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on 11 February 2010
This book was written by Richard Holmes to accompany the BBC TV series. Not having seen the series, I had few pre-conceptions about the subject. I had read "My Early Life", studied the period of Churchill's political life in some detail and was aware of his curious mixture of conservatism and liberalism. I remember my surprise when reading his personal note in the Cabinet papers recording opposition to the extension of female suffrage to all women in 1928. It was an issue he felt strongly about but not one worthy of resignation.
Unlike many politicians who lead their country to war Churchill had first hand experience of being under fire. No militarist, as early as 1909 he wrote, "I feel more deeply every year....what vile and wicked folly and barbarism it all is". He fought in the Sudan where he narrowly escaped death and was captured in South Africa. He was deposed as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915 having been blamed for the losses at Gallipoli during the failed Dardanelles campaign, a failure which haunted him for the rest of his life. In typical fashion he joined the army and served for a short while in France before returning to politics. By this time Churchill, "a monumental egoist", had convinced himself the world revolved around him. Churchill himself wrote of playing to the gallery and there is no doubt he intended to be centre stage. Churchill's adult life included more than a hint of infantile behaviour. Holmes found Churchill's youthful "unvarnished egomania and cynical exploitation of people who cared for him frankly detestable"
Churchill was a master of the English language, derived from spending three times longer than anyone else in his class at Harrow learning it. He made his name as a war correspondent and his reputation as hero by his escape from Boer custody. Churchill's inspiration was his patriotic passion for England, the England he believed in, whether it was myth or fact. His speeches appealed "to what he believed were the eternal strengths and personal values of the British people". This involved many contradictions. He spoke of Christian values although he was a non believer. His opposition to the India Bill in the 1930's was based on his genuine (some would say arrogant) belief that Indians were better off under colonial rule. He believed in democracy but was less than impressed when the electorate failed to believe in him in 1945.
Revisionism is the occupational hazard of historians and one to which they frequently surrender. As Holmes notes, "While much of the world seems content to accept he was indeed a great man.....in Britain his reputation remains one of those issues that never quite seem to achieve closure." Lord Moran's account of Churchill's failing health caused outrage when it was published just over a year after Churchill's death. In 1970 Robert Rhodes James characterised Churchill's pre-war career as "A Study in Failure". Adam Young described him as, " a menace to liberty, and a disaster for Britain, for Europe, for the United States of America, and for Western Civilization itself." David Irving sought to make World War Two "Churchill's War" and, while Churchill's own historical writing was self-serving, attacks from academia tried to diminish Churchill's role in the War rather than evaluate it.
Churchill was luckier than Hitler inasmuch as his generals' loyalty was to the State not to the man. While both shared the belief they could win the war personally (allegedly Churchill was persuaded by the King not to visit Normandy during the landings) those surrounding Churchill were astute enough to listen and ignore by deed. Unlike their German counterparts they did not face the possibility of being shot for doing so. It's hard to imagine anyone in the Nazi regime standing up to Hitler had the latter been as convinced of the need for mustard gas as was Churchill in 1944. The portrayal of Churchill as the bulldog breed is not too far from the mark. Once a policy had been determined he applied it vigorously. It was Lloyd George who lost his nerve in the fight with the IRA not Churchill and, left to his own devices, Churchill would have crushed the Ulster resistance in 1914. By then, of course, he had earned a reputation for recklessness by his appearance at the Sydney Street siege and sending troops to Tonypandy during the riots of 1910 and 1911.
Holmes does not absolve Churchill of responsibility for his part in the collective failure of policy during world war one. His economic policies of the 1920's increased social tensions and left the country unable to fund military defence in the following decade. He specifically faults Churchill for remaining in office between 1951 and 1955 when he knew he was in decline. His criticism is tinged with sorrow and he makes the point that, while history may have been unkind to Churchill, his reputation has outshone that of his contemporaries. His views on crime and the treatment of criminals were remarkably progressive even in today's climate.
There are many references to Churchill's personal life, his unfailing love for his wife and sadness that three of his five children became "obstreperous drunks". He was often in debt as a result of his habit of living beyond his means. Holmes characterises him as "Baconian in politics, Elizabethan in heart and Shakespearian in eloquence". Anyone who reads the book will be hard pressed to disagree, although whether Churchill would have liked this portrait is moot. Five stars for quality, content and objectivity.