Darkest Hour - what does a rash of Winston Churchill portrayals tell us about Brexit Britain?

Are are finest hours all behind us? What of the untold Churchill stories? And who can speak for Britain, today?

Image: Darkest Hour promotional poster, Working Title. Reproduced under Fair Use.

Winston Churchill is everywhere at the
moment. It is as if there are only two narratives about Britain’s past: the
Second World War and dramas about people of privilege, class and money.

The Churchill industry can cover both strands,
and for some his is the last uncontested great story of Britain. To others he
is the last statesman who unreservedly represented the moral case for Britain;
whereas for many on the left he has long been a problem figure. And whilst this
is about our past and the dark days of 1940, is also about the storm clouds
gathering today - from Brexit to the widespread cynicism in politicians and

In the last year Churchill has been portrayed
in the film of the same name by Brian Cox, the peacetime Churchill featured in Netflix’s
‘The Crown’, and most recently, played by Gary Oldman in ‘Darkest Hour’. Oldman’s
portrayal concentrates on that watershed period in the Second World War in May
1940 where the Chamberlain Government totters and then collapses, Churchill
becomes Prime Minister, and the War Cabinet debates whether to continue the war
effort or to seek out peace terms.

This critical period has been covered in-depth
by John Lukacs’ ‘Five Days in London, May 1940’ and more recently by Nicolas
Shakespeare’s ‘Six Minutes in May: How Churchill unexpectedly became Prime
Minister.’ ‘Darkest Hour’ opens with Labour leader Clement Attlee concluding
the parliamentary debate that brought down Chamberlain as Prime Minister. It’s
a brave opening for the film – the debate was known as the Norway debate, and its
subject, the disastrous British campaign fought in Norway for which Churchill
as First Lord of the Admiralty was largely responsible.

This parliamentary occasion, lasting over
two days in May 1940, was one of the great House of Commons moments. Speeches
had consequences. Tory rebel Leo Amery – who in 1939 had famously criticised
Chamberlain’s patriotism by asking Labour’s deputy leader Arthur Greenwood to “Speak
for England” - concluded his intervention by urging Chamberlain (and invoking
Cromwell), “In the name of god, go”.

Chamberlain won the vote 281 to 200, but underneath
the headline victory forty odd Tories had voted with Labour in the midst of
war, and a greater number abstained. Despite all of this, Chamberlain attempted
to stay in office and bring Labour into formal coalition (the period from
September 1939 to this point having only a ‘National’ Tory-dominated

‘Darkest Hour’ is good on the parliamentary
machinations when Britain was under greatest threat. Cinematically the film
showcases a kind of dark, claustrophic ‘House of Cards’. It illuminates the
fundamental differences and personal tensions between Churchill, Chamberlain,
and then Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (widely seen and favoured as
Chamberlain’s natural successor).

Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May
1940: the day Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
In resulting discussions, Chamberlain and Halifax pushed hard for Britain to
consider finding out what terms Hitler would consider as a basis for peace
talks. Halifax is well portrayed in the film presenting what to many seemed
sensible, saying Churchill’s florid rhetoric – “Words and words and only more
words” - was all that he could offer. All three were acting from a desire to
preserve Britain’s Empire and its global role.

But where ‘Darkest Hour’ falls short,
despite opening with Clement Attlee, is in failing to give proper space to the
critical role of the Labour leadership and wider Labour Party over the course
of May 1940. Clement Attlee opened the Norway debate for the opposition; it was
Labour post-debate who forced a vote of no confidence which altered the course
of British history.

When Chamberlain faced the realities of his
diminished stature following the parliamentary vote, he didn’t resign
immediately. It was Labour’s attitude - that no coalition government was
possible unless Chamberlain resigned - which forced him to go. It was Labour –
specifically its Labour conference and its National Executive Committee (in a
good story for Corbynistas) meeting in Bournemouth - which made the ultimate
decision not to go into coalition with Chamberlain, but to support coalition
under a new PM. Thus Labour played a pivotal role in not only bringing
Chamberlain down, but aiding Churchill into Downing Street.

Another area that ‘Darkest Hour’ badly
fails is in its limited portrayal of the War Cabinet discussions on continuing
the war. These were discussions in which the Labour members – Attlee and Greenwood
– were central. In nine War Cabinet discussions over three days Chamberlain and
Halifax made the case for finding out what Hitler’s peace terms might be, while
Attlee and Greenwood stood with Churchill. Fascinatingly, at a time when
Clement Attlee’s stock has never been higher, and when his patriotism has been
celebrated in John Bew’s recent biography, this watershed moment for Britain,
and Labour’s role in it, is often passed over. ‘Darkest Hour’ tells part of
this story, but in a partisan way, only telling it from a Tory perspective.

untold Churchill stories

There are many untold Churchill stories, just
as there are many finest hours. Amongst the untold Churchills there is that of
the anti-Labour politician who ended up working closely in coalition with the
Labour Party. Paul Mason observed that Churchill was a “flawed elitist” whose “genius
in 1940 was not just that he understood the military situation, but dynamics of
the British class system and what kept working class radicalism in check”.

There is the Churchill of the ruling class:
a man of privilege and Empire who presided over the decline of the former and
demise of the latter. Anthony Barnett wrote in ‘Iron Britannia’: “Churchill
fought tooth and nail to defend the Empire, but in the end – to save British
sovereignty itself – he formed, and was a prisoner of, a politics which
accepted the liquidation of the Empire …”

Always present, if often unstated, is the
Churchill of England as Britain, reflected in Harold Macmillan’s eulogy upon
hearing of Churchill’s death in 1965: ‘England without Winston! It seems
impossible. Not even the oldest of us can remember England without him as a
considerable figure.’

And then there is Churchill - the Dundee
years, when he represented the city as Liberal MP from 1908-22 at a time when
parliamentarians didn’t need to visit their constituency, let alone live there.
His defeat in 1922 at the hands of Prohibitionist Edwin ‘Neddy’ Scrymgeour was one
of the great radical stories of the city (one my parents told me with pride). T.E.
Lawrence said of Churchill’s defeat, ‘What bloody shits the Dundeans must be’;
Churchill himself felt that given the life ‘the Dundee folk have to live’, they
had ‘many excuses.’ Personally, I would like to see this Churchill set to film
although it probably never will.

Churchill may be the most invoked Tory in
history, but he represented much more than Toryism in 1940. Anthony Barnett
coined the term ‘Churchillism’ to describe the national spirit which emerged in
1940,s distinct from the man. Churchillism was a national compact which brought
together Tories, Liberals, Labour and other elites in a project which
incorporated organised labour in return for economic and social rights such as
the welfare state. But also evident was the passing of global leadership to the
USA, the invention of the so-called ‘special relationship’ (a term coined by
Churchill) and UK subservience to the national interests of the US.

If it hadn’t been for 1940 and Hitler,
history would not have been kind to Churchill. It would have regarded him as a
reckless military adventurer (Gallipoli long staining his reputation), and an unreconstructed
British imperialist out of touch in the 1930s even with most Tories, one who
was intransigent on Gandhi and Indian home rule.

Then there is his record on trade union and
labour issues such as Tonypandy in 1910-11 and the General Strike of 1926. Yet,
George Orwell, as he often did, got it right when he wrote after the war about
Churchill that he was a “tough and humorous old man” who the British people “would
not accept as a peacetime leader but whom in the moment of disaster they felt
to be representative of themselves.”

our best days behind us?

As Britain’s attempts at renewal and
modernisation have proven elusive, from the post-war settlement to Thatcherism
and Blairism, popular folklore has returned again and again to the summer of
1940 and the appeal of Churchill. Similarly, it isn’t surprising that as Labour
have experienced a chequered record in office since 1945, so the legend of
Clement Attlee has grown steadily.

The past as costume drama or fighting the
ultimate forces of darkness which the Nazis provide, says something telling
about Britain today. It points to a chronic failure of progress and absence of
hope that the current state of abyss can be collectively changed. It says that
the best days of Britain, days when there was purpose and clarity, are behind
it, and that there are no current good stories. This obsession with the past is
a diminishing one which damages the body politic now.

The veneration of Churchill illuminates how
far Britain has declined and the hold that its ruling classes have lost.
Churchillism, the perspective which sprang from May 1940 was born like Gaullism
in that same month of desperation and anxieties over national humiliation. But
in the post-war era, Churchillism showed a pragmatism which allowed it to
engage in imperial retreat and the making of the welfare state, the scale of
adaption and change of which is beyond those now notionally in charge of

That’s the frightening underlying message
of these films relevant today. Who is there in our political classes who can
talk about principles, show vision, and invoke an emotive rhetoric, which
speaks beyond party and narrow calculation? At this time of crisis and doubt in
Britain, there is no prominent leader who can – to paraphrase Leo Amery - speak
for Britain. That is much more difficult in the fraught Brexit Britain of 2018
than the summer of 1940, and therein lies the contemporary problem and the
yearning for an age where everything seemed much more certain. 


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