Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government
by Larry P. Arnn
New York: Nelson Books, 2015
Winston Churchill served fifty years in the British House of Commons, was Prime Minister twice, served in several British governments in times of war and peace, and wrote more than fifty books, hundreds of articles and speeches, and countless letters and official memos. As a soldier and war correspondent, he fought in colonial outposts in India and Africa, and served for a brief time in the trenches of the Western front during the First World War. He spent a decade in the “political wilderness” during which time he repeatedly and prophetically warned his countrymen and the world of the growing Nazi threat to the global balance of power. As Prime Minister in the spring and summer of 1940, he most likely saved Western civilization by resisting repeated urgings of his colleagues in the war cabinet to make a deal with Hitler and rallying the British nation and empire to fight on alone against Germany. In the early years of the Cold War, he was among the first to publicly warn the Western democracies about the threat posed by Soviet communism.
This remarkable record of accomplishment, however, was marred by many failures and missteps that could have derailed the careers of lesser men. Churchill for a time was a political chameleon, switching from Conservative to Liberal, then back again, and burning political bridges as a consequence. In the early years of the First World War, he championed the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and was forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty. In the 1930s, a succession of Conservative governments refused him office, believing Churchill to be reckless, unstable and a warmonger. Back at the Admiralty in early 1940, Churchill oversaw the failed naval expedition to Norway. It was only with great reluctance that the King offered Churchill the prime ministership on 10 May 1940, as the German army stormed into Belgium and France.
Churchill, as Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn points out in his enlightening new book, had a lifetime of trials, and his response to those trials is instructive and holds important lessons for the Western democracies. In Churchill’s Trial, Arnn distills from what he rightly calls “one of the richest records of human undertaking”, including several lesser-known essays written by Churchill, the character traits and guiding principles that Churchill brought to the greatest political challenges of the twentieth century: the First World War, the rise of Nazism, the challenge of communism, and the seemingly irresistible march of democratic socialism.
Arnn recounts that as a young war correspondent in South Africa, head of the Admiralty in World War I, a critic of appeasement in the 1930s, and most especially as Prime Minister during World War II, Churchill had the courage born of “a sense of danger” and fear; “indomitable perseverance” in the face of daunting tasks; and fierceness and an incomparable will to win when the alternative was an end to freedom. When the Dunkirk evacuation was underway and Paris about to fall to the Nazis, Churchill addressed the full cabinet on the issue of a possible deal with Hitler. “I am convinced,” he told them, “that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” This same courage and indomitable perseverance, Arnn notes, manifested themselves in Churchill’s capture by and subsequent escape from the Boers, the readiness of the fleet on the eve of World War I, and his persistence in opposing his own party’s leaders in the Commons over the issue of rearmament in the 1930s.
Although Churchill is most remembered for his wartime leadership, he also exhibited prudence and a recognition that circumstances and necessity “shape the choices of statesmen”. As both a student and writer of history, he understood that “there is always more error than design in human affairs”. He frequently counseled restraint in international affairs. One of his more famous sayings, after all, is that “it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war”.
Churchill was also a staunch opponent of democratic socialism and feared that it would eventually lead to injustice and tyranny at home just as it had abroad in nations subjected to communist rule. Churchill, Arnn writes, was “relentless in resisting socialism” and “rejected the doctrine and its political party root and branch”. Socialism, he believed, ignored human nature and would stifle the individual initiative and energy so essential to producing economic growth. It would also lead to a “socialist aristocracy” that would act to further its own interests instead of those of the people.
Yet he also supported and promoted social reforms and a social safety net, believing that the state’s provision of help to those who suffer misfortune, in Arnn’s words, “becomes the free market’s partner” and “breeds loyalty to the liberal state with its capitalist ways”.
In all of those challenges, Churchill’s overriding goal in resisting what he called “mass effects” was the survival of free constitutional government—that is, limited government subject to the rule of law. Churchill revered the institutions and laws that comprise the British Constitution and the governmental framework established by the United States Constitution. “Churchill taught,” writes Arnn, that the “greatest statesmen, willful, ambitious, strong, and artful, work within [the Constitution’s] bounds and in support of its continuation.” He opposed foreign totalitarian regimes that threatened to extinguish free government and fought against ideologies and philosophies of government that threatened it from within.
Arnn concludes his book by noting that “[w]e live in the same modern world that Churchill occupied,” and therefore “Churchill’s trial is also our trial”. He reminds us that in Churchill’s only major work of fiction, Savrola, the main character “claims that civilizations eventually become corrupt, lose their virtue, and fall”. Whether Western civilization follows that same historical pattern is an open question. Arnn believes that Churchill shows us the way to the salvation of free government.
This review originally appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of The University Bookman.