Guarding Churchill, 2020: The protective box placed around the statue
of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London. Photo: AAP.

In his day, Winston Churchill endured his share of brickbats and all manner of abuse. Until 1940, he may have been the most reviled politician in Britain. After 1940, he was carried off to near-mythic realms, much as Lincoln was after 1865. Near-mythic only, however: neither demigod was God.

The defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square probably wouldn’t have surprised the Old Lion. What would have surprised, dismayed, and greatly angered him is the authorities’ pussycat response. Which brings us to the box. The cover story was that Churchill’s statue had been scaffolded and boxed to protect it following protests (mob action) earlier in June over, let us speak inclusively here, white guilt for all the world’s woes. Then, for a visit by French president Emmanuel Macron on June 18, the eightieth anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s 1940 BBC broadcast urging Frenchmen not to give up the fight against the Nazi occupiers, the statue was unboxed and cleaned-up. This may not be the end of it. London authorities say that the uncovering will “remain under review.” Protest and riot are in the summer air. Stay tuned.

On hearing of the defacing, I tried at first, as with much of the awfulness these days, to put it out of mind. Then, when a friend forwarded a photograph of the box, I began to wonder about a few things. The box was attended, but hardly guarded, by one lonely police constable, who looked more like a school crossing guard than a proper policeman. He appeared to be unarmed. The drill, I supposed, would now be for shifts of constables to cover the site 24/7, and then, as time passed, quietly be withdrawn. Then the box could be graffitied, cleaned-up, graffitied again, and so on it would go. Both “freedom and authority” (the fatuous title of a summer reading course for incoming freshmen when I started college back in the Sixties) would have their say, as we lumbered tolerantly on. The box is now off again. But then, it might go back on again. It all depends. We have become a culture debased by the image, where “optics” are everything. Who, I wondered, was the worse offender: the vandal with the spray paint or the box-builders? Why, I wondered, had it become acceptable to protect something we supposedly value by hiding it, rather than by simply guarding it?

Precedent here is not encouraging. In Charlottesville, after a now famous and similar instance of civic misbehavior, hand-wringing city officials stood aside, let riot happen but then faced frustration. A dark-ages state law protecting monuments blocked quick “justice,” and Robert E. Lee’s hated likeness could not be toppled quite yet. It could however be hidden from our eyes, which resulted in the installment of what looked like the world’s biggest black plastic garbage bag in the midst of a once-pleasant city park. Surely Churchill’s box isn’t that bad. Or is it worse?

Things used to be subtler. In the 1946 film I See a Dark Stranger with Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard, Kerr played Bridie Quiltie, a pretty colleen from rural Ireland raised on romantic stories of the Easter Rising, who falls in with a nefarious German agent on the track of D-Day secrets. In an early scene, we see a pair of hands dumping a pail of white paint over a statue of Oliver Cromwell in the fictional West Country town where much of the action takes place. The locals gather around the vandalized monument, wondering about the perpetrator. “Three hundred years he’s stood there with nobody taking any interest in him, except the seagulls,” says one of the townspeople. The mischief-maker, we are led to think, is Bridie, who scorns Cromwell and all things British with a hatred instilled from childhood. Just in time, though, she sees the error of her ways, the plot is foiled, and the love interest with Howard (who plays a British officer on leave) leads to marriage at war’s end. On the honeymoon, he makes the mistake of booking them into an inn named for the subject of his Cambridge thesis: you guessed it, “The Cromwell Arms.” Bridie harrumphs out, though we know the young couple will soon make up and all will be well; it is, after all, a movie. The film is half spy thriller and half comedy. White paint over The Protector is played tongue-in-cheek and largely for laughs—but we also see the white paint being promptly removed. Today, such joking is verboten. No matter that Cromwell and Churchill are remembered for rather different things. One misstep and you’re dead.

Is it conceivable that there is anyone in Britain today who does not know what Churchill did in the 1940s? Is it conceivable that there is anyone who cannot understand that in all likelihood Nazi victory in the West would have been complete, and who knows how long-lasting, without him? Recent events in Parliament Square answer the question. There are apparently many Britons who do not know this or who choose to forget it. Over here, the parallel question would be: is it conceivable that there is anyone who does not know the price exacted by the Civil War, or about the patient non-violent heroism that made possible the Second Reconstruction a century later? Is it conceivable that there are those who do not know that without Lincoln (who, incidentally, was no racial paragon: a man of his time who favored transportation of freed blacks back to Africa), the Union would have been dismembered and the federal republic conceived in 1787 come to naught? Is it conceivable that there are those who do not believe that this experiment in self-government was worth saving at some cost? The so-called 1619 Project, now basking in its Pulitzer and taking aim at the schools, answers the question. Apparently, many Americans today believe it would be better had their country never been born, so fouled was its conception.

Churchill’s box is the perfect public monument for a generation, on both sides of the Atlantic, determined to hide from history. In her V-E Day speech last month, the Queen tried valiantly to remind her subjects that they were still cut from the same old 1940s-cloth. While one hesitates to quarrel with Her Majesty’s judgment—and how one wishes she were right—what are we to think now? The box does not protect Churchill. It protects us, so delicate and vulnerable have we become, from him. These are not quite the traits of national character that Churchill summoned forth from his countrymen when, after the fall of France, Britain stood alone.

There is a more fitting Churchillian alternative. Remove the box permanently. Clean-up the sculpture. Surround it with a squad of guardsmen, six would do, 24/7, battle dress, bayonets fixed as if they mean business. Their barracks are just down the road, and their to-ing and fro-ing between shifts could become a public ritual or even a new tourist attraction, another “changing of the guard.” Of course, it would be screamed, this would send a divisive, confrontational message when what we need is healing. Time was when such action would have been understood to show strength, respect, honor. An image that appeared in this space in March, of guardsmen guarding Churchill’s catafalque in Westminster Hall in January 1965, is suggestive—and shames the box.

A billboard outside my small Virginia town recruits for the Army National Guard with the image of a helmeted warrior peering menacingly around the corner of a building as if in urban combat, M-16 locked and loaded, with the caption: “Guard What You Love.” Churchill guarded us in a time of great peril. And we return the honor with a box? What is it we love, anyway?