Britain pays tribute to Churchill as legacy lives on

Naomi O'Leary

London (AFP) - Fifty years after Winston Churchill's death, Britain on Friday paid tribute to its wartime prime minister, who remains a touchstone of political life and a reminder of a faded age of global influence.

London's Tower Bridge was raised and the HMS Belfast warship fired a gun salute as the boat that carried his coffin up the River Thames in 1965 retraced its procession, with music from bagpipers on board.

Family members cast a wreath in the water at Westminster and Prime Minister David Cameron attended a memorial ceremony in front of a statue of the cigar-chomping leader inside the Houses of Parliament.

"His enduring legacy and influence on political life and British culture is testament to his formidable strength of character and remarkable achievements," Cameron said.

To this day, British politicians often evoke Churchill to add weight to their arguments, tapping into a deep attachment felt by many who lived through World War II.

Cameron's Conservative colleague, London Mayor Boris Johnson, has just penned a biography entitled "The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History".

"For many people he's not a historical figure -- people continue to feel an emotional connection to him," said Richard Toye, a historian at the University of Exeter.

Before World War II, Churchill was seen as a maverick, discredited by the huge loss of life during the poorly-planned Gallipoli campaign of World War I, and with a reputation as a political opportunist for switching sides from the Conservatives to the Liberal Party and back.

But the image that endures of Churchill was forged in 1940, when he was appointed prime minister.

A charismatic figure in a bowler hat, bow tie, and fat cigar clamped in his mouth, he came to embody resistance to Nazi Germany's leader Adolf Hitler.

Chris Ryland, now 65, travelled to London aged 15 to see Churchill lying in state.

"It was a sombre moment. We were aware that something great had passed, whether Churchill or the whole of that era," said Ryland, who now owns the boat that carried Churchill's coffin, the Havengore.

"Churchill remains hugely relevant today because without him the history of the world would be very different."

- Myth versus reality -

Born to an aristocratic family at the height of British imperial power, Churchill had the unquestioning belief in English superiority common to his era, and always had plenty of critics.

Black spots include his contempt for Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, failure to send food to Bengal as a famine killed millions during World War II and brutality in Ireland on his watch at the War Office after World War I.

There was anger in Britain last year after an election candidate was arrested for quoting critical comments by Churchill about Islam, but historian Warren Dockter told AFP it is a "myth" that he was Islamophobic.

"A hardcore imperialist", Churchill nonetheless believed Islam was "a civilising force", Dockter said.

Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman this month called Churchill a "ruthless egotist" who would be unelectable today.

Yet to many Britons, he remains a link to a proud past at a time when much of the country is haunted by a sense of decline.

The anti-EU UK Independence Party has used an image of Churchill making his V for victory sign as a symbol of defiance against Europe -- despite Churchill famously calling after the war for a "kind of United States of Europe".

- Greatest ever leader? -

Churchill was acutely conscious of his own legacy, shaping his memoirs to "put himself in the best possible light", Toye said.

Randolph Churchill, born two days before his great-grandfather's death, told AFP that his ancestor lived on in the freedoms enjoyed in Britain to this day.

"Fifty years on, what I feel is we're really doffing our hat to Churchill," he said.

Thousands of visitors still flock to his homes and the underground bunker from which he governed Britain during the Blitz air raids.

Auctions of Churchill's possessions draw significant interest and extracts from his speeches, including the famous "we shall fight them on the beaches" address, still draw millions of listeners on YouTube.

Present-day politicians in Britain can only dream of the kind of popularity enjoyed by a man whose biographer Roy Jenkins called the "greatest human being ever to occupy Downing Street".