The challenges Churchill faced nearly 70 years ago mirror those of today [Commentary]

Final installment of a three-part biography is a must-read for Winston Churchill fans

Some of you may recall my intense interest in the life, times, victories and tribulations of Sir Winston Churchill. Arguably the most celebrated statesman of the 20th century, Churchill was both a product of his times and a visionary on behalf of democracy, freedom and market economies.

It was with this background that I was excited to receive "Churchill: The Last Lion" — the third (and final) installment of the monumental biography begun by the late William Manchester, but finished by eminent historian Paul Reid after Manchester's death. This 1,050-page tome is a must read for any Churchill-phile and any student of history interested in the methodologies of a revered statesman, historian and author. (Warning: this third installment is not a "light" read; be prepared for an intensive trip into British life and politics circa 1939-1945.)

Of course, not everyone views Churchill in a positive light. He was a controversial figure in British and world politics. Accordingly, revisionist historians and detractors of various ilks have also had their turns at WSC. The complaints range from the mundane (too much drinking and too many late nights), to egotism and opportunism (party switching), to the great man's imperialist-inspired desire to maintain the British Empire against the unrelenting tides of history. (The last criticism was regularly lodged by FDR during the war years.)

We who count ourselves as steadfast admirers must recognize these flaws. Indeed, our 20/20 hindsight makes it impossible to ignore Churchill's reflexive stands against self-determination within large portions of the (former) British Empire.

Nevertheless, the man who correctly foresaw the dangers of mollifying an aggressive Adolf Hitler in the 1930s and of allowing Soviet troops to occupy most of Eastern Europe in early 1945 also fully understood the cultural and economic dangers represented by modern progressivism. Not that Churchill was some right-wing ideologue. He enthusiastically advocated for a system of federal social security and jobless benefits when such positions were none too popular among his Tory colleagues.

But it is WSC's comprehensive understanding of the dangers attendant to the modern welfare state that rings so familiar today.

For context, turn the pages back to post-war Great Britain. Two American atomic bombs had ended the war in the Pacific. A victorious but exhausted English electorate had voted their war-time hero out of office (along with most of his fellow Tories). And the country's beloved elder statesman had assumed leadership of the opposition bench.

It was at this juncture that Manchester's analysis hit home with me — and hopefully you, too.

To wit:

"…Churchill could not reverse the Labour mandate, and knew it. Labour had pledged to nationalize the Bank of England, the coal and utility industries, railroads, and the steel industry. As Labour in coming months and years created government control boards to manage each industry, bureaucracy became Britain's fastest-growing industry. Two years after V-E day, Churchill told the House: 'A mighty army of 450,000 additional civil servants has been taken from production and added, at a prodigious cost and waste, to the oppressive machinery of government and control. Instead of helping national recovery this is a positive hindrance.' … Labour's showcase priority was the creation of the National Health Service. … Labour proposed free health care, free false teeth, free eyeglasses. Just four months after the election, Churchill told the House: 'The queues are longer, the shelves are barer, the shops are emptier. The interference of Government Departments with daily life is more severe and more galling. More forms have to be filled up; more officials have to be consulted. Whole spheres of potential activity are frozen, rigid and numb, because this Government has to prove its Socialistic sincerity instead of showing how they can get the country alive and on the move again.'"

Here then was Churchill's (and the Tories') worst nightmare: a federal takeover of entire industries; the appointment of powerful, unaccountable control boards, dramatic growth in government bureaucracy; prodigious government spending; a tepid national economic recovery; a degraded private sector and the promise of "free" health care. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Yes, the transformative promises of Labor in 1945 are remarkably similar to progressives' promises of today. The vast majority are long on utopian vision and short on ability to pay.

All in all, a familiar refrain for observers of European style socialism — an approach to government rapidly coming to a country near … you.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "America: Hope for Change" and "Turn this Car Around" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.


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