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  • 17 February 2005
  • What we really thought about our "greatest ever Briton"


    Churchill giving his final address in 1945 election campaign<br />Credit: Imperial War Museum

    Churchill giving his final address in 1945 election campaign
    Credit: Imperial War Museum

    He was recently voted the "greatest ever Briton" in a BBC poll, but what did the British people really think of Winston Churchill as he led them through their "darkest hour" in World War II?

     

    A unique archive at the University of Sussex, which has contributed material to the newly-opened Churchill museum at the Cabinet War Rooms in London, shows that the public had very mixed feelings about "Winnie".

     

    The Mass-Observation Archive, housed in the University library, offers a wealth of personal views of Churchill, written by ordinary men and women during the 1940s for a wartime studies project. These views, volunteered as part of a process to monitor public attitudes to political leaders, including Churchill, helped to form a "morale barometer" of the times.

     

    As a result of this continuous monitoring, anthropologist and founder of Mass-Observation, Tom Harrisson, predicted in 1944 that Churchill would not win a post-war election. Dorothy Sherdian, head of special collections at the University of Sussex, says: "Angus Calder [the historian, Sussex alumnus and author of The People's War: Britain 1939-1945] has commented that this prediction, made in 1944 when Churchill's popularity as a war leader was at its height, was Mass-Observation's 'finest hour'. This is because it vindicated the use of 'soft' subjective data, such as diaries, to provide evidence for shifts in popular thinking."

     

    Typical comments from 1942-44, in the years after the "phoney" war, Dunkirk, the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, refer to Churchill as "the best man for the war, but not for the peace". People had respect for his leadership and admired his "bulldog" spirit, but did not think he was the moderniser needed to build the new Britain people were already looking forward to. He was also seen as too authoritarian, with little understanding of the needs of ordinary people ("he has contempt for new ideas"; "doesn't listen to criticism"; "rather too much of the public school about him"; "he cannot cease bolstering up the class to which he belongs").

     

    Some writers express distaste of Churchill's public persona. One likens him to a "bandleader", while another describes him as an entertainer who "plays rather too much to the gallery". Even his legendary oratory is called into question, when one respondent comments: "He goes to the microphone as if he thought his rhetoric would act as an anaesthetic". Churchill's idiosyncratic habit of taking a daily siesta is also called into question, when one respondent writes: Maybe it is a bit childish to go to bed as soon as he arrives in Downing Street, but I suppose a Prime Minister must have some relaxation."

     

    The thoughts of one Land Army girl in 1942, however, probably best express the feeling that brought about Churchill's electoral downfall: "The traditional England he champions is not the one I want to see preserved," she wrote.

     

    Notes for editors 

    The original Mass-Observation was established in 1937. It was relaunched as the Mass-Observation Project in 1981 and continues to issue questionnaires, collate the responses and make them available for research.  For more information, see http://www.sussex.ac.uk/library/speccoll/collection_introductions/massobs

    For interviews etc, contact Maggie Clune at the University of Sussex Press office, tel: 01273 678 888 or email M.T.Clune@sussex.ac.uk

     

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