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Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900-1939 Paperback – 27 Jul 1981
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\Funnily enough,I could only obtain this book from Amazon.com in the States,one wonders why,and for the interested student,it could be read,most beneficially ,with Roskill's"Churchill and the Admirals"and Robert K Massie's"Castles of Steel",a history of the British and German naval activities in WW1.
I'm still looking for a realistic appraisal of his performance,warts and all,but judged, finally, to be a Triumph,in the Second World War,but maybe nobodys had the courage to put pen to paper on that one!
And, in the broader context of what his countrymen (including his fellow politicians) knew of Churchill's career before the Second World War, this reversal of fortune in 1945 was not surprising. It is this "unknown Churchill" (unknown to the outside world) who is the subject of R.R. James's biography - the Churchill who rose and fell through a succession of middling and high offices and who was often the contentious odd man out in each of the parties he belonged to (Conservative, Liberal, and Conservative in that order). While touching unavoidably on Churchill's personality and fixed ideas (ebullient, erratic, self-centered, grandiose at times, broadly tolerant socially and culturally while skeptical of many democratic political trends, a booster of British Imperialism once and forever), James writes primarily of Churchill's political life, pointing out that the man conceived himself as a lifelong professional politician, a calling of which he was proud. Churchill's other achievements - soldier-adventurer, author (as journalist, novelist, and historian), amateur painter and mason - were products of his need to support himself in a certain style or were undertaken as avocations that allowed him to relax or let off steam.
His colleagues knew that The Great Statesman of 1940-45 was a final efflorescence of the always diligent and often "rogue" politician of 1900-1939. During the last ten years of this period, while a Parliamentarian capable of organizing a small but dedicated group of co-believers and dissenters, he was often an isolated voice crying in the wilderness, ignored by Baldwin's, then Chamberlain's factions within the Conservative Party. This was true for many areas of domestic and foreign policy, and not just for his warnings about the increasing danger of Hitler. (Like many European conservatives, Churchill had earlier made the judgment that Hitler was an able representative of Germany's justifiable resentments about the Versailles treaty and the order it had established, and that once these problems had been addressed, Hitler could and would be brought into the fold of normal European diplomacy and politics; he got over this illusion by 1938.)
At this point it will be useful to list the ministerial and sub-ministerial positions held by Churchill between 1905 (his thirty-first year of life and his fifth year as an MP) and 1929: (1) Undersecretary of State for the Colonial Office. (2) President of the Board of Trade. (3) Home Secretary. (4) First Lord of the Admiralty. (5) Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. (6) Minister of Munitions. (7) Secretary of State for War and Air. (8) Secretary of State for the Dominions and Colonies. (9) Chancellor of the Exchequer.
His three "military" offices (4, 6, and 7 above) embraced the years of the First World War and its immediate aftermath. The Duchy of Lancaster office was a meaningless one, meant to be a temporary place-holder for Churchill within Lloyd George's wartime coalition government after Churchill had been tarnished by the failed Gallipoli offensive, a black mark that followed him throughout his career, though, as James argues, he was hardly alone responsible for the operation's failures (better advance planning and inter-service co-ordination by the commanding officers, better logistics, and some more resolute decisions by naval officers at the outset would have improved the chances of the offensive's success).
James's notion of Churchill's failures during these years is based on an evaluation of just how well he performed in the most important of these offices. As the Admiralty's First Lord he was thought to be a good infighter for funds and modernized equipment, but, given the necessity of co-operation with high-ranking career officers, he was too opinionated and peremptory to run things smoothly. And the Gallipoli gambit was in fact his special contribution to the war's strategy in 1915. It was a complete failure with an attendant high casualty rate, and even if it had been a military success, it is difficult to understand how it would have improved the Allies' situation on either of the main infantry fronts in France and Russia/Galicia. Churchill tried to revive this idea of "attacking the Central Powers through their soft underbelly" during the Second World War, and this too resulted in only a very modest (and costly) success on the Italian peninsula.
As Secretary of State for War and Air during the 1920s Churchill accepted the arguments of post-war insufficiency of funds and public support in order to preside over a military organization that limped along with outdated equipment and ideas. James considers this part of his career to have resulted in placing the UK's military potential at an acknowledged low ebb that influenced its cautious continental policy during the early 1930s. As Secretary of State for the Dominions and Colonies Churchill was obsessed with one thing and one thing only - the maintenance of the status quo in India, which he held to be the jewel in the Imperial Crown even as evidence was mounting that tight colonial control of India was yielding a net economic loss. Churchill held for standing fast in the face of growing public sentiment (which included many Conservatives) that there should be a move toward more participation of Indians in managing their own destiny, with an eye toward eventual full independence (or Dominion status if Indians found that attractive). As Chancellor of the Exchequer during the years 1925-29 Churchill was, again, diligent, yet amateurish and dependent on expert advice that seldom deviated from the received ideas of the era. He made no significant policy decisions that took into account the structural problems of the British economy or that anticipated the coming Crash. James can't fault him for this debacle, but also can't discern Churchill doing anything other than "treading water" in order to stay in the political game by virtue of holding a high office which would keep him in the eye of the public and on the minds of his own Party's leadership (and, throughout the book, James notes that several generations of this leadership thought Churchill brilliant and dynamic while also erratic and what might be called "fundamentally ungrounded", a man with no strong intellectual commitments or core beliefs beyond political success).
It is on this very point - Churchill's "political character" - that James's case about the nature of Churchill's performance during the years from 1900 to 1939 rests. To start with, James takes us back to the pre-1900 period in order to examine the roots of Churchill's ambitions. Churchill's father, Randolph, had a meteoric career in parliamentary politics. Like his son was to do, he led a splinter group within the Conservative party (the so-called "Tory democrats"), although he never left the party fold, nor was he was ejected from it. In fact his flamboyance on the Irish "home rule" issue (he was opposed to any concessions or compromises on behalf of the Irish and their parliamentary patrons, making Gladstone his special target) thrust him into a party leadership position as well as high office as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886. By the end of that year he had resigned over an internal Conservative Cabinet dispute concerning his prerogatives and presumed authority over military and naval budgets - while assuming his peers and colleagues would be made to dance his tune, it was he who entered the political wilderness for the rest of his brief life. Those colleagues thought him brilliant but unbalanced to the point where his actions were incomprehensible. Basically Lord Randolph ignored his son, who idolized him and who wrote an idealizing biography of his father early in his own career. Churchill's mother, the wealthy American heiress Jenny Jerome, a big spender, socializer and something of a vamp, also ignored him, leaving him in the care of a nanny for whom he held an immense lifelong affection. Churchill also idolized and idealized his remiss mother, and this refusal to criticize his upbringing or to denigrate his parents (as parents) tells us a great deal about the man, especially about his inner resilience, his independence of mind, and his highly personal code of honor, a code that required personal loyalty in both directions (to him and from him, and hierarchically omnidirectional).
It was his independence of mind and a total commitment to political life that caught the attention of the political establishment(many of his colleagues thought his intensity resulted from a desire to duplicate his father's successes while eradicating all memory of his failures). This aspect of Churchill's character fascinated and sometimes frightened or put off the more placid political players who were his peers. It was also independence of mind that led many to believe that Churchill needed to constantly draw attention to himself, by creating "splinter" positions, often to the detriment of party unity. In the period of his marginalization (1930-39) Churchill was famous for his sharp and witty journalistic assaults on various MPs and office holders and equally famous for his grand oratory in the House of Commons. James is especially shrewd in his considerations of Churchill as speechmaker. Everyone of a certain age thinks fondly of Churchill's WWII oratory, with its steady, pulsing cadences of short powerful verbs and its overtones of majesty in defiance and exhortation. But during the 1930s his speeches - always written and well rehearsed, as James notes, making them suitable for publication as well as for pronouncement - often raised a yawn or an eyebrow in the House of Commons, where his oratory had been heard for thirty years. Or, as James would have it, it takes a specific set of background political conditions (including real fears and real expectations, not perfunctory or merely rhetorical ones), knowledge of the speaker and his character, and an audience mentally and emotionally prepared to receive certain tidings (be they glad or bad) in order to create a "great speech" or one that resonates over time. This was demonstrably not the case for many of Churchill's parliamentary speeches during the 1930s, to which other MPs responded with "there he goes again on one of his hobbyhorses, good old Winston", or words and thoughts to that effect. Once again, to the wider world that always thinks of Churchill in the context of the events of 1940 to 1945, this is an "unknown Churchill", and a Churchill tinged by repeated tactical failures,in this case, failures to move the party leadership in his direction or even to ignite a debate on topics of interest to him. When the diplomatic situation changed so drastically to Britain's disadvantage after the fall of 1938, the conditions for (and prospects of) the revival of Churchill's career (and the power of his oratory) changed as well.
Churchill sought the highest political prize (the office of Prime Minister) throughout his life - he made no bones about it from the 1910s onward, and his fellow MPs were well aware of his ambition. He first approached his goal, as it were, through the magic of Liberal-Conservative coalition politics and the good graces of Lloyd George and even Arthur Balfour, pushed along by powerful men who were his allies, but was denied it as a result of his own performance in other ministerial offices. His private life was held somewhat against him too (his strong family attachments were viewed as admirable, but his friendships with various colorful characters from all walks of life and his incessant "money-grubbing" journalism and popular history-writing were viewed as dubious by the "conservative establishment" and hurt his case when it came to building intra-party support). And the fact that he jumped parties twice was also held against him and was considered to be the unanswerable portion of all accusations of opportunism, undermining his ultimate prospects in both parties. And then, of course, in May of 1939 everything changed, and many of his thitherto perceived flaws became great assets.
As James sees it, Churchill's career failures of the 1900-1939 period resulted from a number of choices gone wrong and misjudgments of the political context, and he is willing to put some of the responsibility on Churchill's colleagues and the temper of the times as well as on Churchill himself. James is "firm but fair" and would, I assume, be the first to admit that the glory years of 1940-1945 stand out all the more given the trajectory of Churchill's earlier life in politics (he did not exactly cover himself with glory during his second premiership of 1951-55, but then again neither did his political opponents). The book was published in 1970, five years after Churchill's death and during the earliest spate of Churchill biographies that were generally adulatory. It should be noted that throughout the lifelong effort at "autobiographical history" written by Churchill himself, those episodes deemed as either failures or false moves by others were not ignored by Churchill, but their origins and consequences were treated gingerly and equivocally in order to preserve a decent opinion of himself. James's book can only be interpreted as "revisionist" in the sense of compiling a more complete picture of a man who should be known for both achievements and failures spanning a 55-year long political career that coincided with a treacherous and turbulent period of history.