Yet it did seem a historically significant moment, coming at a time when the Labour government was considering withdrawing all troops from east of Suez and so closing down the last remnants on the British Empire. “Now Britain is no longer a great power,” said Charles de Gaulle when he heard the news.
Many commentators in the British press agreed with him, and saw in the ceremony at St Paul’s the end of the era of British greatness. With the uninspiring Harold Wilson in Downing Street – about as un-Churchillian a figure imaginable – wrestling with recurrent economic problems that were soon to force the government into a humiliating devaluation of sterling, it was natural to fit Churchill’s death into an overall narrative of decline and malaise.
“The day of giants is gone for ever,” the historian Sir Arthur Bryant wrote in the Illustrated London News. Churchill’s own detective agreed, saying: “If the king dies you can say 'Long live the king’, but now Sir Winston’s gone, who is there? There’s no one of his stature left.” A L Rowse, the Oxford don, was equally pessimistic, writing: “The sun is going down on the British Empire.”
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