This weekend I will be going to see the Darkest Hour, the new film about Winston Churchill’s leadership in 1940, when the Nazi conquest of Europe seemed to be complete and the United Kingdom stood alone. It has already been hailed as a masterpiece and nominated for several Oscars. My good friend and fellow MP, Nicholas Soames, who is Winston Churchill’s grandson, says that Gary Oldman’s performance as his grandfather is “magnificent”.
The Darkest Hour is the latest in a long line ofbooks and films about Winston Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War. Every year seems to bring a new one. Why do we find this episode so compelling and the character of Churchill so magnetic? After all, it also tells us of a country on the brink of defeat after a string of disasters in Norway and northern France. And Churchill was a deeply flawed man, responsible for some calamitous decisions at other points in his career and comprehensively rejected by the British people in the 1945 election, as the war drew to close.
The reason, I believe, is this. 1940 was one of those rare moments when history came to a fork in the road and one man made a fateful choice that will forever shape the history of the world. Most of history is, as the saying goes, “one damn thing after another” – an endless series of more or less random events in which the decisions of our so-called leaders are either inevitable or irrelevant. But in the Cabinet discussions of 1940, when the possibility of negotiating peace with Hitler was being actively promoted, Britain stood on the brink. The decision to fight on alone was neither irrelevant nor inevitable. If any other person had been Prime Minister at that moment, the country might have resigned itself to defeat and Adolf Hitler might have gone on to win the war. But Churchill knew his own mind, and had an instinctive connection with the people he led. He used the simple tools of oratory to tell the British people a story of defiance and resolve that echoed in their souls and gave them strength.
Centuries may pass before there is another act of leadership the equal of Winston Churchill’s in 1940. In a thousand years, it may still be seen as the greatest moment in our history. We will never tire of hearing it retold.