As a jockey, my grandfather was a small man. Photographed with Sir Winston Churchill in the paddock before a race, he looks particularly slight. Most people are unaware of Churchill’s connection with the turf, but his horse-racing career was an extraordinary one. Most famously, his favourite horse, the grey Colonist, achieved 13 victories and nearly £12,000 in prize money; a record that would be the envy of most race-horse owners.
At the time, it was suggested that Colonist’s success owed to the horse’s being “inspired… by the great spirit of his indefatigable owner”. A tough stayer, the horse certainly embodied Churchill’s tenacity. What is particularly striking about his purchase of Colonist was that it was the first race-horse Churchill had ever owned. Colonist was bought not on the basis of knowledge, but of the same keen gambler’s instinct that characterised Churchill’s politics.
However, it must be noted that Churchill ultimately only acquired Colonist because he was in the right place at the right time. There is no denying that fortune favoured Churchill. His life was punctuated with close shaves; childhood pneumonia, a cavalry charge in the Sudan, acute appendicitis and a car accident in New York to name a few. Indeed, Churchill first came to prominence not through politics, but by escaping in extraordinary circumstances from a Boer prisoner of war camp in 1899.
He came equally close to dying an early political death on multiple occasions – and proved just as adept at evading it. Blamed for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in 1915, and obliged to resign his post as a result, Churchill still managed to be appointed Minister for Munitions in 1917. Similarly, though the general election of 1922 left him “without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix”, a mere two years later he had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. Nor did his failings in the post prevent him clinging onto it until the Conservatives lost power in 1929. In the 1930s, his fervent opposition to the granting of Dominion status for India and German rearmament made Churchill not only a political fringe figure but a positive liability. And yet, by the end of the decade, he had been appointed to Cabinet.
The sheer number and extent of Churchill’s political comebacks means it cannot be denied that he was fortunate. However, there was another factor at play. Ingrained in Churchill’s character was a childish, blinkered yet unique zeal, and it was this that sustained and propelled him through his rocky political life. Crucially, this zeal gave him the remarkable ability to thrive off adversity and, in Britain’s ‘darkest hour’, arguably the most adverse of circumstances in the entire twentieth century, Churchill was never more in his element. It was even noted by his colleagues that Churchill was at his most buoyant during periods of the war when Britain’s prospects looked at their most bleak.
It was not only the force but also the quirks of his personality that made Churchill such a successful war leader. He was not merely inspirational but, with one hand in a victory sign and a cigar in the other, iconic. Churchill outstayed his welcome in British politics. However, that this 77-year-old “walking off-license-cum-pharmacy” was considered capable of leading the country in the 1950s is reflective of the immense popular capital that his wartime premiership had earned him. Rhetorical genius, razor sharp wit and unrepressed idiosyncrasies made Churchill not merely admired but adored.
This is not to say that Churchill was perfect. It is easy argue, as many have, that Churchill was a racist. However, he was first and foremost a patriot. Churchill’s racism was not borne out of ideas about Anglo-Saxon supremacy – indeed, he was fascinated by and positively reverent towards Islam. Churchill was a romantic, and deeply committed to imperialist ideals at a time when Britain’s Empire was disintegrating. His description of Mahatma Gandhi as a “half-naked fakir” can be explained (albeit not excused) by the fact that Gandhi, as well as being a Hindu, was an Indian nationalist.
Fifty years on, then, we should not immortalise Churchill. He had faults, some of them abhorrent to the cosmopolitan Britain of the 21st century, and his success was partly due to luck. But only partly. Churchill recognised the threat of Hitler in the 1930s, assumed the role of Prime Minister at a time of despair for the country and ultimately led Britain to victory in 1945. And he did it with style. So let us celebrate Churchill for what he was; a fighter, a character and our greatest Prime Minister ever.