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Churchill – A Leader for our darkest times

January 24, 2015


Fifty years ago today, in the early hours of the morning, Winston Churchill died.  I always remember a teacher at school who berated a newspaper headline at time for describing his passing as a tragedy for how could the death of 90 year old man who, by any standards, lived life to the full by described as such.  Yet it is clear that, at the time, there was a profound sense of public shock at the loss of a man who, more than any other, had defined Britain in the 20th century.  50 years on his story still captures the public imagination and would be Prime Ministers still, where they can, try to promote their qualities by comparison with his.

Whatever you view take of him it is hard not to acknowledge the scale of his achievement and the breadth of his personality and interests.  The sheer longevity of his career is unique.  This was a man who first entered Parliament in 1900 and only stepped down in October 1964, months before his death, who was first a Government Minister in 1905 and resigned for the last time as Prime Minister in 1955, a man who held most of the major offices of state and who was a major leader in both World Wars.

Churchill, like many great politicians, did not belong entirely to one political tradition.  He entered Parliament as a Conservative but crossed the floor in 1904 to join the Liberal Party.  As Liberal he was on the radical side of the party and was a close of ally of Lloyd George.  He was the author in Government of both the Probation Service and the system of Labour Exchanges and was a strong supporter of that Government’s social reforms such as the introduction of the State Pension and National Insurance. Even as Conservative he supported an interventionist approach to social welfare.  It was his Government which commissioned the Beveridge Report and the 1945 Conservative Manifesto made a commitment to establish a National Health Service, even if through a different mechanism to that adopted by Atlee and Aneurin Bevan. When he returned to power in 1951 it was Churchill who, at a time when some in his party and parts of the medical profession might have been tempted to dismantle the NHS, ensured its survival.

Some of Churchill’s views and actions have been the subject of fierce criticism. Like many at the time he  supported the forced sterilisation of the “feeble minded” which in the end was not included in the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913.  He was a fierce imperialist, responsible for or condoning some of the most repressive steps taken by the British Government to keep its Empire together and to crush those who offered resistance to its rule.  He has a decidedly mixed reputation in the part of South Wales from which my family come after sending troops to deal with the aftermath of the Tonypandy riots.  Some of these things need to be seen in the light of widely held contemporary views, other illustrate the dictum that none of us are “wholly good or bad”.

It is, however, for his leadership in World War II that Churchill is most well-known.  For those of us who were not alive in 1940 it is hard to imagine how close Britain came to being overwhelmed by the Nazi regime either militarily or psychologically. Churchill’s leadership and inspiration was, particularly in that crucial darkest hour of the war, one of the key factors which kept the country from defeat.  His diplomatic success in securing American support and the strength of his personal relationship with FDR was also crucial.  My mother (my father came from the aforementioned Tonypandy) recalls the impact of his speeches in encouraging and reassuring a civilian population dealing with mass bombing.  Rewriting history is always difficult but it is interesting to ponder what would happened in this country and Europe and the world more widely without Churchill’s contribution.

Of course Churchill might never have got there.  His political career nearly ended in ignominy after the disaster of the Dardenelles campaign, brilliant in strategic design but botched in execution, in World War I.  In 1922, in the last election he stood for as Liberal he came fourth.  He spent 10 years in the political wilderness in the 1930s, totally out of favour with the leadership of his party.  He only became Prime Minister when he was past retirement age.  Many men of less determination would have given up a long time before.

There is one other aspect of Winston Churchill which I have become familiar with in the years I have worked in the area of mental health, and that is his personal experience of mental illness.  Whatever his precise diagnosis it is clear that Churchill was affected, over decades, by periods of profound depression when he struggled to get out of bed and attend to the smallest bit of business.  His “black dog” as he called it, a term coined by Dr Johnson who himself was affected by depression, was a major part of his life as was suicidal ideation – he talked about his constant fear of standing on the edge of railway platforms or balconies.

It is not clear whether Churchill ever used mental health services. He did, however, follow a number of common strategies to manage his depression.  As well as his fabled drinking (remembering his comment that he had taken more out of alcohol than it had ever taken out of him) it seems likely that, like many others affected by mental health problems, he used art and writing as crucial creative therapies to help cope with his condition.

While there are some who still find it difficult to equate the confident hero Churchill with the darkness of mental illness but the evidence of his own statements appears to be clear. What is more it may be that in his experience of mental illness lies some of the essential courage and resilience which Churchill was able to draw on in supporting Britain through its time of trail.  When someone has looked into the darkest corners of their own minds they can draw a strength which those who have been not been tested in the same way do not have.

So 50 years after his death it is right to celebrate the life of Winston Churchill and in particular he role of leading the country in its darkest hours in 1940.  It is also right to celebrate Winston Churchill as a clear example of how someone affected by mental illness can reach the pinnacle of public life, and in the round, be stronger in that role on account of that experience.


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