25 November 2002

The Greatest Briton? Really?

I was about to do a big nostalgic piece today, but more important matters have come up.

Winston Churchill is apparently the greatest Briton ever. Hmmmm. I suppose this was inevitable. What with the Second World War being just about the only thing on the British history curriculum, most people seem to think that Britain's 'finest hour' was more-or-less Britain's only hour. How could there have been any other result? Unless the Di brigade had come out in force....

I must admit, I'm a little puzzled at John Lennon having done so well. A couple of years back, if i remember rightly -- and I haven't checked so don't just take my word for it -- Channel 4 and HMV organised a poll in which John Lennon was ranked as only the second most important musician of the millennium, a nose ahead of that little-known Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Well, it should be noted that the winner of the poll, the person regarded by most Britains who voted as the most influential musician since the year 1000 AD, was the illustrious Robbie Williams. Since Mr Williams is undoubtedly a Briton, surely he, and not Mr Lennon, should have pride of place among the nation's greatest children?

Incidentally, I see that said Mr Williams is to perform in Dublin's Phoenix Park early next August, to an estimated crowd of 120,000 people, and presumably a few deer. This will be the biggest gathering in Dublin since the visit of the Pope in 1979, of which I have hazy -- but I'm sad to say very real -- memories. More than a million people were in the Park that day, which is a bit weird, considering that there were only about five million on the whole island at the time, a million of whom weren't even nominally Catholics. Williams' response to hearing this was typically 'witty'. If I may cite the great man: "Great billing, eh? The Pope and me. But his last album wasn't up to much, John Paul Sings the Blues, I think it was."

It might have been funnier had similar jokes not been made by Irish people on at least four million other occasions over the last twenty-odd years.

The eminent Robbie also claimed he was "bigger than Bono," which is a useful link to bring me back to the main thrust of this blog.

Bono, Bob Geldof, and Arthur Wesley, later Wellesey, the first Duke of Wellington all made the top hundred Britons list, but thankfully didn't make the top ten. This is probably just as well, since none of them were actually British. Irishmen all, I have to say. At this point, I suspect, someone is ready to pipe up with that Wellington nonsense about being born in a stable not making one a horse. Fair enough, he probably has Jesus on his side on that one, but it's worth pointing out that not merely was Wellington born in Ireland, of an established Anglo-Irish family, but he also was married to one of the Longfords, spent many years as MP for Trim, a seat traditionally held by the Wesley family, and was even appointed Chief Secretary in 1807. The Peninsular War, Waterloo, and his stint as Prime Minister, during which he ushered in Catholic Emancipation, came later. Incidentally, he was one of only three non-Royals ever to get a state funeral in the United Kingdom, the others being William Gladstone and Winston Churchill.

Which by an admittedly circuitous route brings me back to the point. Why was Churchill picked? Ahead of Newton, or Brunel, or Elizabeth I, or Shakespeare, for Heaven's sake! What were people thinking?

The short answer is World War Two, where he was undoubtedly the right man for the job, once the UK was in that mess and hanging on my the skin of her teeth. The rest of his career though was basically a shambles, which makes it odd that people should revere him now. But then, see my opening comments about modern 'education'.

Look at the First World War: who bears the blame for the farce that was the Dardanelles campaign in general and Gallipoli in particular? Yep, good old Winnie.

And who was Secretary of State for War and the Air during the Irish War of Independence? Fancy that, Winnie again. Dear old W.C., if I may be so familiar, was opposed to the deployment of regular troops in Ireland to fight the IRA and instead favoured the RIC being backed up with irregular units - the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, who have such a fond place in Irish hearts.

He also was a big fan of the idea of chemical warfare, even after the miseries of the First World War: with reference to the Kurds and Iraqis in particular he commented "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes." Charming.

Let's also not forget that despite popular mythology, prior to the Second World War he was hardly a Lone Prophet in the Wilderness who predicted the rise and threat posed by the Nazis only to be ignored by the British establishment. Appeasement was a policy largely designed to buy time for the British and French to build up their armed forces so they could credibly challenge Germany. Everybody knew war was coming.

I also tend not to approve of his expectations that Ireland would be a willing vassal for Britain in the war, but that's a personal thing. And of course, there's Dresden. Perhaps 135,000 people killed -- probably rather less, but certainly an incredible number -- in the firestorm on the night of 13 February 1945. Arguably history's greatest single war crime, carried out by the 'good guys', when the war had basically been won.

In his favour, however, it must be said that he could on occasion come up with the odd decent put-down, and was, along with Adenauer and De Gaulle, an advocate of a United Europe... so I guess he wasn't all bad.

I have no idea who I would have picked as the greatest Briton... I'd be tempted to pick Newton, but if the English language is indeed the greatest British contribution to the world, as Melvyn Bragg argued in yesterday's Observer, then I guess it has to be a writer. Despite his cosmic canvas, Milton's too narrow, and Chaucer not so much British as English -- in many ways he invented what it is to be English, or at least immortalised it. It has to be Shakespeare then, really, doesn't it?

A cliche, perhaps, but only because it's true.

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