Why Churchill’s reputation is still on the line

Contrasting biographies of the iconic leader show how perceptions of historical figures change with the passing of time, says David Cannadine...

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Winston Churchill. (Topfoto)

Reputations rise and fall over the course of time – even those of national icons. For much of Churchill's life, he was a deeply controversial figure. As he himself well knew, though, changed perspectives on such people invariably bring changed interpretations. This is what he wrote of his father, Lord Randolph, and of politicians in general, at the close of his filial biography: “The eulogies and censures of partisans are powerless to affect his ultimate reputation. The scales wherein he was weighed are broken. The years to come bring weights and measures of their own.”

A third of a century later, Churchill made the same point, more elaborately, in his speech in the House of Commons on the death of Neville Chamberlain: “In one phase, men seem to have been right; in another, they seem to have been wrong. Then again, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion, there is another scale of values.”

Such changes in interpretation, based on time’s lengthening perspectives, are well illustrated by comparing two very different appraisals of Winston Churchill himself, which had in fact been commissioned under similar auspices. The first was published in the supplement to the Dictionary of National Biography, covering the years from 1961 to 1970, and which came out in 1980; the second appeared in the completely revised and multi-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), which came out in 2004.

The first entry was contributed by Sir Edgar Williams, who was one of the co-editors of the 1961–70 volume and who had earlier seen service in the Second World War as General Montgomery’s foremost intelligence officer. The second was provided by Paul Addison, a distinguished historian of 20th-century Britain, with numerous books to his credit, including a study of Churchill on the Home Front, 1900–1955, published in 1992.

Williams never wrote much, but this did not prevent him from assigning the article on Churchill, which was the longest entry in the 1961–70 volume, to himself. It was by no means uncritical, noting that Churchill made too many political enemies before and during the First World War, and that in some ways he had only himself to blame for his political isolation during the 1930s. But its tone was generally favourable and eulogistic, with extensive quotations from the memoirs of Lord Ismay (Churchill’s chief military assistant during the Second World War) and Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated essay Mr Churchill in 1940. He was, Williams concluded, “a most extraordinary human being” who became “a legend in his lifetime”.

For Williams and his wartime generation, this seemed the definitive – and appropriately grateful – verdict. He dismissed Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940–65 (1966), a prying account penned by Churchill’s personal physician Lord Moran, as “distasteful”. And he damned Robert Rhodes James’s pioneering piece of revisionism from 1970, Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900-1939, as merely “useful”.


A scholarly avalanche

By contrast, Paul Addison is too young to remember the Second World War and – in his essay for the ODNB, published a quarter of a century after Williams’s entry – he wrote of Churchill as a historical personality rather than a contemporary figure. In so doing, he was much assisted by the completion of the official biography (which had not reached 1940 when Williams wrote his entry), as well as by the avalanche of scholarly work that has appeared on Churchill in recent decades.

Eschewing both excessive hagiography and unrelenting iconoclasm, Addison depicted Churchill as a man of often unstable judgment who made many mistakes and many enemies: (“Hyperactive and transparently on the make, he was far from the English ideal of a gentleman.”) But, he concluded, in an even-handed verdict which certainly seems appropriate for our times and from our perspective: “Churchill sometimes blundered, but his giant stature does not rest on the claim that he was always right. Right or wrong, he was an exceptionally great man by virtue of the extraordinary range of qualities he possessed.”

The contrasts between these two interpretations of Churchill’s life are fascinating and instructive, and I find them to be especially so. In part, this is because I am myself a historian of modern Britain, which means it is impossible to avoid encountering Churchill  and to wonder what to make of him. But it is also because I have recently become the editor of the ODNB and, in commissioning future entries, I am well aware that the issues raised by comparing how Williams and Addison wrote about Churchill are no less valid – and vexing – when dealing with the recently deceased.

These issues are especially pronounced in the case of Margaret Thatcher, whose entry I must soon commission. Should I ask someone to write it who knew her, admired her and can vividly convey what she was like, up close and personal, in the full plenitude of her power? Or should I prefer a historian, who will seek to set and situate her life in a longer historical perspective?

There are serious arguments in favour of both options, and this reminds us of the essential truth of Churchill’s observation that posthumous reputations do go up and down, as is abundantly plain in his own case, as well as that of his father. The lengthening vista of time may enhance a person’s standing – or it may diminish it. For example, since their deaths, Clement Attlee’s reputation has gone up, whereas that of the artist Augustus John, once the British establishment’s bohemian darling, seems to have sunk irretrievably.

But in the case of Jimmy Savile, the collapse in his reputation came much more quickly: at his death in 2011, he was hailed by some as a secular saint, but no one would claim that now. The recent entry published on him in the ODNB vividly describes his posthumous exposure and fall from grace.

As Shakespeare observed, centuries before Churchill had the same idea, “reputation is an idle and most false disposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving”.

David Cannadine is one of Britain’s leading historians and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His latest book is George V: The Unexpected King (Allen Lane, 2014).

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here