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British bulldog

13 February 2015

THE funeral of Winston Churchill marked a watershed in national self-consciousness. It fell in the middle of what Bernard Levin called "The Pendulum Years", as we moved from post-war austerity to greater affluence, social mobility and irreverence. It was, after all, the Swinging Sixties: the era of the Beatles, and the Profumo scandal.

Jeremy Paxman's recent television essay on the funeral, Churchill: A Nation's Farewell, argued that Churchill had indeed been the man to get us through our darkest hour; but we must hope that such an hour does not come again.

I was brought up to admire Churchill hugely; yet the recollections of his funeral made me more than ever aware of how far society has moved in 50 years.

His death marked the passing of our nationalist myth of greatness. Churchill saw Britain at the heart of three concentric worlds: Europe, the Empire, and the American-European axis. For him, Britain had an almost mystical destiny; an island race that was a beacon of freedom to the world.

This was the Britain of H. E. Marshall's Our Island Story, so much loved by David Cameron and Michael Gove, where the myths of Albion, the coming and going of the Romans, the Christianisation of Britain, Magna Carta, and the birth of democracy are woven together in such a way as to suggest that Providence looks with particular favour on those born in these islands.

It was powerful stuff during the Blitz, and formed the basis of Churchill's astonishingly effective rhetoric. But the myth of a divine British destiny remains a nationalist myth. The Nazis, too, were in thrall to their own myth - of German superiority, driven by crudely biological notions of racial difference. The British myth was more benign, with a Christian rather than a neo-pagan basis, relying on notions of sacrifice and heroism rather than the imposition of crude power. Churchill was able to paint Nazism as a threat to the freedom of the world; after Pearl Harbour, the message eventually prevailed. Those 300,000 or so who turned out for his funeral understood that his resilience had won them freedom; but they were not disappointed when it became clear, in the 1960s, that this meant freedom to shop, to have sex outside marriage, and to make fun of the Establishment.

Paxman suggested that Churchill would have harrumphed at Britain today. That is probably true. Yet his myth of British greatness has helped to produce a society that may not be as great as he hoped, but is significantly more tolerant, more diverse, more mature, and more genuinely liberal in its ethos than most others.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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