When 3,000 British teenagers were surveyed in 2008, 20 per cent expressed the opinion that Winston Churchill was a fictional character. While this statistic might expose the inadequacies of the British history curriculum, it ironically reflects how Churchill seems unbelievable — a sort of Edwardian superhero. Before he became prime minister in 1940, he survived a school stabbing, a sadistic headmaster, Dervish spears, Cuban bullets, tsetse flies, Boer and German artillery, a near-drowning, two plane crashes, three car accidents and a house fire. He was an aristocrat, soldier, novelist, journalist, Hollywood screenwriter, Nobel prizewinner and, of course, politician. He was also, according to Andrew Roberts, the man who “saved Liberty”. Yes, that does seem incredible.
The first biography of Churchill was written in 1905. Since that time, according to Roberts, a thousand more have been published. That raises the question: do we need another? Roberts justifies this huge volume by claiming that he has consulted more than 40 previously neglected sources, but new evidence does not yield new insights. As an aid to understanding an extraordinary man, this book pales in comparison to previous biographies by Paul Addison and Roy Jenkins. Granted, it’s undoubtedly fascinating, although that’s hardly surprising, given its subject.
As with Roberts’s 2014 book, Napoleon the Great, this book is more reportage than reflection. Events are described in strict chronology; on one page, four consecutive paragraphs begin: “On 28 September . . .”, “In a speech on 30 September . . .”, “On 4 October . . .” and “On 7 October . . .” Facts arrive in relentless rhythm. Most are familiar, but some still surprise. We learn that Churchill spent £80 a year (£8,000 in today’s money) on silk underwear, that he had a stuffed platypus named Splash, that he wrote 1,700 letters to his wife, Clementine, and that, during the Second World War, Lord Rothermere acted as his cigar tester by smoking one per box, to make sure that they were neither poisoned nor explosive.
This book harks back to those relentlessly adulatory hagiographies produced immediately after the war. Nowadays, most historians, while accepting that Churchill was undoubtedly great, admit that he had some interesting faults that made him human. Roberts rejects many of these. He argues, for instance, that he probably did not cheat on Clementine, although she might have cheated on him. He dismisses the widely held view that Churchill suffered from severe bouts of depression — that Black Dog.
Roberts also curiously downplays his enthusiasm for alcohol, claiming that he “drank as heavily as other people tended to in the 1930s”. This seems pointless, given that Churchill was rather proud of his boozing. When Rothermere bet him £2,000 that he could not abstain for a year, Churchill replied that “life would not be worth living”. When he visited Stalin in 1942, he childishly boasted that he drank “twice as much” as his Russian hosts.
While Roberts’s tendency to whitewash is mostly harmless, at times it distorts important truths. For instance, he glosses over Churchill’s controversial role in the strategic bombing of Germany, suggesting that he preferred targeting factories and military bases, when in fact he advocated terror bombing of civilians from the beginning. The catastrophic bombing of Dresden gets one short paragraph, in which Roberts presents it as a Russian idea given final approval by Clement Attlee.
Roberts argues that “the raid was not considered particularly unusual at the time”, which is far from the case. In the last few months of the war Churchill demanded heavy raids on German cities when their strategic justification had largely disappeared. When his air minister, Archibald Sinclair, and the chief of the air staff, Charles Portal, advocated hitting oil targets instead, Churchill angrily demanded carpet-bombing of cities, including Dresden. He then tried to distance himself from the raid when it became controversial.
The Roberts approach clearly has its fans. Many readers want “just the facts”, although this preference reduces the historian’s craft to mere assembly. The great historians are known for their skills of analysis and reflection. That is certainly needed in a life of Churchill, if only to explain a central conundrum, namely why the war hero who commanded an approval rating of more than 80 per cent then suffered a landslide electoral defeat in 1945. Facts alone do not explain that election.
Speculate, if you will, on what might have happened if a tsetse fly or car accident had ended Churchill’s life before 1940. How would we judge him today? He would probably seem a curious anomaly, a Victorian relic who mostly failed in politics because he could not embrace change. This explains his role in the Dardanelles fiasco of 1915 — he did not appreciate how modern weaponry had changed war. It also explains his bizarre behaviour during the Abdication crisis of 1936, when he supported Edward VIII against the almost unanimous opinion of his Commons colleagues, and his poisonous opposition to Indian independence. He frequently proclaimed that the British Empire would last another 1,000 years.
Churchill’s attitude towards political change was equally antediluvian. As the Liberal politician Charles Masterman correctly claimed before the Great War, Churchill wanted “a state of things where a benign upper class dispensed benefits to an industrious, bien pensant, and grateful working class”. In other words, there was no real need for a Labour Party, and the workers were fools to vote for one. He saw Labour politicians as closet Bolsheviks who would bring ruin to Britain. “The enthronement of a Socialist Government,” he argued in 1924, “will be a serious national misfortune such as has usually befallen great states only on the morrow of defeat in war.”
These antiquated ideas explain why Churchill was largely dismissed as yesterday’s man before the Second World War. Yet they also explain why he was such a stunning success during the war. For a brief moment Britain’s predicament conformed perfectly to the romantic illusions Churchill had always held. He was able, for five years, to live in a world that looked a lot like the adventure stories he read as a child. At precisely the moment when Britain needed heroes, Churchill showed the British how to act heroically. “He makes them feel that they are living their history,” wrote the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie. His distorted reality, formed from stories of Drake, Marlborough and Nelson, was their romantic dream.
However, then the war ended, and so too did the dreaming. While Churchill was still imbibing the myths that had sustained him for decades, the British people turned their attention to mundane things such as jobs, homes, food and healthcare. The spirit that had pulled them together during the war was translated into a desire to build a New Jerusalem based on fairness and equality, not noblesse oblige. He never understood this, and that’s why he lost. Returning to his prewar prejudices, he claimed that Labour would need a “Gestapo” to push through its reforms. In a rare moment of uncertainty at the start of the campaign he confessed that he didn’t know what to tell the British people. They noticed, and voted him out.
The quality of a Churchill biography is measured by how well the author deals with the great man’s errors, omissions and flaws. On this score, Roberts falls short. It used to be considered blasphemous to criticise Churchill. That’s no longer the case, and that’s a good thing. Those myths impeded understanding, perpetuating that superhero delusion. Stripped back to his flawed self, Churchill becomes more human and, I think, more impressively heroic. So too do the British who shared his finest hour.