By John Dubber

14 July 2015 - 14:31

'Churchill had a personal "soft power" that extended beyond his political and strategic skills.' Drawing (c) Lyn Ott, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5, 2.0 and 1.0, and adapted from the original.
'Churchill had a personal "soft power" that extended beyond his political and strategic skills.' Drawing ©

Lyn Ott, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.52.0 and 1.0, and adapted from the original.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. The British Council’s John Dubber examines how a figure famous as a war leader was also a master of soft power, or influence by attraction rather than coercion.

If ever a politician exemplified ‘hard power’, it was soldier, statesman and war leader Sir Winston Churchill. But his use of the English language, the ‘V for Victory’ sign, the siren suit, and even his love of food and drink, all contributed to a personal ‘soft power’ that extended beyond his political and strategic skills.

Above all, Churchill was a brilliant thinker, writer and speaker. The Shakespearean rhetoric of his speeches during the Second World War bolstered resistance at home, raised spirits in occupied Europe, and helped draw an isolationist America into supporting the Allied cause.

In the words of US broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (subsequently borrowed by President Kennedy), Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’.

A shaper of world opinion

Churchill made a huge contribution to shaping the events of the 20th century. After the fall of France in the Second World War, he used the force of his arguments and personality to bolster Britain’s national will to fight on alone.

Churchill then mobilised the appeal of common culture, language and values to persuade the United States first to grant favourable trade terms and then to join Britain in the fighting towards victory in Europe.

After that victory, he helped create the post-war international landscape by emphasising common values and ideals and contributing to the formation of organisations such as the UN that were designed to prevent conflict.

He was also one of the first to recognise the profound threat to those values and ideals arising from the Soviet Union. For this reason he called for a united Western alliance against the USSR. Indeed it was Churchill, in a speech in America in 1946, who first coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’ to describe the ideological barrier that had descended on Europe.

A defender of cultural ties and common values

As well as a politician, Churchill was a historian, with a keen sense of the importance of ideas in shaping the world. He always understood the significance of what is now known as ‘soft power’: the ability of countries to attract others and achieve their objectives through their culture, values and ideas, rather than through their military might.

In 1938, he spoke of the importance of ideas in challenging tyranny: ‘[Dictators] are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home – all the more powerful because forbidden – terrify them.’ In 1943, speaking at Harvard University, he went so far as to say that: ‘The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.’

Churchill recognised that cultural ties were of huge importance in the world. Himself half American, he frequently spoke of the common bonds of language, literature and values between Britain and the USA. Throughout his life, he saw those bonds as crucial to the political and diplomatic relationship between the two countries, and between them and the rest of the English-speaking world.

He was also an advocate for expanding the teaching of English around the world, even establishing a Committee of the Cabinet to look into the possibility of developing a form of English as an international language. He would no doubt have welcomed the continuing and growing reach of English as the world’s leading language of business, diplomacy and culture.

An artist, writer and thinker

Churchill was also a writer and artist, and appreciated many aspects of culture. His writing was prolific and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. He loved painting, which was a vital means of relaxation and self-expression, and provided time for deep thought throughout his life. Art was undoubtedly part of what enabled him to have such formidable stamina. It also helped maintain his intellectual focus and kept at bay the ‘black dog’ of depression that recurred throughout his life. In 1925, Churchill wrote: ‘Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.’

A man of continuing global appeal

It would be wrong to ignore Churchill’s misjudgements – both military and political – and it is true that, in some parts of the world, he remains a controversial figure. The Churchillian ‘soft power effect’ certainly varies from place to place.

Yet in 2014, research undertaken by the British Council showed that, five decades after his death, his persona was one of the most significant things that young people in China, India, Brazil, Germany and the US associated with UK culture. Even today the figure of Churchill remains a huge soft power icon for his country.

As part of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death, the British Council, the Barbican and the City of London are working together to host events and develop a report on the role of art, culture and soft power in 21st century global leadership. 

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