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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Dominic Sandbrook’s new series (12 November), began at Chelsea Football Club, which in 1945 hosted the first match of a goodwill tour by Moscow Dynamo. There, the KGB team taught the home side a lesson in skill, strength and dedication, before arriving at a diplomatic 3-3 draw. Off the pitch, there was less camaraderie.
“Sport is an unfailing cause of ill will,” George Orwell wrote, in his usual oracular manner. He had identified the threat from the East and coined the term “Cold War” as early as 1945. Winston Churchill, a year later, created the other key metaphor of the period: the “Iron Curtain”.
This was a programme full of interest and insight. I had never heard of Hewlett Johnson, the “Red Dean” of Canterbury Cathedral, a churchman who somehow came to the conclusion that Communist Russia was heaven on earth. He stuck to that opinion even when news of the purges and show trials reached the West, and said of Stalin that there was “no cruelty in his face, just geniality”. The Anglican Church left him to his own devices: he was a man of faith, after all.
Meanwhile, Orwell was about to publish Nineteen Eighty-Four. A book about life under Stalinism, it was widely read as an attack on the benign but paternalistic Attlee Government. Orwell resisted that interpretation, while warning about younger, more ideological socialists and handing a list of names to the authorities. Attlee himself was busily building homes, setting up the NHS and pumping out public information films about social security. The welfare state, Sandbrook argued, was designed to undercut the appeal of doctrinaire Soviet-style socialism, so seductive on the Continent in this period.
But then there was another war. “The fire that’s been started in distant Korea”, said Attlee, may burn down your house. We were committed to it by the “special relationship” that Churchill had identified in his Fulton speech. And then came the British bomb, a nuclear weapon with “a bloody Union Jack on top of it”, in the words of Ernie Bevin, Attlee’s Foreign Secretary. It would cost £100 million, spent in secret, but when the Soviets flattened Hungary in 1956, we were tied up in Egypt, and our transatlantic relationship was proving not to be so special after all.
This was a glorious programme, perfect November viewing, especially for those of us who lived for years within the blast-zone of the Soviet SS-20s.