For decades, Churchill has been an iconic figure in the United States, in the correct sense of that overused word — an icon or image superstitiously worshipped. He has been assimilated as an American hero, almost an honorary president, or a ghostly presence on Mount Rushmore, and he is revered more on the right than the left.
Even his graven image is an object of partisan feuding. In 2012, as the New York Times reported, “the question of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will occupy the White House has been overshadowed at times by the question of whether Winston Churchill will do so.”
This was the Matter of Churchill’s Bust, a present from the British government to Lyndon Johnson that President George Bush the Younger had featured prominently in the Oval Office. The bust then became part of a tangled saga once it was removed for repairs and replaced by a second bust on loan from the British government. After the scheduled return of the bust, President Barack Obama returned the replacement, and replaced the original with one of Martin Luther King, Jr. Conservatives pounced, emerging as fierce defenders of Churchill. President Trump seized on the issue, and now both Churchill busts are back in the White House.
But if every Republican wants to be Churchill, defying the “Naarzy” tyranny in 1940 (overlooking the inconvenient fact that at the Finest Hour of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, the United States was conspicuously neutral), do they really know anything about him?
Even when Republicans shout or tweet the names “Munich” and “appeasement” one may assume they are ignorant of the circumstances of the Munich agreement in 1938, which Churchill denounced (but which was endorsed by President Franklin Roosevelt and almost all Americans). Nor, it’s safe to assume, do they know much about British domestic politics, or Churchill’s part in them.
And that includes the politics of health care. Britain has had a National Health Service since 1948. It was introduced by Aneurin Bevan, the health minister in the Labour government, which ascended to office in a 1945 landslide victory. That same year, one party’s manifesto (or platform) had promised “a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment from the general practitioner to the specialist … available to all citizens.”
That was the Conservative Party manifesto in 1945.
The Tories were then led by Churchill, who had become party leader in the unique and unrepeatable circumstances of 1940. He had had a very long career, notable for wavering allegiances — Tory, then Liberal, then Tory again. Over the years he changed his mind about many things. But on one subject he was consistent throughout: his support for public welfare.
Before World War I, Churchill had been not just a Liberal but a fiery radical, working closely with David Lloyd George to introduce the first such welfare schemes. Years later, in 1930, by which point he had moved well to the right on many issues, he recalled those days: “When I think of the fate of poor old women, so many of whom have no one to look after them and nothing to live on at the end of their lives, I am glad to have had a hand in all that structure of pensions and insurance which no other country can rival.”
In a March 1943 radio address, he proclaimed that, when victory came, “We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.” Then in early 1945, when Lloyd George died, Churchill saluted the memory of his sometime comrade in arms. It was Lloyd George, Churchill told the House of Commons, who had
launched the Liberal and Radical forces of this country effectively into the broad stream of social betterment and social security along which all modern parties now steer. … His warm heart was stirred by … the meagre and haphazard provision of medical treatment and sanatoria, and the lack of any organised accessible medical service of a kind worthy of the age. (italics added)
Although a Liberal government had created that “structure of pensions and insurance” before 1914, and a socialist government expanded the structure after 1945, it had often been conservative parties and leaders throughout Europe as well as in England that introduced a measure of public welfare. That began when Otto von Bismarck conceived German social security as a cunning strategy against the socialists. At just the same time, Benjamin Disraeli’s Tory government of 1874-80 did more for the working class in a few years, one union leader said, than the Liberals had done in a generation.
In the Conservative government of 1924-29, the most dynamic minister was not Churchill but the Minster of Health, Neville Chamberlain. Although Munich has tarnished his reputation, Chamberlain ought to be a hero to progressives to this day. When he took office, he announced 25 reform bills, and within four years he had carried 21 of them, transforming local government, public housing, health care and welfare.
A generation later, when Churchill and the Tories returned to office in 1951, they accepted most of the legacy of the previous Labour government, in particular the National Health Service, a contrast to Republicans today. By now the NHS has been called the nearest thing the British have to a national religion, which may be why it has proved so difficult to reform.
But however one thinks the NHS should be reformed, no one in Britain believes that the government should abandon the principle — that Churchillian Conservative principle — of “a comprehensive health service available to all citizens.”
Not only do the Republican Churchill-worshippers know little about him, they have even forgotten their own history.
There was a time when the GOP believed as much as Churchill did in improving the welfare of the people. One historian on the left has argued provocatively but correctly that, in terms of domestic politics, the Nixon administration was decidedly more progressive than the Clinton administration.
And one wonders whether any congressional Republican today remembers these words: “Any person in the United States who requires medical attention and cannot provide it for himself should have it provided for him.” Yes, that was another conservative hero — Ronald Reagan — addressing the Conservative League of Minneapolis in 1961.
Maybe the Republicans should look for a hero other than Churchill. Or alternatively they might even remember the real Churchill, and Reagan, and recognize that their party could stand again for a higher principle than letting the poor die.