The wrong Churchill myth – Asia Times

It is May 1940, and Winston Churchill takes over as British prime minister from the cowardly and weak Neville Chamberlain. In his first speech as PM to the House of Commons, he thrusts the morale of the people through his appeal for “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

One month later, he tells the British people and the world that as England stands alone against the Nazi menace, “we shall fight on the beaches.” Two weeks on, and after the evacuation from Dunkirk, he says that even if the British Empire were to last another 1,000 years this would be its “finest hour.”

Five years later, Britain – and so the West and democracy – is triumphant against barbarism.

So goes the traditional view of Winston Churchill and the core narrative of the ever-lasting Churchill myth – one that was reflected upon by many as they marked Victory in Europe Day last week. Through fervent optimism and passionate rhetoric, this myth contends, one politician dragged his country and much of the democratic world through the greatest crisis of the 20th century.   

It is also the myth that so many politicians and political commentators have thrown themselves upon during our own moment of crisis, our “war” against the Covid-19 pandemic. A letter to The New York Times on April 19 queried, “Where Is Our Churchill?”, a reference to the shoddy responses by American politicians.

Canada’s Globe and Mail appealed to Churchill’s fighting spirit in an editorial titled “It’s time for Canada to go to war against a virus.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison echoed Churchill in Parliament in March, stating “we will never surrender” to the coronavirus. Even those who never name-checked Churchill, like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who spent much of January and February in a state of wishful optimism about how his country would deal with the pandemic, were channeling his spirit.

Over in Britain, the Telegraph in early April proclaimed that “Boris Johnson needs to unleash his inner Churchill in our war against coronavirus,” a not-so-difficult appeal for the current British prime minister, who owes much of his own political success to his claim that he is somehow the embodiment of the Churchill spirit (something he forced down readers’ throats in his 2014 book The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, which, like much of Churchill’s own writing, said more about the author than subject).

Later, on April 27, the same newspaper intoned, “What is clear is that Boris has an extraordinary opportunity to be a 21st-century version of his hero, Churchill, leading the nation to defeat the enemy virus.”

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