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6 September 2023

Churchill and the quest for greatness

Throughout his career, Britain’s wartime prime minister studied how other leaders – Roosevelt, Attlee, Stalin and Gandhi – exercised power.

By David Reynolds

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” Thus Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And there are others who try to grab the accolade of greatness for themselves and their country, to leave their mark on history. In our own time we’ve had Donald Trump’s mantra “Make America Great Again”, Boris Johnson’s Brexit burlesques and Vladimir Putin’s brutal campaign to rebuild Russia’s empire, likening himself to Peter the Great.

In the early 20th century, Winston Churchill was truly obsessed with greatness, both personal and national. He was often seen as a standalone titan. In 1914 Prime Minister Herbert Asquith called him “a wonderful creature, with a curious dash of schoolboy simplicity… and what someone said of genius – ‘a zigzag streak of lightning in the brain’.” Likewise Neville Chamberlain observed in 1928: “One doesn’t often come across a real man of genius,” adding, “Winston is such a man.” But, while plotting his unique path to greatness, Churchill also watched others closely – in ways that can still illuminate our own day.

[See also: We shouldn’t demonise Winston Churchill – or deify him]

Early in his ministerial career, Churchill was struck by the multiplier effect of working in tandem with another strong member of the government. Having deserted the Tories in 1904, he teamed up with David Lloyd George (LG), the rising star of New Liberalism – 11 years his senior. Violet Asquith, Herbert’s daughter, who became a lifelong friend of Churchill, wrote of LG: “His was the only personal leadership I have ever known Churchill to accept unquestioningly in his whole political career.”

As president of the Board of Trade, Churchill’s project for labour exchanges complemented LG’s plans, as chancellor, for unemployment insurance. They worked closely together on the 1909 budget to “wage implacable war against poverty and squalidness”, which then led to an open clash with the House of Lords (“the peers versus the people”) and eventually to the Parliament Act of 1911. This reduced the Lords’ veto over public bills to the power merely of delay.

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After the First World War, Churchill “re-ratted” to the Tories, conscious that – with the collapse of the Liberal Party – they were now the only viable foe of Labour and behind it, he believed, the menace of Bolshevism. To his amazement, in 1924 the Tory premier, Stanley Baldwin, made him chancellor of the Exchequer, and initially he worked closely with Chamberlain, as minister of health. Chamberlain had made his name as a reforming lord mayor of Birmingham and now had far-reaching plans for public health and local government in the age of mass democracy. Churchill, similarly, wanted the new ministry to “concentrate on a few great issues on the social sphere”. Chamberlain’s landmark Pensions Act of 1925 – the UK’s first contributory scheme of state pensions – was facilitated by Churchill’s Budget (usually remembered for returning Britain to the Gold Standard), which cut naval spending and raised death duties to help fund the pensions.

Churchill wished to repeat this double act in 1927. He told Baldwin: “Each year it is necessary for a modern British government to place some large issue or measure before the country, or to be engaged in some struggle which holds the public mind.” He hoped to work with Chamberlain on reform of the rates – a local property tax – but this time there was real friction between the two “big beasts” of the Baldwin government, each eyeing the ultimate prize. Chamberlain acknowledged Churchill’s energy and rhetorical flair, but found him too impulsive. “His part is to brush in broad splashes of paint with highlights and deep shadows. Accuracy of drawing is beyond his ken.” Their confrontation over the rates was resolved, but Chamberlain drew a clear conclusion: “He is like a wayward child who compels admiration but who wears out his guardians.”

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This widely shared judgement kept Churchill out of the national governments led by Baldwin and then Chamberlain for most of the 1930s. Desperate to get back into office, Churchill made a nuisance of himself – determined to keep himself in the “public mind” – but his successive agitations over Indian devolution, the abdication and rearmament only strengthened the doubts of many at Westminster. Yet, interestingly, Baldwin remarked in 1935 that “if there is going to be a war – and who can say there is not – we must keep him fresh to be our war prime minister”.

Given Chamberlain’s gripes about Churchill’s penchant for broad-brush highlights, it’s also ironic that when Chamberlain gained what he called the “wonderful power” of the premiership, it went to his head. “Now I only have to move a finger and the whole face of Europe is changed,” he informed his sisters in August 1937. A year later his hubris literally took off, in a dramatic trio of airborne visits to meet Hitler face to face and even bring “peace for our time”. He extolled his “new technique of diplomacy relying on personal contacts”, rather than on ponderous exchanges of state papers.

It was Churchill, supposedly the addict of gesture politics, who urged the PM in 1938 to sit tight and call Hitler’s bluff. But in vain. After Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement fell apart and war ensued in September 1939, Churchill was at last brought into the cabinet. And then it was Chamberlain, not Churchill, who got the blame for failing to stop Hitler’s seizure of Norway. So Baldwin’s prediction came to pass. On 10 May 1940 Churchill took office as “our war prime minister”.

Illustration by Barry Falls

Writing in 1937 about leaders and leadership, Churchill had observed: “The amount of energy wasted by men and women of first-class quality in arriving at their true degree, before they can play on the world stage, can never be measured. One may say that 60, perhaps 70 per cent of all they have to give is expended on fights which have no other object than to get to their battlefield.”

That judgement certainly rings true in Churchill’s own case. Aged 65, it took two-thirds of his 90-year lifespan to reach his chosen battlefield. But having got there, he had to fight on ground definitely not of his own choosing and alongside allies to whom he was very much the junior partner. He had assumed that this war would be an updated version of 1914-18, anchored by a strong British-French alliance along the Western Front, which would last the conflict’s full duration. In 1940, however, the entente cordiale survived little more than four weeks. On getting to his battlefield, Churchill suddenly had to learn the art of improvisation. Indeed, he would be improvising for the rest of his political life.

His turn to America in 1940 seems, in hindsight, inevitable and indeed natural because of Churchill’s maternal ancestry. But in 1927-28, his tone had been very different. During an intense naval race with the US he told the cabinet that, although it was “quite right in the interests of peace” to say that war with America was “unthinkable”, in fact, “everyone knows this is not true. However foolish and disastrous such a war would be… we do not wish to put ourselves in the power of the United States.”

During the 1930s, however, the threat from Hitler reorientated his priorities, and by the end of 1940, when President Franklin D Roosevelt publicly outlined his Lend-Lease bill – to give Britain material aid while leaving the question of reimbursement to be settled later – Churchill proclaimed it a “new Magna Carta” and bent all his efforts to building a “special relationship” with the US and its leader. Yet, once the great republic deployed its vast human and industrial resources after D-Day, Churchill had to play second fiddle.

“Our armies are only about one-half the size of the American and will soon be little more one-third,” he told South African premier Jan Smuts in December 1944, so “it is not so easy as it used to be for me to get things done.” The face-to-face diplomacy pioneered by Chamberlain in 1938 became Churchill’s way to offset the growing imbalance of power. He declared later: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.”

[See also: From the NS archive: Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?]

He adopted the same method with the Soviet Union, which became Britain’s other great wartime partner. This was, of course, a far less natural relationship for Churchill than his rapport with FDR’s America. After Lenin seized power in 1917, Churchill had been the leading British exponent of smothering “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism” in its cradle. And in 1939-41 the USSR had been aligned with Germany in carving up eastern Europe. But Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviets in June 1941 – Operation Barbarossa – transformed Churchill’s frame of reference: he declared publicly that, “Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid.”

Initially theirs was an epistolary relationship, much harder to conduct than the one with Roosevelt because of the ideological divide and the language barrier. It was not until August 1942 that Churchill was able to fly to Moscow and meet Stalin in person. Their first session was businesslike and amicable, but in the second the Soviet leader accused the PM of breaking promises about opening a second front, and even taunted the British army with cowardice. Seeking an explanation for this dramatic shift, Churchill cabled the cabinet: “I think the most probable is that his Council of Commissars did not take the news I brought as well as he did. They perhaps have more power than we suppose and less knowledge.” At one point he was on the verge of flying back to London but a well-judged invitation from Stalin to a drink in his private quarters became a convivial booze-up that lasted into the early hours.

Churchill returned home convinced there were “two forces to be reckoned with in Russia: (a) Stalin himself, personally cordial to me, (b) Stalin in council, a grim thing behind him, which we and he have to reckon with”. In reality, the contrast in mood between Churchill’s first and second sessions in Moscow reflected the Soviet leader’s standard tactic of keeping his interlocutors off balance. But the “two Stalins” trope allowed Churchill to retain his rooted belief in the malevolence of Bolshevism in tandem with a new hope that his own diplomatic skills could build bridges with the Soviet leader.

Subsequent conferences reinforced that conviction. Returning from Yalta in February 1945, Churchill even told his government ministers: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.” Once in the top seat, it would seem, he succumbed to the same hubris as his predecessor. Although, after victory day in May 1945, Churchill flirted briefly with the idea of using force to challenge Stalin’s control of Poland (Operation Unthinkable), his fixed point remained negotiation – from a position of strength. That was the crux of his “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946 (which he called “The Sinews of Peace”), and he reverted to the idea with calls for another “parley at the summit” during his second term as PM in 1951-55.

Summitry – face-to-face meetings between leaders – was the cardinal lesson he drew from his dealings with Roosevelt and Stalin. This, he hoped, could compensate for the relative decline of Great Britain in the dawning era of the nuclear superpowers.

At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Winston Churchill observes his two great allies – “Uncle Joe” Stalin and the ailing Franklin D Roosevelt. Photo by Gado / Getty Images

Two other leaders with whom Churchill dealt cast a different light on his concept of greatness. First, Mohandas Gandhi. Churchill’s denunciation in 1931 has become one of his most celebrated utterances: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, while he is still organising and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

In the 1930s Churchill bracketed Gandhi with Hitler as the two most dangerous threats to Britain’s global position. Yet there was a crucial difference. The threat from the Führer could be understood in conventional power-political terms: Germany was rearming and that must be met by British rearmament. But Gandhi wasn’t playing the familiar game. This colonial subject, trained at the Inns of Court yet now dressed up as a “half-naked fakir”, seemed a con man: truly a faker. Worse still, his political creed of non-violence could not be overcome by force, and that challenged everything Churchill had believed about power and masculinity since his army days. He would never have conceded to Gandhi the accolade of “greatness”, but the little mahatma in his loin cloth was able to mobilise power of a sort that Churchill never dreamed of – as when he picked up a lump of salty mud from a beach in Gujarat in April 1930 to trigger mass protest against British rule. With such unlikely weapons, he helped undermine the Raj.

[See also: Attlee and Churchill: leaders united through war]

Clement Attlee also played a major role in the end of empire. Like Churchill, Attlee was a Victorian and a patriot, who had fought for his country at Gallipoli, but what he meant by Great Britain contrasted sharply with Churchill’s creed. Attlee’s formative experiences came as a social worker in London’s East End before the First World War, which converted him to socialism. A stern critic of 19th-century liberal individualism, he believed it was “the duty of the state to act as the coordinating factor in making all individual effort work for the good of the citizen”.

Although derided by some of Labour’s heavyweights as a “little mouse”, Attlee served as party leader for two decades from 1935 and he worked loyally and proudly as Churchill’s deputy premier in the war coalition of 1940-45. An autographed copy of David Low’s famous cartoon “All Behind You, Winston” graced Attlee’s bedroom wall when he died. That loyalty was given readily, but not unconditionally. Attlee was determined that Labour should use its time in the coalition quietly to prepare the way for a better world for working people than the one which followed the First World War. He watched Churchill’s back, but also worked behind his back to advance Labour’s agenda. What the academic and former MP David Marquand has called Britain’s “war socialism” paved the way for the Labour government’s programme of nationalisation after 1945.

Attlee took a particular interest in India. Having toured the subcontinent at length in 1928-29, his knowledge was more up to date and extensive than Churchill’s memories as a subaltern in the late 1890s. Japan’s conquests in 1941-42 undermined European power and credibility across Asia, and India ended the war wracked by communal violence. Britain’s position there was no longer sustainable, but Attlee’s timetable for independence was not merely making a virtue out of necessity. All the “great men who have built up our rule in India,” he told the Commons, “looked to the fulfilment of our mission in India, and the placing of responsibility for their own lives in Indian hands.” Despite the carnage that marred the “transfer” of power in 1947, repeatedly castigated by Churchill, Attlee’s message of “mission accomplished” was partially vindicated when India decided to stay in the Commonwealth. He claimed that Churchill’s diehard fight against devolution in the 1930s had prevented “an all-India solution to the Indian problem before the Second World War”.

Both Churchill and Attlee were deeply patriotic, but they differed as to what made Britain “great”. For Churchill it was the empire, whereas Attlee – though still seeing Britain as a global force, and, indeed, making it the third nuclear power – considered empire an outdated burden. At home, what mattered for him was the concept of “social security” that he had evolved in the East End. Yet that vision was linked to a policy of state ownership which, as Churchill never tired of saying, took the British government far beyond its effective capacities into the management of huge business enterprises. But Attlee remained wedded to nationalisation – the commitment to it in Clause IV of Labour’s 1918 constitution was revoked only in 1995 by Tony Blair.

This ideological rigidity was Attlee’s equivalent of Churchill’s imperial nostalgia. Neither man could escape his past. Their rival conceptions of national greatness still haunt this country today.

David Reynolds’s “Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him” will be published by William Collins on 12 October

[See also: The month of two D-Days]

This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain