While on the campaign trail at a Kent funfair before the 1950 election, a 24-year-old Margaret Roberts – later to become Britain’s first female Prime Minister – stopped at a booth to meet a fortune-teller.
‘You will be great – as great as Churchill,’ the future Mrs Thatcher was told. It was a comparison that would be drawn many times in the decades to come.
Indeed, she would be likened to him in a way no other Prime Minister ever has been, before or since. Like his own time in office, hers would change the face of British politics.
It would also see an apparent blossoming of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, with Mrs Thatcher and her opposite number in the White House, Ronald Reagan, united in their devotion to the victorious wartime leader.
‘Churchillian rhetoric,’ the historian Richard Aldous has noted, ‘became a consistent and well-choreographed feature of Reagan and Thatcher’s shared public performance.’
Reagan hung a poster of Churchill in the White House, and filled his administration with devotees of the great man.
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, united with Ronald Reagan (both pictured) in their devotion to victorious wartime leader Winston Churchill
Both the US president and Thatcher had lived through the Second World War. When it began, she was a schoolgirl and he was already a Hollywood star, if not quite of the first rank.
As a youngster, she’d been a regular cinema-goer and probably remembered Reagan in Dark Victory, the Bette Davis weepie that had once been Churchill’s rather incongruous choice to show to the typists and servants at 10 Downing Street.
After Reagan’s death, the veteran English journalist Sir Harold Evans would claim that the relationship between him and Thatcher ‘was closer even than that of Churchill and Roosevelt’.
But this was far from the case.
Although she liked Reagan personally, and shared his free market and anti-Communist convictions, Mrs Thatcher had no illusions about the man who declared, somewhat bafflingly, during his presidential inauguration speech: ‘To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I’ve just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy.’
Not long afterwards, Thatcher and Lord (Peter) Carrington, her Foreign Secretary, were talking in Downing Street, when the conversation turned to the new president. ‘Peter,’ she said, tapping the side of her skull, ‘there’s nothing there.’
Relations between the two ‘heirs of Churchill’ on either side of the Atlantic were soon to become severely strained.
Within two years of sweeping to power in 1979, all was not well for Margaret Thatcher. Unemployment and civil unrest were rising, while phalanxes of economists had denounced her fiscal policies.
But exactly as had happened for a then-unpopular Churchill 40 years before, events came swiftly to her rescue. The invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentine forces in April 1982 was an entirely unforeseen event. But it was to lead to Thatcher’s Churchill moment – her own ‘finest hour’.
Her biographer John Campbell would later write that ‘no male prime minister, except perhaps Churchill’ would have ordered a task force to set sail and fight to reconquer the islands.
Reagan (pictured with Margaret Thatcher) hung a poster of Churchill in the White House, and filled his administration with devotees of the great man
But this was duly and astonishingly accomplished, with British troops entering the capital of Port Stanley on June 14 to accept an Argentine surrender.
In all this, the Prime Minister had, however, by no means received unstinting American support.
Sir Nicholas Henderson, the diplomat who masterminded British-US relations during the conflict, was shocked by how lukewarm the Americans were about Argentina’s aggression.
Shock turned to outrage when he heard that Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, had dined at the Argentine embassy on the night of the invasion. As Henderson said, it was as if he had joined the Iranians for tea on the day that 52 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran in 1979.
Also, General Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State and another man who liked to spout Churchillian phrases, visited the Argentine capital to seek a compromise, and pleaded with London to make peace.
Even when fighting began, the Americans shilly-shallied.
The lowest point came when, after the US joined Great Britain in vetoing a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire, Kirkpatrick then announced it had been a mistake and that she should have abstained.
Bust-ups over Winston in the White House
When George W. Bush was US President, he joked that Churchill was watching his every move – in the form of a bust.
However, when Barack Obama replaced Bush in the White House in 2009, he removed the bust, and replaced it with one of Abraham Lincoln.
The move was ‘a snub to Britain’, Boris Johnson claimed.
When George W. Bush was US President, he joked that Churchill was watching his every move – in the form of a bust
When challenged about Churchill, Obama felt obliged to say, not very convincingly: ‘I love the guy.’
But by 2012, when he ran for re-election, the New York Times reported that ‘the question of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney [his Republican rival] will occupy the White House has been overshadowed… by the question of whether Winston Churchill will do so’.
Romney promised to restore the bust if he became president. Obama was re-elected.
It was another four years before Churchill would watch every move of another US president – when Donald Trump reinstated the bust.
The greatest Englishman’s legacy continued to hold huge symbolism. Trump’s successor Joe Biden pointedly replaced the bust of Churchill with one of Mexican-American labour rights leader Cesar Chavez.
© Geoffrey Wheatcroft, 2021 Abridged extract from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, published by Bodley Head on August 19 at £25.
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‘Not only had the United States sought to double-cross Britain, it had done so incompetently,’ Henderson later commented.
The episode rankled ever afterwards. Years later, after both leaders had retired, Henderson said privately: ‘If I reported to you what Mrs Thatcher really thought about President Reagan, it would damage Anglo-American relations.’
Despite everything, the British were elated by their Falklands triumph. The echoes from the early years of the Second World War were deafening.
‘An island people, the cruel seas, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator, and finally the quintessentially Churchillian posture – we were down, but we were not out,’ as historian Anthony Barnett put it.
His book, Iron Britannia, had on its cover a cartoon of Thatcher in a Tommy’s steel helmet, smoking a cigar and making a V-sign.
The journalist Paul Johnson compared Thatcher to Winston’s ‘gigantic and leonine personality’, while her private secretary, Charles Powell, told her: ‘Your place in history will be rivalled in this century only by Churchill.’
Meanwhile, Churchillmania took on a whole new lease of life with an explosion of stage and screen portrayals. The 1972 movie Young Winston, starring Simon Ward in the title role, had paved the way.
A minor role in the film was that of the headmaster of Harrow, taken by the veteran British actor Robert Hardy. He had met Churchill twice: first when introduced as a boy by a family friend, the then Archbishop of York, and later when he was performing in Hamlet at London’s Old Vic with Richard Burton in the title role.
After the play, Churchill went backstage to Burton’s dressing room and asked him: ‘My Lord Hamlet, may I use your facilities?’ This memorable question would go on to become part of the vast canon of sayings attributed to the former Prime Minister.
In 1981, Hardy played Churchill, with Sian Phillips as his wife Clementine. It would be the first of his very many different performances as the great man, ending in 2015 with Churchill: 100 Days That Saved Britain and including such spin-offs as the excruciating musical Winnie, which mercifully closed almost as soon as it opened in 1988.
Over the years, Hardy almost copyrighted the part. With his endless repertoire of mannerisms, the scowl, the growl, the flourished cigar, he helped fictionalise the real man.
Meantime, in real life, practical questions continued to divide Thatcher and Reagan.
In October 1983, the US president ordered what looked like a parody of the Falklands campaign: an invasion of the little Caribbean island of Grenada to depose a far-Left government.
Grenada was part of the Commonwealth and technically under the British Crown, but Thatcher was ignored and deceived: Reagan didn’t act against her advice – he didn’t even ask for it.
‘We were both dumbfounded,’ her Cabinet colleague Sir Geoffrey Howe said.
‘What on earth were we to make of a relationship, special or otherwise, in which a message requesting the benefit of our advice was so quickly succeeded by another which made it brutally clear that such advice was being treated as of no consequence whatsoever?’
The answer was that, as ever, Washington pursued its own interests and objectives with disregard for friend and foe alike.
Once again, Churchillian theory – ‘the unity of the English-speaking peoples’, as he had described it – had collided with reality. And, once again, the legacy of the great warrior had been misappropriated.
For her part, though, Margaret Thatcher would win two further landslide General Elections. Following the first, her crushing defeat of Michael Foot’s Labour’s Party in 1983, she was invited to America to receive the Winston Churchill Foundation Award.
After Reagan’s death, journalist Sir Harold Evans claimed the relationship between him and Thatcher ‘was closer even than that of Churchill and Roosevelt’. But this was far from the case
‘Like Churchill,’ the citation read, ‘she is known for her courage, conviction, determination and willpower. Like Churchill, she thrives on adversity.’
Amid a number of statues and images created following Winston’s death at the age of 90 in 1965, one held a special place in British consciousness. This was the towering and symbolic 12ft-high likeness in Parliament Square.
It’s said that years before Churchill’s death, he pointed to a spot in the Square opposite Parliament and told a colleague: ‘That’s where my statue will go.’
And so it did.
Created by the sculptor Ivor Roberts-Jones, it was inspired by a photograph of Churchill in his greatcoat picking his way through the rubble of the burned-out Commons after it was bombed by Hitler in May 1941.
In a moving gesture, the Queen declined the honour of unveiling the statue, which she thought should go to Churchill’s widow Clementine. But Her Majesty was there among the vast throng at the ceremony in November 1973.
Since then, it has become a vivid embodiment of Churchill’s extraordinary afterlife. Prosperous devotees could also buy one of 500 bronze casts from the original maquette for £275,000 each.
Today, 46 years after his death, Churchill’s image, name and aura still remain powerfully charged, and potentially fraught.
Last year, for example, was full of Churchillian resonances.
On the last day of 2020, the UK left the EU after 47 years, under a Prime Minister who had written a book on Churchill and who was compared to him by admirers.
And the departure of an American president (Donald Trump) who had also been compared to Churchill was marked by unimagined scenes of violence.
Did these events signify a moment of triumph for Churchillism and the Churchill cult, or a final crisis? Certainly, the political upheaval surrounding Brexit was accompanied by a new wave of Churchillism.
A £5 note issued by the Bank of England, and designed to be washable if not actually indestructible, showed the Queen on one side and Churchill’s growling face on the other, above the words: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’
Yet more actors had come forward to play Churchill. Michael Gambon took the title role in Churchill’s Secret (the secret being his stroke in 1953 and a subsequent cover-up), and in the Netflix series The Crown, the American actor John Lithgow gave what critic A. A. Gill called ‘a marvellously monstrous rendition’.
Also, there were two Churchill biopics and a flagwaver: Churchill, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk.
Churchill’s sheer continuing allure was startlingly demonstrated in March this year.
After the Allied Casablanca conference in 1943 to plan the next phase of the Second World War, he had relaxed in Marrakech and painted the Koutoubia Mosque, apparently the only picture he painted throughout the conflict.
He gave it as a birthday present to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of whose sons sold it some years after the war, before it was bought by actress Angelina Jolie in 2011.
Although she liked Reagan personally, and shared his free market and anti-Communist convictions, Mrs Thatcher (both pictured in 1984) had no illusions about the man
When she sold it earlier this year, the auctioneers Christie’s put a highest estimate of £2.5 million on it.
The picture sold for £8.2 million, by far the highest price ever paid for one of Churchill’s paintings, and one quite unrelated to its artistic value. It was an extreme display of the sheer veneration of Churchillian relics.
Three days after the sale, there was a different kind of celebration of the Churchill cult.
On March 5, the 75th anniversary of his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, an online virtual commemoration from the room at Westminster College in Fulton, US, where he had given the speech saw contributions from veteran Churchillians including his granddaughter and, more surprisingly, from Bob Geldof, ‘musician and humanitarian’.
Even without its Churchillian connection, the great man’s birthplace of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire would rank with Chatsworth and Longleat as part of Britain’s country-house heritage business.
When the 11th Duke of Marlborough inherited the dukedom in 1972, he revealed considerable gifts of showmanship, pulling in crowds with boat trips and butterfly houses to help raise cash, as well as letting out the house for corporate entertaining and the grounds for pop concerts and weddings.
Churchill’s image was used to advertise events such as ‘the Great British Garden Party’, celebrating in 2018 ‘all things British’: dance, music, lawn games and vintage cricket with live commentary from Henry Blofeld.
No longer just an icon or a totem, Churchill had become – and remains – part of Britain’s entertainment and heritage industry. An inveterate survivor throughout his own long life, his afterlife has been equally remarkable.
It was scarcely surprising that he was Time’s Man of the Year for 1940, or acclaimed five years later as ‘the Leader of Humanity’, or considered by the time of his death to be the most famous person in the world, or was later dubbed ‘Man of the Century’.
Maybe it was inevitable that a poll in his own country, in 2002, would consider him the Greatest Briton ever. Less easy to foresee was the full degree to which, nearly six decades after his death, he still dominates his country’s consciousness.
Controversial in his lifetime and ever since, derided by a tiny minority and revered by most, there seems little doubt that the legacy of the extraordinary phenomenon that is Winston Churchill will continue to intrigue and enthral for decades to come.
Extracted from Churchill’s Shadow, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, published on August 19.