The philosopher Aristotle in defining tragedy stated, you may perhaps think surprisingly, that it must have mekos or 'length'.
The phenomenon of Winston Churchill would have been impossible, whatever his other qualities, without the exceptional length of his public life and experience.
Between the battle of Omdurman with the classic last cavalry charge in British military history to Britain's acquisition of the hydrogen bomb as a member of the American alliance there was a stretch of fifty-seven years, a period which covered both the culmination and the dissolution of the British Empire, the transformation of British society and politics by extension of the franchise to include all adults, and a technological transformation of life in Britain at least as extensive as the first Industrial Revolution.
I have reckoned the span of time to Churchill's resignation as Prime Minister in 1955 at the age of 7O, because, despite president Johnson's ill-judged obituary tribute, the public life which we are honouring tonight was at an end ten years before its physical termination.
Science and the progress of civilisation have created incalculably powerful resources for recording and preserving information; but information is not the same thing as experience, and the individual human mind and memory have retained their primacy undiminished.
When the man who was Asquith's President of the Board of Trade sat in the central seat at the Cabinet table - the very same Cabinet table - half a century later, it was not a filing cabinet or a computer which sat there. The life of Britain itself experienced to the full through three generations of men was present with all its memories and emotions and with the recollection of past expectations and their outcome.
By 1955 it was given to Winston Churchill to have become the living embodiment of his nation through the accumulation of its past in his own individual person. This would not have been so had Churchill been a pedantically consistent exponent of opinions once formed. He had the ability to change with the times and to share the vicissitudes of opinion. He could change from a Conservative of the Salisbury era to a Liberal of the Asquith era; and when the day of liberalism, of Lloyd George and of the National Coalition was done, he could change again into a Conservative who would hold high office under Baldwin in the 1920's and would not have refused it from Neville Chamberlain in the later 1930's. Thus he shared the afterglow of Britain's devotion to free trade; but when opinion deserted it at last, he moved with the movement of events, unhampered by the scruples or the impracticality of a doctrinaire. He shared the triumphalist imperialism of Britain's Wembley Exhibition years which followed the victories and conquests of the First World War, and he tested to breaking point the destructibility of the Indian Raj; but the wartime leader who refused to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire found it possible, along with his fellow countrymen, to do just that and to do it upon the whole with dignity and without dishonour in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Never perhaps was there a statesman who built up such an accumulation of damaging quotes against himself; but a genial English common sense and an eye for the main chance enabled him to soar gleefully above them.
Churchill was always a man of his time. While Lloyd George was 'robbing the hen roosts', Churchill kept cave for him. When a Liberal government became dependent upon Irish votes, Churchill would crush Ulster's resistance to home rule. He never fell foul of Bismarck's great dictum that, if there is anything more dangerous than a very short-sighted politician, it is a very far-sighted politician.
Churchill's warning's of German aggressive intention after 1934 which reinforced his personal authority when he was called to the helm in l94O, have caused to be misunderstood the true sense in which he was prophetic.
It was not so much the triumph of distant deductive reasoning as the long vista of historical and personal memory which, when others were still blind, revealed to him the nature and inevitable outcome of the resurgent German empire. He was a man who thought with his memory.
The climax which came to Churchill's life in 1940 was, like the Battle of Waterloo, a 'damned close-run thing'. He was rising 66. A year or two longer, and the consummation of that vast political life would have been no more than a might-have-been. It is easy now to underestimate how close we came to that catastrophe.
I used to possess a work entitled The tragedy of Winston Churchill by a gentleman of the name of Germains which was published in 1931. Its theme was the career of a man dogged by repeated failure, whose high promise had been belied over and over again. That was a thesis not capable of being maintained without special pleading; but it would have seemed a plausible theme for biographers if the final span had not turned all that went before into an almost preordained prelude and preparation for the climax.
As in all human affairs, there was a big element of chance. But chance is powerless without a quality in the human beings whose lives it rules that is anything but fortuitous. Churchill never contracted out. In the great lottery of life, he never rose from the gaming-table. After the collapse of the Lloyd George Coalition it would have been a perfectly acceptable option for an ex-Home Secretary, ex-First Lord of the Admiralty, ex-Colonial Secretary, ex-Cabinet Minister of fifteen years standing to make the honoured and dignified exit traditionally appropriate to such a career. The House of Lords is littered - more than ever since the invention life peerages - with those who chose that option. In Churchill there was a force, which is underdescribed if it is called ambition, that drove him into the fray again to force his return reluctant political party and fight his way to the top level there. Even then, there was no stopping, After 1929 the Elysian Fields might have beckoned a former Chancellor of the Exchequer; but new controversies, new causes, new antagonisms were irresistible. It was because Churchill irrepressibly returned ever and again to the battle front that he enjoyed that enormous span of public life which made him at the end of it an incarnation of the British people.
Comparative lives are tempting but often misleading and fallacious. I am minded nevertheless to use two comparative lives to assist in assessing the dimensions of the Churchill portent. The nearest political life to Churchill's in terms of length was that of Gladstone. Gladstone sat in Parliament for sixty-three years, almost exactly identical with Churchill's sixty-four, though perhaps the last ten of Churchill's years ought not to be counted. On the other hand Gladstone first became Prime Minister at the age of 58 as compared with Churchill at 66. At 75 Gladstone attempted retirement but events and his own personality drew him back into the lead and he formed his last government at 82 years of age, as against Churchill's 77. Both men thus brought into the public life and government of their later years a span . of experience and a historic vision that was out of the ordinary. If there was a difference between them, it is to be found in the almost demonic compulsion of an inner logic which propelled Gladstone from one party into another and from High Toryism into principled radicalism. To this there was no counterpart in the life of the later statesman.
The other life which I evoke is that of F. E. Smith, who entered Parliament in 1905 at the age of 33 against Churchill's 26 and found himself raised by his coruscating parliamentary brilliance into the front ranks of' the Conservative Party by the time the war came in 1914. Yet before it was over he had, for all his political talents and ambition, preferred office and eventually the Woolsack to greater dangers and opportunities. Winston Churchill and F. E. Smith were friends as well as rivals; but the Earl of Birkenhead * sets off like a foil the imperishable inheritance which the sheer undaunted persistence of Churchill enabled him to leave behind in the political life of Britain.
This Society has given itself the task of maintaining, commemorating and enlarging the life and work of Winston Churchill. That is not a task which can be performed from one angle or one point of view. It is three dimensional and you must walk right round and keep on walking as long as you live. Tonight availing myself of the privilege with which you endowed me, I have drawn your attention to but one dimension, the dimension of time: and I have sought to assist evaluation of that unique achievement in terms of time. It is but one aspect; but one angle out of many, but from many angles - inexhaustibly - Churchill will be studied: and from many angles, unwearingly, he will be honoured and admired.
*(F.E.Smith became the Earl of Birkenhead)
A TRIBUTE to the late Enoch Powell.
Mr Powell's famous
St George's Day Speech.
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