There is a story of when he was wartime prime minister, that Churchill commanded his driver to pull over and dispatched his bodyguard to inquire why there was such a long queue of people leading up to a shop. The bodyguard returned and replied, “They’re queuing for birdseed, sir.” Churchill wept when he heard this, overwhelmed with profound wonder that, in the midst of the Blitz and the horrors and privations of war, the people still took time to stand in a long line, reach into their meager funds and provide for nature’s vulnerable creatures.
The anecdote contains the unmistakable stamp of truth. Churchill was known for his love of and regard for animals, and he was a man unafraid and unashamed to weep in public. Forgetting about the oft-repeated follies of his long career for a moment, I’d like to propose that if he is really ever to be regarded as a “great” man in any sense it ought to be first and foremost because of his compassion. Too often history judges a leader “great” because of wartime achievements: Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great come to mind. Every now and then the honorific is bestowed because of their advancement of learning and culture, and here one might think of Alfred the Great or Catherine the Great.
But we don’t give out enough historical honorifics for compassion. We acknowledge Abraham Lincoln as a man of great compassion, we just don’t call him “Great” because of it. More’s the pity we don’t, because I think by so doing we might have better cultivated it in ourselves and in our descendants.
You’d be forgiven for missing the irony, though, that my two historical exemplars for compassion were from political parties that now lean conservative, Churchill the Tory and Lincoln the Republican, because excursions into compassion are scarce on the ground for members of either party these days. It comes as no surprise to me, for instance, that Donald Trump dislikes animals, which fits rather neatly in with his sociopathic absence of compassion. And while I’m not entirely sure what Boris Johnson’s actual (as opposed to make believe) attitude toward animals is, I’m reasonably sure, judging from his modus operandi in general, that he is likewise all but bereft of that very human thing we call compassion.
A good friend of mine who lives in Washington State recently and on his own account and without outside encouragement convinced his local council to recognize World Suicide Day, in the hope of educating the public about suicide prevention. They complied with a full-on resolution to enshrine the day for that purpose. It was a labor of human compassion that seemed natural coming from a man who is both a veteran and a Democrat. It never occurred to me and still doesn’t occur to me to suspect he has any motives behind the obvious, that it was a good thing to do. I cannot imagine these days a Republican doing such a thing without my wondering what his angle is or what he hopes to gain by it, or whom he’s attempting to shmooze.
Boris Johnson is full of the trickery of counterfeit compassion. Or, better still, let’s call it the appearance of public-mindedness. He’s intent on ramming through Brexit, even a no-deal Brexit, even if it means alienating his very own party from himself, even if it defies the wishes of the majority of the painfully and recently educated public, even if it proves ruinous for Britain. He has prorogued Parliament and lied about the reason, he has lied about non-existent meetings where he struck invisible deals with an uninformed European Union. He is a headlong train heading for a railroad bridge that is clearly out.
Why? No one knows for sure. If I had to guess I would suspect Donald Trump has made Boris an offer he can’t refuse, a trade deal that will somehow provide lucrative kickbacks to Boris and Trump and their rich friends. For Boris Johnson, who is himself a Churchill scholar and who no doubt cultivates fantasies of one day being regarded as a kind of Churchill, his tour of duty well may end as the second shortest premiership in history, just behind the Duke of Wellington’s twenty three days. Boris Johnson will never be a great man like his hero Winston Churchill. He lacks Churchill’s wit, his eloquence, his intelligence, and above all, his compassion.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.