How to assess the career of a world-changing politician who was also a prolific journalist, writer and incessant self-publicist? Aside from his other achievements, Winston Churchill wrote a six-volume, 1.9m-word account of the second world war and his role in winning it. Are we able, more than five decades after his death, to peer over the mountain of his reputation and his writings – more than 40 books and thousands of speeches – and find the real man?
As well as the size of Churchill’s output, there is the seductive eloquence of his words. Like the lines of Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient time”, some of Churchill’s more lyrical passages are so perfectly constructed and deftly targeted that they can induce, even in sceptics, momentary lapses of critical analysis. I say this as a sceptic who, although publicly critical of the man and deeply wary of the myths that surround him, named my production company, Uplands, after a phrase taken from his most famous wartime speech (“If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”). His command of language was such that he was a recipient of the Nobel prize in literature. Churchill the war leader has to be disentangled from the propaganda image created by him and those around him, and which was itself a significant part of the war effort.
During almost every foreign policy crisis and conflict, especially if the idea of appeasement is relevant, politicians and journalists ask: what would Churchill have done? President George W Bush, who launched his calamitous war in Iraq with a bust of Churchill by his side in the Oval Office, is said to have modelled his style of leadership on him. And even before the EU referendum, the two sides in the battle of Brexit had begun to claim that the memory of Churchill was on their side. This has, in one sense, been an uphill task for the Brexit camp, given that in 1946 Churchill advocated what he called “a kind of United States of Europe”, and throughout much of his career underlined the importance of remaining engaged with the continent. But seen through the filter of a distorted memory of the second world war, our European partners are depicted by Brexiters as enemies against whom we must take a stand. Churchill is invoked to give substance to the claim that all it will take for Brexit to work is for us to believe in Britain, and the exceptional “British spirit”. In his major new biography, Andrew Roberts sums up Churchill’s credo: “With enough spirit he believed that we can rise above anything, and create something truly magnificent of our lives.”
Given that his rousing speeches play on a perpetual loop somewhere in the back of the national psyche, and the bulk of the country is unshakable in its view of Churchill as the greatest of British heroes, how can the historian see him with any clarity? There are already more than a thousand biographies; what can Roberts add? He has drawn on some fresh material: the diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to Britain, and new accounts of the meetings of Churchill’s war cabinet. The revelation that has aroused most attention is how often Churchill was moved to tears – his sentimentality was familiar to anyone who worked with him closely. Roberts also makes interesting use of the diaries of George VI, available to historians for the first time in an unedited form. He portrays an unlikely wartime relationship: before the conflict began, the king had privately expressed the hope that he would never have to appoint Churchill to any great office of state, yet the two men grew both close to and supportive of one another.
Roberts takes his subtitle from Churchill’s own history of the war: on being appointed prime minister, in May 1940, he felt he was “walking with destiny”, that his life up until that moment “had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”. The author’s admiration for his subject is clear, but this does not stop him from discussing Churchill’s earlier misjudgments and catastrophic errors. There are many: the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of the first world war, ordered by him when he was first lord of the Admiralty; the infamous and self-defeating deployment of the Black and Tans to post‑1918 Ireland, when he was secretary of state for war; the siege of Sidney Street of 1911, which he ineptly directed; and the opposition to Indian self‑government. Roberts does defend these miscalculations but only to some degree.
For him, what Churchill got right outweighs the many things he got wrong. Summing up, he writes: “When it came to all three mortal threats to Western civilisation, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the second world war, Churchill’s judgment stood far above” that of others. This is not an original argument, but Roberts presents it in more detail and with more flair than many previous biographers.
Yet repeatedly in the book the dark episodes of Churchill’s career, often the consequences of his prejudices, are too easily dismissed. His rejection of an offer of food aid from Britain’s wartime allies, which would have gone some way to alleviate the disastrous Bengal famine, is covered in just a few pages. And throughout, Churchill’s racism and paternalism are treated merely as typical of his era and generation – which they were, but only to some extent. In Churchill’s case those prejudices cost lives and had consequences that have lasted until today.
His leadership skills are undeniable, and his ability to inspire and energise his nation utterly vital, but there was also a brutality to him, a love of war that he occasionally admitted to, and an obsession with terror weapons. Churchill’s passionate support for the aerial bombardment of Iraq in the interwar years, and his deployment of similar tactics on a vaster scale against German civilians during the second world war, his strong advocacy of the use of chemical weapons – all have been studied in detail by historians in recent years. This growing body of scholarship reveals a man capable not just of error but of vindictiveness, much of it influenced by his racial views.
Yet Churchill’s popular reputation is unassailable. His standing in the Britain of 2018 is arguably higher than it was in the war-battered nation of 1945, when the majority of the electorate cast him back into the political wilderness, voting him out of office in favour of Labour and a welfare state. Today the legend is near sacred and almost inviolable. He has been voted “Person of the Century” and “Man of the Millennium”. In 2002, the BBC2 audience voted him the “Greatest Briton” of all time. Fighting the second world war was of course essential, but it has come to be seen as a holy crusade, and is examined less critically by 21st-century Britons than it was by the generation who fought it.
The war of Churchill’s great speeches, the battle of Britain and the blitz spirit is also the war in which more than 1 million Indians – subjects of the empire Churchill so loved – were left to die of starvation. Britain and Churchill fought not solely in the name of liberty and democracy, but also with the intention of maintaining the empire, defending vital interests and remaining a great power. Perhaps no biographer, of whatever political persuasion and no matter how even handed, can get beyond the Churchill legend, so long as our devotion to a mythic version of the conflict that defined the man and his century remains so resolute.