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Sometimes only single-minded mavericks can succeed

Sometimes only single-minded mavericks can succeed

🕔17.Jan 2018

If the health police haven’t yet been alerted, they’d jolly well better be, writes Paul Dale

A film that is doing a roaring trade in Britain’s cinemas has as its star an aristocratic overweight pensioner whose dissolute lifestyle involves drinking champagne and whisky for breakfast, smoking numerous fat cigars throughout the day and night, sleeping in until noon or gone, and a tendency to appear naked from his bath in front of female secretaries.

And as if that’s not enough to bring on an attack of the vapours in our censorious society, this man is an inveterate gambler who spent most of his adult life on the verge of financial ruin and fought a running battle with the Inland Revenue in an attempt to avoid paying income tax.

Our hero was responsible for two dreadful political and military blunders – the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign in the First World War with the loss of 300,000 allied troops, and the decision to return Britain to the Gold Standard in 1925, which pushed unemployment to record levels and led to the economic depression of the 1930s.

But, cometh the hour, cometh the man, and it was Winston Churchill that the Tory party grandees reluctantly accepted must become prime minister in May 1940 as Hitler’s Nazi stormtroopers stood within striking distance of the English Channel having torn through Holland, Belgium and France in record time.

Darkest Hour, the latest Churchill biopic starring Gary Oldman as the greatest Englishman, is packing them in at cinemas and no wonder for it is superbly acted and finely politically nuanced as far as the intense pressure the new prime minister came under to sue for peace is concerned.

As has been widely reported, audiences for Darkest Hour are notable for featuring a far higher proportion of children than is usual for a historical drama, presumably having been taken by parents and grandparents to learn something about a moment in time when this island story, as WSC would put it, came perilously close to a premature and nasty end. There have even been accounts, here and in America, of audiences standing and applauding when Oldman delivers the ‘we will never surrender’ speech at the end of the film.

It is by no means over-dramatic to suggest that if the arch-appeasers Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax had successfully forced the government to capitulate to Hitler in 1940, the result would have been to give the dictator a breathing space, making a successful German invasion of Russia far more likely, leaving Hitler time and space to deal with this country in 1941.

Britain would have swiftly become a fascist German satellite most likely under the puppet leadership of a government presided over by the Duke of Windsor or some such equally unpleasant extreme right-wing figure. Cities like London and Birmingham would not be multi-cultural at all. Indeed, the only brown and black faces to be seen in Britain today would be in slave labour camps.

The real point of this article is to underline the fact that sometimes, yes sometimes, challenges facing countries and even cities are so great that only single-minded mavericks can succeed if they are given the time and space to do so.

Churchill was 65 in 1940 and regarded as a failure, even though he’d been at the centre of the British political scene since 1906. The Gold Standard and Dardanelles fiascos, plus his ability to switch from Tory to Liberal, to no party at all, and then back to Tory gave him the reputation of being a chancer and not someone to be trusted. Just the person as it turned out to take on Hitler.

Should anyone think that the hard-drinking, hard-smoking lifestyle of Churchill depicted in Darkest Hour is somewhat exaggerated, think again. The truth is that the film’s writers rather played down his alcoholic consumption.

The excellent 2015 book ‘No More Champagne – Churchill and his money’ by David Lough is a finely researched and rollicking account of a life-long struggle to balance the family finances, aided by bank records made available to the author by the Churchill family.

Churchill earned a vast fortune from journalism and writing, tens of millions of pounds in today’s money, but gambled and drunk away almost as much over 70-odd years. Lough helpfully places an inflation calculator at the top of each page to enable the reader to understand the finances in today’s terms.

In 1940, Churchill’s personal wine consumption plus wine consumed at Chequers was about £5,000 a month in today’s terms. During the war his personal spending ran at the rate of £200,000 a year, with wine, spirits and cigars accounting for a third. When he was Home Secretary before the First World War his personal expenditure reached an eye-watering £450,000 a year in today’s terms.

And so it went on throughout the life of this remarkable man, who did after all live until he was 90, which remains a most inconvenient fact for today’s alcohol naysayers.

There has been some criticism lately in the West Midlands of what is dismissed almost sneeringly as ‘heroic leadership’. Those that instinctively rail against putting heroes in charge of anything would far rather have ‘collaborative leadership’, where it is claimed true leaders emerge because they get the best out of other people. Clearly, collaborative leadership wouldn’t have got us very far in 1940. There’d have been jackboots tramping down Whitehall before you could say Munich Agreement.

Heroic leaders, it is true, are often difficult people with an unshakeable belief in their own ability who do not suffer fools gladly. Were there a Tory Churchill today, that man or woman would have been destroyed by left-leaning social media. Lazes in bed until mid-day, permanently drinking, spends a fortune on the finest cigars….there would be little sympathy for a hero of the right.

Churchill was an imperialist, an adventurer and gambler who, to quote the American war correspondent Ed Murrow, was able to mobilise the English language and send it into battle.

A man for the moment, but not the man for the peace. Voters threw him out of office in 1945, proving that they could distinguish between the time for a hero and the time for collaboration.

Somehow, Kipling springs to mind:

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?
But it’s Thin red line of ‘eroes when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it’s Thin red line of ‘eroes when the drums begin to roll.

The author has spent his life earning from journalism and writing. He was previously press secretary to the leader of Birmingham city council and prior to that chief blogger for the Chamberlain Files. He has even been known to enjoy a tipple and a cigar. 

The man pictured is Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, not Paul Dale. 

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