Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson likes to compare himself to Sir Winston Churchill, the great leader who preserved his nation through the truly terrible, highest-stakes early challenges of World War II.
Churchill then played pivotal roles in creating and brokering the alliances, in particular with the United States, which created the road to total victory. Finally, he was instrumental along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and others in charting the framework for the United Nations.
Some journalists have promoted the comparison. They directly equate Churchill’s leadership in the total global war three-quarters of a century ago with the intense controversy regarding Brexit, the shorthand reference to Britain withdrawal from the European Union (EU).
This Johnson analogy to Churchill is utterly false. Seeing the two as comparable distorts Churchill’s true talents and strengths, trivializes profound lessons of history, and might add influence and standing to a current prime minister who deserves neither.
Prime Minister Johnson was appointed head of government by Queen Elizabeth II in July, after his predecessor Prime Minister Theresa May failed in three attempts to secure passage by the House of Commons of an agreement her government reached with EU officials in Brussels to leave that organization.
The House of Commons is the governing chamber of the British Parliament. The other chamber, the House of Lords, has limited powers to review, amend and delay legislation. Normally this authority is unimportant, but becomes significant in times of continuing tension and crisis, as during the current ongoing intense Brexit dispute.
Johnson has been able to take advantage of the continuing disarray and indecision in Britain over Brexit. Both before and since taking government power, he has antagonized and insulted leaders in his own party as well as others, inside and outside Parliament. He became leader by winning a majority of votes of his Conservative Party in the Commons, then a majority of votes of individual party members around the nation.
The party chooses their leader in this contemporary manner. Previously, the Conservative establishment, dominated by traditional aristocrats, made the selection, a much more informal and class-oriented process. Today, a more formal process is also more democratic and transparent than in the past.
However, greater fairness does not guarantee better leaders. A politician can get to the top with little experience in developing coalitions or pragmatic compromise. In early September, Johnson abruptly dismissed 21 M.P.s who oppose his rigid or “hard” Brexit, including Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill. Soames in turn denounced Johnson, which is not surprising. However, his point that the current prime minister lacks Churchill’s long, difficult life experience is exactly right.
Dramatizations of the desperate early phase of World War II often portray Winston Churchill as standing alone in resisting Nazi Germany. The film “The Darkest Hour” represents one recent example of this popular but misleading approach.
In fact, the interplay within Britain’s government was extremely complex. As France was falling in May 1940, Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime minister. Churchill opposed pursuing talks with Germany while Britain was so weak, but Lord Halifax and others in the inner circle of the government backed negotiating for peace.
Churchill appealed to the outer cabinet, with Chamberlain’s support. He won. He was compassionate toward and considerate of Chamberlain, retained him in government, regularly complimented and consulted him — and other leaders.
Churchill displayed the same approach toward nations, including especially the United States.
In consequence, we are all indebted to him.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact email@example.com.