Winston Churchill: Jeremy Paxman reflects on the man and his legacy

50 years after his funeral, Paxman reassesses the wartime leader's achievements - and asks if he would be elected PM today

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It is the one part of the funeral that everyone who saw it remembers. As the coffin of Britain’s wartime prime minister was piped aboard the Port of London launch, Havengore, on the shoulders of eight tall Grenadier Guardsmen, the dockside cranes on the other bank of the Thames lowered their jibs. The gesture from London’s Docklands, in recognition of the great man’s role in saving the country from Nazi tyranny, was held to be a spontaneous bowing in respect.

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Except that it wasn’t anything of the kind.

Churchill’s journey to his last resting place had been planned in minute detail. And so had the salute from a part of London that had suffered heavily in the Blitz.

Seven thousand soldiers, sailors and airmen were on the streets of the capital that bitterly cold January day in 1965, for this was the first state funeral for a commoner since that of the Duke of Wellington in November 1852. Churchill was the only commoner to be accorded a state funeral in the entire 20th century. 

As a schoolboy I watched the funeral on television, conscious of my mother’s comment about Churchill: “We were so lucky to have him, you know.” She had driven ambulances during the war. As a child I didn’t question the ritual that marked his death.

But, though they were in a minority, there were others who did, and in the two generations since his funeral an ever harsher light has been shone upon some of Churchill’s attitudes, particularly his indifference to suffering elsewhere in the world: there are Indians who will never forgive his apathy in the face of famine in Bengal during the war. And even in 1965 there were trades unionists in Britain who considered him a class enemy. 

At the end of Wellington’s state funeral, his coffin was lowered into the great tomb in the crypt of St Paul’s to Handel’s Dead March. But Churchill had elected to be buried in a simple grave at Bladon, alongside his father in the country churchyard near his Oxfordshire birthplace, Blenheim Palace. (Although this ruled out the great tomb that the Dean of St Paul’s had suggested, it was a significant step up from Churchill’s previous ambitions to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered on the graves of his pet poodles, Rufus One and Rufus Two.)

This meant that the funeral was in two parts – the great public spectacle at St Paul’s, attended by presidents and prime ministers, televised and shown around the world, and a private section, which began with a train journey to the nearest station in Oxfordshire. 

The railway journey was to begin from Waterloo (there is, unfortunately, no evidence that Churchill had deliberately chosen this station, rather than the more obvious Paddington, to irritate General de Gaulle.) For much of the journey from St Paul’s to Waterloo the coffin was be placed on a catafalque on the teak deck of the Havengore

It was when the launch passed the cranes on the wharves that the salute happened. Richard Dimbleby, narrating the commentary for the BBC, said: “Across the river, even the jibs of the cranes of Hay’s Wharf are being lowered in a final salute, unique, strangely touching, as they bow forward towards the other side of the river where the coffin is going away on its launch upstream.”

Nicholas Soames MP, who had marched down Whitehall behind his grandfather’s coffin, was in the family party aboard the launch. They had held their emotions in check thus far. But he recalls the spectacle of the dipping arms of the cranes as the sight that “undid us all”.

The cranes are long gone, as the London docks succumbed to the container trade. Hay’s Wharf (once known as “the larder of London” for its role in unloading imported foodstuffs) is now Hay’s Galleria and is colonised by shops, restaurants and wine bars. Discovering precisely what lay behind the dockers’ gesture that day isn’t easy. But it is clear that the salute may not have been quite what it appeared.

Older readers will recall that the 1960s were the heyday of the National Dock Labour Scheme, the system introduced by the postwar Labour government to try to give dockers security of employment in place of the on-the-day hiring and firing that had previously blighted their lives.

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But the introduction of what was effectively a “job for life” did not bring peace. It did, however, cow the management. Jack Dash, the commu- nist docker who boasted of having been involved in every one of the strikes that paralysed the London docks between 1945 and 1969, became a household name.