During an English heat wave, I recently escaped London to lose myself in the bucolic Kent countryside near the picturesque town of Westerham. I was one of many Winston Churchill latter-day pilgrims on a visit to his country home at Chartwell. This was where he lived or visited for more than 40 years from 1922 until his death in 1965.
Churchill’s flawed but inarguable and rounded greatness offers so many insights and lessons in political leadership for his own country, our own and the wider world. In all places, at a critical confluence of cascading local and international crises, we see the rise of career place-holders and mediocrities, and professional and inauthentic populists rather than the real-deal statesmen and women in positions of power.
The striking feature of the restored Victorian pile at Chartwell and its idyllic parkland surrounds is how much of Churchill’s personality and protean talents are stamped on the home and its grounds. As a designer he planned its interiors; as a bricklayer he built its walls, ponds and gardens; as a collector and enthusiast he curated its butterflies and menagerie of animals.
Of consequence to liberty and literature, he also used Chartwell as ground zero when he stood almost alone against the appeasing British establishment — of which, as the grandson of a duke, he was a charter member — to warn of the menace of Hitler and to prepare for the inevitable struggle against it. He also managed from his modest study at Chartwell to dictate not only the most memorable speeches of the 20th century but the books that won him the Nobel prize for literature.
As an MP for the longest recorded period in British history, he wore his party membership as a flag of convenience, switching parties twice — “rerating” as he termed it — and holding a fairly healthy contempt for the Conservative Party he twice led as prime minister.
On several key issues from imperialism, India and the “supremacy of white civilisation” his views, via the lens of history, are neither heroic nor flattering. But as his brilliant new biographer Andrew Roberts concludes in his monumental work, “the battles he won saved liberty”.
Since the free world nowadays in many senses rests under Churchill’s shadow, it was symbolic that his own party was at the time of my visit battling to choose its next leader and prime minister of a fragmented Britain. “Across the pond”, as the Brits refer to the US, another Churchill admirer, Donald Trump, is energetically tearing up the foundations of the postwar architecture Churchill helped cement.
The day before my Chartwell visit I had to elbow my way past competing demonstrations (pro- and anti-Brexit), furiously venting their summer rages, for a lunch at the House of Commons. Inside, my host, a British Conservative parliamentarian, offered a view on the two contenders jostling for the office Churchill held at a time of even greater trouble and uncertainty.
“In normal times”, he said, “foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt would be a shoo-in for the job. But these are far from normal times, so he very likely won’t get it.” And of the man who will likely become the next British prime minister? Boris Johnson very much sees himself in the mould of Churchill. He even knocked out a book, The Churchill Factor, which one critic sneered was “more about its author than serves as an account of the great man”.
Another writer of epic military histories, Max Hastings, for whom Johnson worked when employed by the Daily Telegraph, was even more scathing. In an article in the Evening Standard headlined “I was Boris Johnson’s boss — he is utterly unfit for No 10” the former editor wrote: “He supposes himself to be Winston Churchill while in reality being closer to Alan Partridge [a comic character]. Churchill, for all his wit, was a profoundly serious human being. Far from perceiving anything glorious about standing alone in 1940, he knew that all difficult issues must be addressed with allies and partners.”
Fixated on exiting
This of course is a reference to Johnson’s “hell or high water” determination to leave the EU on October 31, even without a deal for its exit and amid huge uncertainty over whether the British parliament, which Johnson has threatened to suspend, will approve its leaving in such circumstances.
But Johnson’s likely ascendancy is precisely because the 160,000 Conservative members who will decide the leadership are more fixated on exiting the EU than any other issue — even, according to the polls, if it means splitting the UK and shattering the unity of the party.
This intense fixation on ideology and the corresponding neuralgia for pragmatic economics was a reminder of how — as in SA — once-great movements are rent asunder by dogma. At home, the ANC is united only in its determination to advance a narrow and self-harming agenda of racial nationalism and so provides a telling echo to the paroxysms engulfing British Tories.
There is another SA linkage to the Conservative leadership contest. Presiding over it is the SA resource maven Sir Mick Davis, who in his multiple roles is both chair of the Conservative Party executive and its treasurer. He was called in recently by Cyril Ramaphosa to advise on Eskom, about which he knows a great deal. Just a pity then that his panel’s views have neither been published nor implemented.
But there is another key similarity between the current British contest and the Nasrec proceedings that installed Ramaphosa as president. Many commentators there bewail the fact that such a huge choice for their country’s future is to be determined by such a tiny and essentially unrepresentative group as the paid-up party members who represent just 0.35% of Britain’s 45.8-million voters. Much the same criticism was offered of the even smaller (4,776) group of delegates who chose the ANC and country president, representing fewer than 0.017% of SA’s 26.7-million voters.
But here there is a divergence: Ramaphosa was always far more popular with the country than his opponent, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, while a poll last week in Britain showed that Jeremy Hunt is the popular choice as prime minister over Johnson.
As SA moves from fixating on one ANC intrigue and event to another, it might be thought that nothing outside the governing party matters very much. Indeed, the recent election here reminded us that the vast gulf between the ANC and its closest opponent is more than 37 percentage points, a gap that has barely narrowed since 1994.
And in Britain the leader of the principal opposition, Labour, last week recorded the worst poll numbers since Michael Foot led his party to a landslide defeat in 1983. So most of the media oxygen is sucked by the Tory contest.
Hastings’s demolition job on Johnson concludes that “almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him”. I am probably in the latter group, although 12 years ago Johnson entertained me to a long liquid lunch when he was editor of The Spectator. He was witty, charming and friendly. And of some comfort perhaps to the local opposition here, he declared himself hugely supportive of the DA. That might be a useful marker if Johnson will be the next prime minister of Great Britain.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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