London (AFP), by Naomi O’Leary
Fifty years after Winston Churchill’s death, the wartime prime minister remains a touchstone of British political life — and a reminder of a faded age of global influence.
Top politicians will be among those attending a re-enactment of his funeral procession in London on Friday, 50 years to the day since it was watched on television by 350 million people, complete with a gun salute and the raising of Tower Bridge.
“His enduring legacy and influence on political life and British culture is testament to his formidable strength of character and remarkable achievements,” Prime Minister David Cameron, who will also attend a wreath-laying ceremony at parliament, said.
His Conservative colleague Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has just penned a biography entitled “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History”.
To this day, British politicians often evoke Churchill to add weight to their arguments, tapping into a deep attachment felt by many who were alive during World War II, according to University of Exeter historian Richard Toye.
“For many people he’s not a historical figure — people continue to feel an emotional connection to him,” Toye said.
Before World War II, Churchill was seen as a maverick, discredited by the huge loss of life caused by the poorly planned World War I landings at Gallipoli and regarded as a political opportunist for switching from the Liberal Party to the Conservatives and back.
But the image that endures of Churchill was forged in 1940, when he was appointed prime minister: a charismatic figure in a bowler hat, bow tie, wrinkled brow and fat cigar, defying Adolf Hitler.
Chris Ryland, 65, hitchhiked to London aged 15 to see him lying in state.
“It was a sombre moment. We were aware that something great had passed, whether Churchill or the whole of that era,” said Ryland, who now owns the boat that carried Churchill’s coffin and will retrace its journey at Friday’s commemoration.
“Churchill remains hugely relevant today because without him the history of the world would be very different.”
– Myth v reality –
Born to an aristocratic family at the height of British imperial power, Churchill had the untroubled belief in English superiority common to his era, and has always had plenty of critics.
Black spots include his contempt for Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, failure to send food to Bengal as a famine killed millions during World War II and brutality in Ireland on his watch at the War Office after World War I.
There was anger in Britain last year after an election candidate was arrested for quoting Churchill’s critical comments about Islam, but historian Warren Dockter told AFP it is a “myth” that he was Islamophobic.
“He is a hardcore imperialist, but also very interested in being magnanimous and kind to British subjects, who believed Islam was a civilising force,” Dockter said.
Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman this month called Churchill a “ruthless egotist” who would be unelectable today.
Yet to many Britons, he remains a link to a proud past at a time when much of the country is haunted by a sense of decline.
The anti-EU UK Independence Party has used an image of Churchill making his V for victory sign as a symbol of defiance against Europe.
Ironically, then EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in 2013 instead urged the British to embrace Churchill’s wish for a “United States of Europe”.
– Greatest ever leader? –
Churchill was acutely conscious of his own legacy, shaping his memoirs to “put himself in the best possible light”, Toye said.
Randolph Churchill, born two days before his great-grandfather’s death, told AFP that his ancestor lived on in the freedoms enjoyed in Britain to this day.
“Fifty years on, what I feel is we’re really doffing our hat to Churchill, a younger generation, because we are the lucky ones, because we’ve grown up in what Churchill would describe as the ‘broad, sunlit uplands’,” he said.
Thousands of visitors still flock to his homes and the underground bunker from where he governed Britain during the blitz.
Auctions of Churchill’s possessions draw significant interest — last month, one of his paintings sold for a record £1.8 million (2.4 million euros, $2.7 million), while a half-smoked cigar sold for £4,500 in 2010.
And extracts from his speeches, including the famous “we shall fight them on the beaches” address — still draw millions of listeners on YouTube.
Present day politicians can only dream of the kind of popularity enjoyed by a man whose biographer Roy Jenkins called the “greatest human being ever to occupy Downing Street”.