9 January 2015 issue
Cover story: “The Churchill Myth”
In the NS Essay, Simon Heffer asks whether the unquestioning idolatry which surrounds Sir Winston Churchill prevents a true understanding of his life and career
The Leader: a reckoning in the eurozone and murderous outrage in Paris.
From the Archive: Winston Churchill in the New Statesman over 5 decades.
Andrew Marr on What Makes Us Human?
George Eaton meets the man who could be London Mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Daniel Trilling considers the increasing popularity of the far left in Greece.
Politics column: George Eaton on why the Tories are wrong to view 2015 as another 1992.
The NS Essay: the Churchill myth
Simon Heffer argues in the NS Essay this week that the romanticised image of Winston Churchill “suffocates reality” and “keeps us from an honest interpretation of our history”. Heffer writes that the Prime Minister’s “indispensable and nationsaving achievement in 1940”
… diverts attention from all else that Churchill did before and after, and even discourages analysis of it. Worst of all, it discourages reflection on his management of the war, which, as anyone who has read the accounts of some of his closest colleagues – notably Sir Alan Brooke and Anthony Eden – will know, was much more hit and miss than conventional history usually has it. The effect of the often unquestioning idolatry with which he is widely regarded not only hinders us from evaluating Churchill properly but from forming an accurate assessment of the times in which he lived, and that he did so much to shape.
Heffer dismisses Boris Johnson’s “self-regarding travesty of a biography” and instead explores less laudable moments in Churchill’s career, from his decision to send troops into Tonypandy in 1910 and disastrous stint in the navy as the first lord of the Admiralty resulting in the loss of 46,000 lives, to his catastrophic impact on Britain’s economy as chancellor of the Exchequer in 1925 and his dismissal of Indian independence. He casts Churchill as, ultimately, “driven by ambition”:
Despite a record of failure and misjudgement that in any other politician would offset even the most considerable achievements, Churchill in death has become largely untouchable by all, apart from those who are dismissed as mavericks and sectarians. The myth keeps us from an honest interpretation of our history in the first half of the 20th century. The false and romanticised picture we have of him, created by his reputation from 1940-45, is a huge obstacle to true understanding.
In one aspect of his life, when the man met the hour, he was as outstanding as anyone in British history has been. In all others he was just another politician on the make, firing out opinions at random in the hope that one, now and again, would hit the target. He had a bellicosity that in all circumstances other than 1940-45 could be intensely dangerous, and that had its downside even in the fight against Hitler.
But we would best understand his indisputable greatness, and our enduring debt to him, by realising how his achievements came in spite of, not because of, his particular character. The myth is too much. It is more important than ever to examine the reality of his life and works, and to try to get him in a true perspective.
Plus, From the Archive: The Churchill Papers illustrates the NS’s shifting opinion of Churchill throughout his career through three contemporary pieces: a 1926 editorial from then editor Clifford Sharp that asks “Should we hang Mr Churchill?”, a 1939 interview between Churchill and editor Kingsley Martin, and the front page-editorial following his death, which praises him as “the greatest man of action of his age”.
The Leader: a reckoning in the eurozone and murderous outrage in Paris
The NS ‘s leader this week considers whether the Eurozone can continue to ignore the failure of austerity on the Continent, arguing that if Angela Merkel, David Cameron and the rest of the EU continue to dismiss the problem, voters will be drawn to more extreme options:
For five years eurozone leaders have avoided, rather than confronted, the failure of austerity on the Continent. The economic and human damage wreaked by the programme imposed on Greece, Spain and other debtors has been dismissed as the necessary price of reform.
However, the point at which the EU could avert a reckoning may finally be about to end. The front-runner to win the emergency Greek election on 25 January is Syriza, the populist left-wing party that has pledged to demand an end to austerity and to secure the provision of debt relief. The gamble by Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic 40-year-old who leads the movement, is that Germany will relent in order to prevent the withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone and the possibility of a wider currency crisis.
[. . . ]
“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” Mrs Merkel has often said when commenting on the crisis. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the United States is now a byword for decline. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not the intemperance of its voters, but their patience. If EU leaders respond to the possibility of a Syriza victory by giving the appearance that they wish to dissolve the electorate, the danger is that the public will, as in the 1930s, be drawn to more extreme means.
The Leader also reflects on the recent devastating attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo:
Religious fundamentalism of all forms is a malign force in the world: all secularists and liberals, as well as the moderately devout, must resist it.
The Politics Column: George Eaton argues that the Tories are wrong to view 2015 as another 1992
In the Politics Column this week, NS political editor George Eaton notes the rhetorical familiarity of the current Conservative party with their predecessors in 1922:
The talk is of a general election without precedent: the first to take place in a new era of six-party politics; the first to follow a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition; the first that even Britain’s most forensic psephologists are unwilling to call.
Yet it is familiarity, not novelty, that marks the attack lines deployed by Labour and the Tories. The Conservatives have charged Labour with planning to destroy the economy through tax rises and borrowing. Labour, in turn, has charged its opponents with planning to destroy the NHS through harsh cuts and privatisation. Much the same has been said at every election in the past 30 years.
The Tories are unashamed of such self-plagiarism. Their explicit template for 2015 is 1992: the last time that they won a majority and overcame a Labour opposition.
Yet if it is plausible for the Conservatives to hope that 2015 conforms to the script of 1992, it would be neglectful for them to assume as much. Their preoccupation with this previous triumph is a mark of weakness, not strength, indicative of a desire to fight past rather than present battles.
Eaton goes on to reject the idea that the two elections are similar, arguing that Cameron cannot have the same transformative effect as party leader as John Major, and that the “late wave of support” they seemed to experience in 1992 cannot be replicated today.
Tory MPs hope to beat Labour in a close contest, yet few believe the party will secure a majority, let alone match Major’s achievement of recording the highest number of votes ever cast for a winning party. As they deride Labour’s and Miliband’s “weaknesses”, they should ponder why the “natural party of government” has been left so limited in its ambitions. Triumphant or defeated, the Tories need to relinquish the distorting prism of 1992.
What Makes Us Human?
Andrew Marr: I did it My Way. Don’t we all?
As part of the What Makes Us Human? series, the broadcaster and journalist considers how being able to comprehend that very question makes us human:
In the first place,
It’s being capable of understanding the biological and evolutionary answers to that question (such as the huge growth in the frontal lobes around the same time as the language instinct develops, and hence, selfconsciousness; or the evolution of the erect posture and the opposable thumb); and yet, at the same time, uneasily feeling that all that’s not enough;
thus, loftily declaring our kinship with angels, while behaving like murderous beasts;
and yet being intelligent enough to understand that the word “murderous” is a libel on fellow mammals trying to stay alive by eating one another.
In the second place,
It’s making. We are the making animal. Unless we make – that is, in some small way, change the world around us – we are not fully human. The making can be a book, a garden, cooked food, but the best making is the making of other human beings, kind and competent, through parenting, biological or otherwise. But what we do is, we change the world around us. We are because we make.
Alongside joy, death, and hypocrisy, Marr also considers that justificatory refrain, “I did it My Way”:
In the twelfth and final place, it’s insisting that one has lived one’s life “My Way” while having in fact behaved exactly like everybody else – bipedal, vainglorious, self-deluded and yet, luckily, just lovable enough . . . But mainly, to be human is to make.
Sadiq Khan tells George Eaton that the British public “deserve” to see the Greens on televised debates
In an interview with the NS political editor George Eaton, shadow justice secretary and MP for Tooting Sadiq Khan reveals his perhaps unexpected support for small parties appearing on TV debates:
To add to Khan’s expanding workload, he has been charged with leading an electoral unit devoted to combating the Greens, whom Labour strategists estimate could cost the party up to 17 seats by splitting the anti-Tory vote. So perhaps surprisingly, and in contrast to recent briefing by Labour sources, he suggests that Natalie Bennett’s party, as well as Ukip, should be included in any TV debates.
“I think they should happen and I think they [the Greens and Ukip] should be included. I’m relishing them: I think it’s an opportunity for the country to see Ed Miliband – to hear and see his passion, to hear and see the vision he has for the country and to hear and see that he thinks the best of the British public. I’m not sure why Cameron is so scared; I don’t understand why his advisers are bottling it. What the British public deserves to see is all the leaders – and that includes Natalie Bennett, by the way – having a debate about their vision for the country, their analysis of the last five years.”
Khan also insists that positive discrimination is a necessary tool to see more women and candidates from black, Asian and other minority groups in Parliament:
“My personal opinion and the formulation that I have – and it’s not Labour Party policy – is a hybrid system, so you have some seats in which either half the candidates can be women and/or ethnic-minority men or women . . . The National Executive Committee needs to think about the fact that as a party we’re at our best when we look like the communities we seek to represent.”
Daniel Trilling explores how harsh austerity measures in Greece are pushing the far left closer to power
In this week’s issue, Daniel Trilling traces the impact of economic disaster on the country’s emerging far left, considering how the sense of solidarity sparked by the 2011 protests has bolstered support for Syriza, the left-wing party gaining in popularity:
Austerity has been bitter for most Greeks; each winter now brings a rise in deaths from fire and respiratory diseases because people have been heating their homes by burning wood rather than more expensive oil. At the same time solidarity networks have flourished: volunteers from all sorts of political backgrounds provide free medical care to people without insurance, or run markets that put farmers directly in touch with consumers so that impoverished Greeks can buy cheap, healthy food. Such initiatives are meant only as stopgaps, but they point to something important: the idea that people can take control and build an alternative to policies imposed from above.
Syriza, the left-wing party that stands on the brink of power, has sought to position itself as the political voice of this wider social movement.
Trilling writes that an election victory for Syriza “would send shock waves far beyond Greece” by undermining austerity:
Already, German officials have reiterated threats that Greece could be forced to leave the eurozone if its people elect a Syriza government. In a previous era, what the party is proposing – renegotiating Greece’s debts down to half their present level – might have been regarded as unremarkable Keynesian economics. But a Syriza victory now would be seen as an encouragement to popular anti-austerity movements elsewhere in Europe, including Spain, which also holds elections this year and where the far-left Podemos, founded only a year ago, has become a serious challenger.
Felicity Cloake: Let’s face it, detox diets are making fools of us.
Books: John Gray on our shifting understanding of vice and virtue.
Meet the maestro: Nicholas Lezard on what we think we know about Beethoven.
Helen Lewis argues that diversity in casting is about more than “political correctness”; it makes for better drama.
Peter Wilby on the trouble with Prince Andrew and guarding the guardsmen.
Tom Gatti on the books to look out for in 2015.
Suzanne Moore visits Iceland, home of the glowing grave and eternally bruised vegetable.
Tracey Thorn: Guest-editing Today was like watching air-traffic controllers at work.