It is brave of Andrew Roberts, before embarking on this 1,000-page biography of the man routinely described as the greatest ever Briton, to point out that there have already been 1,000 biographies of him. It invites the question: why another? Roberts’s answer comes in a thoughtful summing-up at the end of his book, where he indicates how many useful sources have become available only in recent years. These include the private papers of Churchill’s children, verbatim reports of meetings of the War Cabinet, the diaries of Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s envoy to London, and the pooterish jottings of George VI. The result is the best single-volume life imaginable of a man whose life it would seem technically impossible to get into a single volume.
The problem with Churchill, for two reasons, is his legend. First, because of that legend, everyone who met him, from long before he directed our affairs in the darkest hour, felt it important to record every aspect and impression of him, which is why there are not just those thousand biographies, but books on what he ate, drank, wore, and so on. He was a Technicolor personality in an increasingly monochrome age, and there was plenty to record – his jokes (though Roberts doubts he lacked the gallantry to tell Bessie Braddock, who accused him of being drunk, that while he would be sober in the morning, she would still be hideously ugly); his florid orations in antique English; his apophthegms; and, of course, his awesome misjudgments. For Roberts to have ensured that virtually all Winston’s greatest hits are in this book is not the least of his achievements.
Second, the legend invites historians, and people who write about the past, to challenge it, which few dare to do. Roberts is to be commended for his courage in pointing out when Churchill was wrong (the Gold Standard, India, the Abdication), when he was reckless (showing off at Sidney Street, the Dardanelles, Narvik), when he misrepresented or exaggerated fact in order to make political points (frequently) or when he was tasteless (such as in his almost infantile joy at the outbreak of the Great War, in which he at least had the courage, for a few months before he craved a return to Westminister, to fight).
Indeed it is Churchill’s courage, and his loyalty to his friends and family, that redeems him. Roberts recounts numerous occasions when he cheated death, not least when German shells passed through his dugout on the Western Front, and when he stuck by people whom everyone else detested. Nor does he stint on the difficult relationship with his son Randolph, of whom Evelyn Waugh famously said, when Randolph had had a harmless tumour removed, how ironic it was that the medical profession had cut out the only part of him that was benign.
Churchill’s legend has not just been immortalised in print. It has spawned films, drama series, plays and documentaries in such numbers that there could be a Churchill channel – and doubtless, somewhere in America, there is. This presents another problem for a biographer, for many of Roberts’s readers will already have their conceptions of Churchill as a person, and some of what they have seen on film is, unlike in this reliable biography, sheer garbage, such as the preposterous scene in Darkest Hour where Churchill holds court in a Tube train. Roberts sticks to the sources. For that reason, new readers should definitely start here.
That does not spare him the task of dealing with much that is familiar, even to those who have never read a book on Churchill. There is the neglect by his parents, not least his self-obsessed father who may (or, Robert thinks, may not) have died of syphilis; and their consignment of this unruly boy to a perverted, flagellomaniac prep school master called Sneyd-Kynnersley. Harrow was little better, though Churchill was not entirely the dunce that he liked to pretend to be. He under-achieved at Sandhurst, and failed to get into the sort of smart regiment his parents had hoped, but used his time as a subaltern in India and Africa to educate himself, and develop a relationship with the English language that helped make him money as a writer throughout his life. He also developed the art of seeing everything through the prism of history.
Roberts then takes readers through Churchill’s political career before 1940. He followed his father into the Tory party but in 1904 crossed the floor over the threat the Balfour government posed to free trade. He “re-ratted” in 1924 by standing as a Tory after the collapse of the Liberals, and was made, to his surprise, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the intervening period he had been the youngest cabinet minister in living memory, serving at the Board of Trade (where his development of labour exchanges deserves more recognition for its significance), the Home Office, the Admiralty, the Duchy of Lancaster, Munitions, the War Office, the Air Ministry and the Colonial Office.
It is a rare flaw in this book that Roberts seems to underestimate Churchill’s contribution to the slump of the Thirties through not just the decision to go back on the Gold Standard (which he himself admitted had been a mistake) but also through the general thrust of his economic policy, which did too little to stimulate growth.
One of the few things Churchill was categorically right about – the Nazi menace – was perhaps the most important thing for any statesman in British history to have grasped. MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain in different degrees failed to do so, and patronised Churchill for his trouble. Roberts, rightly, believes in Churchill’s greatness, and his readers will be in no doubt over why: Churchill’s ability to articulate the defiance of the British nation; his careful husbandry of relations with the United States so that, even before America came into the war after Pearl Harbor, it had set up lend-lease and was giving Britain the wherewithal to take the fight to Adolf Hitler.
Yet even in war there were mistakes. Roberts, with some understatement, describes Yalta as “not Churchill’s finest hour”, not least for its consequences in shaping the map of Eastern Europe. But then, to be fair to Churchill, the dying Roosevelt effectively stitched him up, and Churchill could have done nothing about it, short of ordering British forces, after the surrender of the Germans, to carry on and fight the Russians. On a more minor point, Roberts quotes the letter from Mrs Churchill to her husband telling him to stop being so rude to his staff. He was under enormous pressure, but so were they, and they lacked the constant intake of Pol Roger, cognac and cigars that maintained his equilibrium.
Having given such weight to the war years, there is a sense towards the end of the book that Roberts is cantering to the finish. He reports, but does not entirely satisfactorily explain, Churchill’s unpopularity before the 1945 election, even before his foolish “Gestapo” remarks about the effect of a Labour government; and the inadequacy of the Churchill government of 1951-55, when the stroke Churchill suffered after the coronation should have put him into retirement.
This is not a biography of Anthony Eden, but one does wonder how much better a prime minister Eden would have been had he become leader of the Tory party in 1945. Churchill’s greatest error was staying too long, and by the Fifties was relying on amphetamines to keep him going. One senses Roberts’s publisher, fearing that this work would require a second volume (and it should have), driving him to compress these last, significant years.
The author’s conclusion that “the battles he won saved Liberty” takes us back to 1940, and cannot but be true: had Britain fallen, God knows what would have happened to the world. Yet Roberts shows us Churchill’s complexities, faults and rough edges as a biographer should. The obsessives, of whom there are many, can gorge on the eight-volume official Life, written by Randolph Churchill (who finished only two volumes before he drank himself to death) and Sir Martin Gilbert (who wrote much of those first two, and all of the other six), in all its turgid, hagiographical and exhaustive earnestness, if they wish. For most of us, seeking a more concise, authoritative view, Roberts will be enough.