It’s tough time to be a politician wherever you are, what with the pandemic, increasingly polarised views and the perils of social media. Two recent and not altogether unconnected events remind me that political legacies can defy early reputations. As Churchill’s personal brandy glass and monogrammed slippers sold for a combined premium-inclusive £60,000 at auction the other day, the almost mythical status of our greatest ever wartime leader was set against the rather less generous views of Chips Channon, celebrated diarist of the 1920s and ’30s, whose journals have been republished in unredacted form for the first time.
Channon, a brilliant writer of sometimes dubious views – he thought Hitler marvellous and Churchill the most dangerous man in Europe – was an unparalleled observer of his times in terms of wit yet was almost invariably wrong about public figures, events and how everything would turn out. His career as an MP was certainly overshadowed by his writing, and a good thing too.
How different was the experience of the nation’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, from the frenetic lives of 20th century incumbents of that role. Walpole, who took office exactly 300 years ago on April 3, enjoyed an uninterrupted term in office of over 20 years – still the longest ministry of any PM. He is generally seen as one of the best political leaders we have ever had and navigated a careful course of moderation and tolerance to establish political and social stability. How different from the bearpit Commons that was to follow.