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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Why UK politicians can't learn anything from Churchill

Today's British politicians must stop recycling his legacy and find their own vision, writes Damien McElroy

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in the film 'Darkest Hour'; the fields of politics and diplomacy have traditionally been dominated by men. Courtesy Jack English
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in the film 'Darkest Hour'; the fields of politics and diplomacy have traditionally been dominated by men. Courtesy Jack English

Once again critics around the world are beside themselves over a masterly depiction of Winston Churchill on the big screen. A leading British actor, Gary Oldman, has undergone the physical and personality transformation to depict the war-time leader in his Darkest Hour.

There have been at least 10 major actors who have played Churchill in recent decades, some better than others. But the constant examination of the British wartime leader on the big screen or in major TV series begs some questions. Not only about those who ape his style but also about his continuing inspirational legacy.

Interest in Churchill around the world is a study in his character. Some of his Conservative successors see Churchill as a way to work out the route to the top of the greasy pole. Others question what kind of country modern Britain is and ask how character establishes an international reputation.

A generation of new Tory politicians is emerging from within the chaos of Brexit and the stalemate of national politics. A sizable strain in that generation share recognisable Churchill characteristics, including service in the military, experience of working or living in foreign countries and an intellectual interest in Britain’s global standing.

For the most part the lessons imparted by Churchill's career are not a useful guide to new thinking.

In a private talk recently one of the new generation of MPs in this mould mockingly made reference to the Darkest Hour. He placed Churchill at the centre of a phase of British history that has long since gone. To the speaker, Churchill was part of a grandiose imperial era. The great man was too militaristic even for his contemporaries at least until the Second World War came along.

According to his line of thinking the imperial phase was followed by two more broadly defined eras, the Cold War and an interventionist splurge.

That latter era lasted until parliament rebelled against British involvement in the Syrian conflict by voting down a motion to retaliate against Bashar Al Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on civilians in 2013.

Churchill is often pulled into the British debate over the country’s place in Europe. A speech he made in the 1950s about a united continent of Europe is controversially cited by pro-Europeans to claim his judgement was that Britain belonged as part of a block.

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To the heirs of Churchill that European argument is now over. There is very little prospect that Britain will in the end remain in the EU.

The challenge facing those who want to lead is how the country defines itself and how its influence can be maximised when the UK quits the bloc.

One of the biggest looming debates is whether the country has got the balance right between spending relatively little on diplomacy but tens of billions on foreign aid.

With much of the country’s diplomatic profile projected within an EU context, there was a logic in diverting resources into development. Britain could proclaim it was an aid superpower while aligning its foreign policy decisions with Brussels.

The consequent shovelling of money into UN agencies or social schemes in dozens of countries was at best a scatter gun approach to establishing national prestige.

In a world where developing economies have expanded more rapidly than the richest, even the expenditure of hundreds of millions in a single country like Pakistan or Nigeria, is dwarfed by the multi-billion dollar budgets of those countries.

But diagnosing the problem is not the same as finding the inspirational pitch that defines the far horizon. Looking forward it is clear that radical new strategies are needed.

In part this relates directly to Brexit.

European states can count on the continent's wide trade, travel and migration impact on other nations. As a lone player, Britain can reach out for more open trade or make its own visa and asylum rules.Yet the scope of these decisions will necessarily be more limited.

Rethinking how to define its international relationship with other states will ultimately be largely a matter of smarter strategies. Instead of relying on aid donations, Britain should at the very least recognise the need for a bigger presence in many countries and regions.

The Conservative MP wondered if the British people had the appetite for the challenge that lies ahead. He recalled that when British troops were deployed in Afghanistan, each soldier’s tour was one-third the duration of their American counterpart. He recalled the blithe reply of one colonel when asked why that was so: “The Americans think they are fighting a war.”

Peak Churchill may not be such a passe thing. The character questions put in the spotlight by the Churchill retrospectives are at the crux of oncoming challenges.

Yet there is an important point. Churchill was a one off. Hoping to occupy his perch is not sufficient. Displacing the legend is the challenge.

The new generation must make a decisive break from recycling his legacy to find their own vision.