The Great Dominion: Winston Churchill in Canada, 1900-1954|
by David Dilks
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|Hosting Winston Churchill
by John Pepall
Churchill's life was so long and rich that the study of single aspects of it can be engrossing. Churchill and painting, Churchill and music, Churchill and journalism, Churchill and money, Churchill and friends not in politics-dozens of topics, obvious or obscure, will occur to anyone broadly familiar with his life. British historian David Dilks, the authorised biographer of Neville Chamberlain as it happens, hit on the idea of a book about Churchill and Canada.
Churchill visited Canada nine times from 1900 to 1954. On speaking tours in 1900 and 1929, Churchill spent weeks in Canada and saw much of the country. After a brief visit to Toronto and Ottawa in 1932 the rest of his visits were as Prime Minister, most notably at the Quebec Conferences of 1943 and 1944.
Professor Dilks has not attempted an academic study of Churchill's relationship with and interest in Canada. He has put together a kind of album of newspaper reports, letters, memoirs and speeches, giving a fair impression of Churchill's experience of Canada and Canada's experience of Churchill. Setting this material in context Dilks provides a partial biography of Churchill. Avid Churchillians will find much of this familiar, but since these days many young people in Britain know Churchill as a dog in an insurance commercial, the general reader will find it useful.
Very few readers, however, will understand Churchill's comments on the issue of German reparations in 1929 and 1932. Only small companies of academics now understand this issue, which was once constantly in the news. And at times we seem to lose sight of Canada when discussion of WWII grand strategy takes place. Churchill met Roosevelt in Quebec in 1943 and 1944 (and off Newfoundland in 1941), but these meetings had little to do with Canada, and Canada had little to do with them (nothing at all in 1941 to Mackenzie King's chagrin).
In his speaking tours in 1900, 1929 and 1932 Churchill could assume that he was talking to an audience interested in and loyal to the Empire. These tours were hugely successful. The crowds were large and enthusiastic and Churchill made lots of money. Though Churchill had been newly-elected to parliament in 1900 and was out of office in 1929 and 1932, entering his wilderness years, he was always a star attraction. He was being described as a genius in 1929. In Victoria the tumultuous ovation that greeted him lasted five minutes before he had spoken a word. Churchill's war leadership has made it difficult to see in retrospect his pre-war stature. If he had died, aged 65, in 1939, he would still have been a major historical figure, more important than some prime ministers of his time.
Both delivery and content satisfied his audiences. The art by which Churchill, in Edward R. Murrow's phrase, "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle", did not come out of nowhere. Churchill was a master of the art by the age of twenty-five. The actual texts of Churchill's speeches do not survive and there are no recordings. We must use our imaginations to recover a time when a speaker could hold an audience by something other than mere celebrity or motivational pap. It is a lost art.
Whether Churchill succeeded in bolstering the ties of empire is less clear. Though his speeches were universally praised they did not always persuade. In 1929 Churchill urged Canada to take an interest in Britain's position in Egypt. The Toronto Star demurred. Canada should not interest itself in Egypt. Today Canada wants to exercise its "soft power" everywhere in the world; before WWII Canada may have liked hearing about the world but it wanted as little to do with it as possible.
Dilks gives plenty of evidence of Churchill's kind and generous treatment of Mackenzie King and some evidence of King's insecurity of the little man in the presence of the great man. Though King was keen to bask in the reflected glory of Churchill on his visits he privately resented his eminence. Reading Dilks's book you might think that Churchill took King for a great man instead of accepting that he was, de facto, the Prime Minister for life and recognising the greatness of Canada's contribution to the war. Dilks is too polite. King's resentment of Churchill was deep and Churchill's flattery of King was diplomacy.
By the 1950s Churchill's status as an historical giant was secure and all Ottawa turned out to cheer him on his last visits. But Churchill and Britain were in decline and in the private record what is striking is the smug condescension of Lester Pearson and the conceit of Defence Minister Brooke Claxton who figured he knew better than Churchill what was going on in the world. This was the time of Canada's brief flowering as a "middle power". Claxton at least ran a serious defence department, spending 40% of Ottawa's revenue and 6% of the GDP. Full of confidence, the Pearson/Claxton generation wanted to turn their backs on Britain and enjoy close relations with the new superpower. So, Pearson cheerfully corresponded with US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, about "the Old Gentleman".
Churchill's most intimate connection with Canada was a vicarious one through Beaverbrook, but Beaverbrook is barely mentioned in Dilks's book. They were never together in Canada. A fuller, though perhaps for the general reader less engaging, treatment of Churchill and Canada would focus less on Churchill's visits to Canada and explore his dealings with Canada and Canadians from London. In 1921 and 1922 Churchill was Colonial Secretary when the Colonial Office was still responsible for relations with the Dominions. It was in that capacity that Churchill was responsible for the Chanak tiff of 1922, when his request for Dominion support in a possible conflict with Turkey was made public before a telegram inquiring what Canada's position might be had reached King. He must have had to deal with Canada in many other respects at the Colonial Office. What were his dealings with Canada like during WWI? Between the wars, perhaps under Beaverbrook's influence, he addressed the Canadian Club in London several times. These speeches have survived but are omitted by Dilks.
The Canada that Churchill loved and that welcomed him so keenly is almost as dead as Churchill. Dilks's happy undertaking is an opening to understanding what has passed away.