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(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Churchill — underrated? By whom? Surely his mythical status is unrivalled among modern statesmen of this or any other land. The flow of documentaries, biographies and movies never ceases. The latest cinematic tribute, Darkest Hour, has just demonstrated that he is still a hit not only with critics but also at the box office; while the standing ovations with which audiences greeted Gary Oldman’s stirring evocation of perhaps his greatest speech, “We shall fight on the beaches”, shows that his words have lost none of their sublime power to move us.

And yet, and yet . . . Churchill the legendary orator may still be alive and roaring, but how often do we pay attention to what he actually said? How often does it occur to one of our leaders to emulate not merely the style but the substance of his leadership? Would the Prime Minister dare to face down the appeasers in her Cabinet, as Churchill did Chamberlain and Halifax in May 1940? Even our cherubic Foreign Secretary, who has added his own slim volume to the vast literature, can hardly be said to have followed the great man’s example: all too often, British diplomacy still meekly toes the European line. Even when our politicians try to strike a note of Churchillian pathos, they usually fall into a Farageist bathos.

So let us take another look at that speech, made by Churchill immediately after the “miracle” of Dunkirk — delivered in the Commons not, as in Darkest Hour, immediately after winning over his Cabinet on May 26, but a week later, on June 4. Much of it is, inevitably, given over to a narrative of heroic resistance and deliverance. He claims that the RAF had emerged victorious from its first “great trial of strength” with the Luftwaffe, and he looks forward to the coming Battle of Britain, asking: “May it not be also that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?” Thus Churchill places what he concedes has been, if not “the greatest military disaster in our long history”, then still a “colossal” one, in the widest possible context: the defence of Western civilisation.

Having dismissed the purported invasion plans of “Herr Hitler” by a reminder of Napoleon’s abortive precedent, he insists that “We shall not be content with a defensive war. We have a duty to our ally” — France. A few days previously, Churchill had flown to Paris at considerable personal risk to see the situation for himself and impress upon the French leadership his determination to stand by them. Not only thousands of British and Canadian troops, but a quarter of the RAF were still engaged in the Battle of France, despite the desperate shortage of aircraft. French troops were given priority in the Dunkirk evacuation, and 111,172 were rescued. Marshal Pétain, by now ready to surrender, was quite unmoved by this brave display of solidarity.

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Lawrence james
January 31st, 2018
10:01 AM
Not on a word on the British Empire, a partner of immense value, treasured by Churchill and invaluable to our war effort. As for France, Churchill was perfectly happy to occupy Lebanon and Syria ( where the Vichy forces resisted ) and approve their independence. De Gaulle fumed.

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