50 years after death, Churchill towers over politicians
London — Fifty years after Winston Churchill’s funeral, British politicians gathered Friday to pay tribute to the wartime leader — and try to energize their election campaigns with a little of the Churchill magic.
Prime Minister David Cameron — facing pressure from Euroskeptics to chart a more isolationist path — hailed a statesmen whom he said knew Britain was “not just a place on the map but a force in the world, with a destiny to shape events and a duty to stand up for freedom.”
When Churchill died in 1965 at the age of 90, a million people lined the streets of London to watch the funeral cortege pass by.
The man who led Britain to victory against Nazi Germany still looms large over British politics.
Cameron was joined by other party leaders for a wreath-laying ceremony at Parliament’s statue of Churchill, whose bronze toes Conservative lawmakers still rub for good luck.
Outside, ceremonies recreated parts of Churchill’s final journey on Jan. 30, 1965. His descendants traveled up the River Thames in the same boat that carried the statesman’s coffin away from St. Paul’s Cathedral for burial.
The ceremonies, given hours of television time, were partly an opportunity to mark the passing of the generation that fought and won World War II.
They also provided politicians a chance to bask in the glow of a leader who symbolized Britain’s darkest hour, and its greatest victory.
“I think British politicians, especially Conservative politicians, look back to him because they are nostalgic for the days when Britain was a world-leading power,” said Cambridge University historian Richard J. Evans. As a schoolboy, Evans stood among the crowds that gray day in 1965 — drawn by the sense that this was an historic occasion, “the turning point when we no longer looked back to the war.”
Britain no longer has an empire, and campaigning for its May 7 national election is dominated by issues common to many mid-size powers: a fragile economy; worries over an expensive heath care system; unease about immigration; and growing alienation from Europe that has fueled the rise of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party.
University of Leeds politics lecturer Victoria Honeyman said the timing of the anniversary could help Cameron by reminding voters that under Churchill’s Conservatives Britain was one of the victorious Allied nations that “set the tone for the latter half of the 20th century.”
Evans said Euroskeptics, too, could find ammunition in the “Britain against the Continent” symbolism of Churchill’s wartime stance.Modern politicians know better than to invite comparisons to the larger-than-life Churchill — a noted “bon vivant,” Cameron recalled, who kept 10 Downing St. stocked with Pol Roger Champagne.There is one exception: London’s Loquacious, Latin-spouting mayor, Boris Johnson, who is running for Parliament in May’s election, is seen as a potential Conservative leader and is currently in the best-seller lists with “The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.”
“Politics is not made only by faceless gray people in suits,” Honeyman said. The most extraordinary politicians are often outsiders, like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “who are not afraid to stick their heads above the parapet. And Churchill is the ultimate head-sticker.”