in the 1952 Presidential Election. If indeed he did so, no doubt Martin Gilbert will publish them in the next volume of his great work. But even those messages he did publish tell a tragic story of missed opportunity.

He had no patience with indecision. Like the Quakers of old he believed that your yea should be yea and your nay should be nay. I am sure it was that philosophy, so characteristic of the amazing industrial development of this country, that ranked high among the American virtues he admired. He certainly had a fellow-feeling for that clerical poet, Father Ronnie Knox, who in a parody of Dryden's Absolem and Achitophel wrote:

When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal,

Corrected “I believe” to “One does feel.”

That is a wholesome warning to some modern churchmen. It also reflects the distaste with which Winston Churchill viewed those trends in politics which nearly lost us two world wars before they even broke out. And it was not, perhaps, unconnected with the thought behind his Fulton speech.

A gift which captivated even his opponents was his gaiety. He employed it as an art of government, for if ever he was in a tight corner in Parliament he would make the House laugh, and laughter disarms opposition. His wit could be sharp as a rapier; it could also strike home by an unusual turn of phrase, an unexpected adjective, a masterly use of anti-climax. It was spontaneous and it was the same in public as in private. There were not two faces in Churchill. The man in the House of Commons was the same as the man in the family circle.

Lord Moran, his doctor, wrote that he suffered from dark depressions and even led one posthumous essayist to assert he was a manic depressive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course we all have moments of depression, especially after breakfast. It was then that Moran would sometimes call to take his patient's pulse and hope to make a note of what was happening in the wide world. Churchill, not especially pleased to see any visitor at such an hour, might excuse a certain early-morning surliness by saying “I have got a black dog on my back today.” That was an expression much used by old-fashioned English nannies. Mine used to say to me, if I was grumpy, “You have got out of bed the wrong side” or else

“You have got a black dog on your back.” Doubtless Nanny Everest was accustomed to say the same to young Winston Churchill. But I don’t think Lord Moran ever had a nanny and he wrote pages to explain that Churchill suffered from periodic bouts of acute depression which, with the Churchillian gift for apt expression, he called “black dog.” Lady Churchill told me she thought the doctor's theory total rubbish and I am sure she knew more her husband's moods than did Lord Moran. I wonder how many historic beliefs have been based on equally silly deductions.

Lloyd George, according to Churchill, “could almost talk a bird out of a tree.” Churchill, for his part, actually could do so — and quite frequently did. Men would go to see him determined not to do what they knew he going to ask them. In the event they invariably did just that. As I know from personal experience, and as many others discovered to their own astonishment, it was impossible to say no. Roosevelt had the same persuasive charm, and, indeed, the same gift for expressing himself in simple terms, and so when the two met much depended on which of them happened to be taking the initiative. At the 2nd Quebec Conference I watched each out-charm the other.

Churchill was essentially a romantic, and although he only once wrote a poem — as a boy of 15 — he was a poet at heart. Describing the scene in 1940, he wrote of “a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” None but a poet could have written that; and listening as I did, usually in the House of Commons, to all those famous 1940 speeches, I was conscious of an unquenchable fire that burned within him, of a bright flame that gave a blaze to his eloquence.

We live in an age of specialists. Versatility is no longer a gateway to success. A little more than 100 years ago my paternal grandfather was Chief Whip in the House of Lords when Lord Derby was Prime Minister. It was a time when Britain was a powerful land power and unquestionably ruled the waves. According to my father, on three successive days the same man saw Lord Derby, on the race-course at Newmarket judging the finer points of a thorough-bred, in his library at Derby House translating Homer into English verse, and as Prime Minster standing up in the House of Lords to defend the Government's policy. Churchill could have improved even on that, though I don't think he would have been much good at translating Homer. Writer, painter, brick-layer, historian, polo-player, orator and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, he was perhaps the last of the truly versatile statesmen; and if he did not excel in everything to which he put his hand, he scored a high average. “Let us reconcile ourselves”, he once wrote, “to the mysterious rhythm of our destinies.” Whether mysterious or not, the rhythm of his destiny was far from the ordinary; and he did succeed in reconciling himself to it.

I will speak briefly of Churchill as a visionary. Like all men of good-will he greeted with enthusiasm President Wilson's magnificent ideal of a League of Nations. Like everybody else he then saw, with inescapable disillusionment, the League's decline into impotence. He was in his heart of hearts less enthusiastic about the second attempt at World Government, the United Nations, because he doubted if it was conceived on a basis likely to provide enduring authority. How right he was. I first heard him outline his own ideas of' a future world organisation in August, 1940, at Chequers, in the presence of General de Gaulle and several other guests.

I wrote a long account of what he said in my diary and I was particularly impressed because at that time most people were concentrating more on present survival than on future plans. But Churchill, although a dedicated historian, preferred looking forwards to looking backwards.

This is a brief resume of what he then proposed. He believe there should be Regional Councils, one for Europe, another for North and Central America, another for South America and so on. These councils should be responsible for settling their own regional problems, political, military, economic and financial, and each would send a representative to a small World Council of perhaps eight or ten people which would, no doubt, have had specialised organisations, such as the F.A.O. and the I.L.O., dependent on its secretariat. In addition it would have used its authority to help settle those internal regional disputes on which, say, the Council of Europe or the Council of Africa might be deadlocked. Ideally I suppose, the World Council's decision would have been binding. Naturally much would have depended on good-will and that, alas, is often in short supply; but a small World Council would perhaps have stood a better chance of being an acceptable umpire than an undisciplined and in essence futile, organisation such as the Assembly of the United Nations, or an almost perpetually deadlocked one such as the Security Council.

Many years later I read in one of Churchill's pre-war essays that he had reflected on such a scheme long before I heard him unfold it at Chequers. He had written of his hope that the representatives of the Regional Councils “would meet not in an over-crowded Tower of Babel but, as it were, on a mountain top where all was cool and quiet and calm, and from which the wide vision of the world would be presented with all things in their own proportion.” What a pity it has never been tried. Perhaps it could even have been made to work without vetos.

There was no greater admirer of American democracy: of that freedom of

action, that breadth of vision, that impatience with governmental and bureaucratic interference, which stem at least as much from your vivid experiences in these western lands as from your inheritance of our own historic liberties. Churchill was thrilled by the romance of America — “Westward look the land is bright” was a line of Arthur Hugh Clough's poem he loved to quote — and he was deeply stirred by the history of the Civil War, which he had studied in detail. I have seen American generals listen open-mouthed to his account of Gettysburg, where he had tramped up and down the battle field; and I saw the unemotional Harry Hopkins actually shed tears when Churchill quoted in full the poem about the old lady draped in the Union flag who told the Confederate troops to “shoot if you must at this old grey head, but spare your country's flag.”

Yet despite all this he was not an unqualified admirer of the American political system. He saw grave disadvantages in the separation of powers, and as regards Presidential Government he wrote: “The union of both the Pomp and the power of the state in a single office exposes a mortal to strains beyond the nature, and to tasks beyond the strength, even of the best and greatest of men.”

A man of international stature, he was first and foremost a British patriot (though never a nationalist). He believed in direct ministerial responsibility to Parliament and in a Constitutional Monarchy. He was sure that what he described as “the peculiar merit and sovereign quality of English national life” resided in the unbroken, golden chain of a constitutional monarchy in which past and present, tradition and progress are united. “A battle is lost, the government falls; a battle is won, crowds cheer the King. What better system could you devise”, he once said to me — and doubtless often repeated to others. That was, of course, the recipe for Britain and its Empire. He certainly did not visualise a constitutional monarchy for the United States!

Lastly, I want to speak of Churchill's supreme faith in a beneficent union of the English speaking peoples, the history of whom was his last literary endeavour. His immutable faith and conviction was that a common speech, law and literature, and many centuries of common history, bound together the British Commonwealth and the United States across national frontiers in such a way that if we advanced hand in hand no ill could befall. I heard him say that on countless occasions.

He believed in the British Empire, as it was during nearly his whole life, not because he was an imperialist in the modern pejorative sense of the word. On the contrary, he thought that each colony should become self-governing as it reached the stage where it could defend itself and order its own affairs

— as Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand had already done by the beginning of this century. It is legitimate to doubt the wisdom of his somewhat intransigent thoughts on India, but he was always a strong supporter of Home Rule for Ireland. His hope was that the colonies would remain tied to the mother-country by history and the golden link of the Crown. This has in fact happened. What Harold Macmillan called the Wind of Change only began to blow at the very end of Churchill's life, but I am sure he would have been proud to know that there are now 49 separate members of the Commonwealth, half of them with republican constitutions but all voluntarily recognising the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.

Speaking of Constitutions, it is perhaps interesting, though certainly a digression, to point out that the United Kingdom, which has the world's oldest democratic parliamentary system, is also the only country in the world, apart from New Zealand, to have no written constitution. We have found that that has its advantages. Perhaps Churchill had this in mind when he wrote: “In our affairs, as in those of Nature, there are always frayed edges, border-lands, compromises, anomalies. Few lines are drawn that are not smudged.”

In his fervent belief in the values of the British Empire, Churchill did not at all see eye to eye with many of his American friends, to whom the British Empire, wrongly I think, represented a repression of freedom. To Roosevelt, Hopkins, Eisenhower and many others the mere term colony recalled their early history lessons about the red-coats at Bunker's Hill. To Churchill and to most of his generation in Britain it seemed that we had, to the lasting benefit of the local inhabitants, provided not only great material benefits, in roads, railways, telecommunications, schools and hospitals, but had imposed law and order in lands where greed, tyranny, injustice and tribal warfare had formerly reigned supreme. In India we had created unity out of hundreds of warring states.

However, suspicion of British imperial designs long dominated the White House and did, I believe, play a part in the unfortunate conception, sprouting at Tehran and in full bloom at Yalta, that the future direction of world affairs might be more prudently shared with the Soviet Union, cleansed and purified in the furnace of war, than with old Imperialist Britain. I suppose they thought Russia had ceased to be imperialist when the Czar fell.

However, it is easy to exaggerate this theme. Churchill was sure, and I hope we all still are, that the affinities of the English speaking peoples — even if they sometimes speak English, both in England and the United States, a little less gracefully than they might — are a stabilising influence in an increasingly unstable world. It is right that we should preserve our customs and traditions, as well as our different accents and local peculiarities. Nothing is more depressing and stultifying than uniformity. But I think that if we seek to honour Churchill's memory, as you do so movingly here in Fulton, we must work for ever increasing understanding — political, economic and social — between the two countries of both of which Churchill was so proud to be, uniquely, a full citizen.

We live in stormy times. Perhaps it may be appropriate to finish this address with a verse written on the death of William Pitt by George Canning — the man who claimed to have called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old. He wrote:

And oh, if again the rude whirlwind should rise

The dawning of peace should fresh darkness deform,

The regrets of the good and the fears of the wise        

Will turn to the pilot who weathered the storm.

 

CITATION
for
SIR JOHN RUPERT COLVILLE, C.B., C.V.O.
Upon the Occasion of Conferring the Degree
of
DOCTOR OF LEITERS
Sunday, March 24, 1985 at 2:30 p.m.
Winston Churchill Memorial
as the
Fourth Crosby Kemper Lecturer

Mr. President:

The special abilities and talents of the Fourth Crosby Kemper Lecturer were recognized by three British Prime Ministers under whom he served during the sixteen year period from 1939 to 1955 Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, and Sir Winston Churchill. His formal association with the latter spanned the period 1940 to 1955 and included most of the World War II years, when Sir Winston became the inspirational leader of the free world.

Sir John Colville also has achieved distinction as an author and historian, as a merchant banker, and as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot. He played a prominent role in the establishment of Churchill College, Cambridge, of which he serves as an Honorary Fellow, and for two years, he was private secretary to Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, the present sovereign.

Mr. President, it is a rare privilege and a distinct honor to present to you, for the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, at your hand, a man who has witnessed firsthand some of the most significant events of this century and who faithfully has chronicled his experiences and impressions for the benefit of succeeding generations, Sir John Rupert Colville.

Presenter: F. Carl Schumacher
Senior Fellow
Association of Churchill Fellows
Board of Trustees

 

 

Board of Governors
of
Winston Churchill Memorial and Library

Carl Schumacher, Chairman
Robert L.D. Davidson, O.B.E.
Whitney R. Harris
E.C. Henderson, Jr.
Mrs. Ruth K. Jacobson
R. Crosby Kemper III
Mrs. J. Sterling McCluskey, M.B.E.
The Rev. Dr. Harold L. Ogden
Vernon W. Piper
James E. Rarick (Emeritus)
The Lady Soames, D.B.E.
Carl Trauernicht, Sr.
Gupton A. Vogt
Ben H. Wells
William C. Whitlow

Founding Chairman: Neal S. Wood, O.B.E.
1902-1982

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill