VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 February 2012
This book's brevity is one of the main things going for it, and if that sounds like faint praise it is not meant to be. The great tome on Churchill by Roy Jenkins is much longer and far heavier in every sense, but it would be an interesting study to see whether in all significant factual matters and even in the general evaluation of the book's subject Keegan does not provide nearly as much value.
Keegan is obviously sympathetic to the man and the statesman that he is studying, but the sympathy stays fair-minded and, in general, realistic. This is no hagiogram, but it would also be fair to say that the author does not feel any need to make a case on Churchill's behalf: Churchill is an established icon, both in his homeland and in the USA, and one of the interesting questions, not one that Keegan really delves into, is who precisely established him. In both nations the conservatively-minded tend to believe that they are entitled to have their outlook accepted by right-thinking people. The difference is that in America outright praise for perceived great figures is expressed without embarrassment, whereas in Britain the norm is `don't criticise'. Churchill the historical figure now benefits from both attitudes of mind: Americans in general are not sufficiently interested in him to challenge his supporters, their British counterparts treat scepticism about him as some kind of bad taste, like talking in church, and would-be debunkers are liable to be put in their place.
As a factual account of Churchill's career Keegan's short book is a minor masterpiece of compression without overloading the narrative. No student needing to bone up on the subject is liable to be seriously misled so far as I can see. However there is a whole category of topics where Churchill is let down very lightly. Sure, he was cleared by a commission of enquiry of any culpability in the disastrous Dardanelles operation in WW1, but to say the least oceanloads of whitewash have engulfed these stately adjudications for very many years. The abdication crisis is made to seem a simpler matter than I can ever recall its being depicted before. Churchill's switching between parties sounds like the most obvious and rational thing to do, you might think it was an everyday event. He expressed distaste for the bombing of Dresden, but he did not try to stop it, and in general I think Keegan awards him too many marks for good intentions and humanitarian handwringing. When it came to the bit about choosing between armaments and welfare Churchill went for armaments every time. You may think rightly so, but if Keegan really goes off the rails anywhere I would say it is in his sentimental view of his hero as being some social reformer manqué, blown off his true political course by events.
All in all, I have to conclude that in Britain the semi-official opinion-formers have got the better of the genuine majority, and perhaps Keegan has walked into one or two traps. It is certainly true that loud cheers and huzzas rang out and (metaphorical) sweaty nightcaps were hurled skyward when Churchill and Attlee drove by in triumph and in their uniforms before a turnout of troops. The trouble is, the cheers were for Attlee. Again, Keegan might have mentioned, if he even remembers, that the 1951 election result that returned Churchill to power was the only general election since the war in which any party gained more than 50% of the votes cast. Churchill's Conservatives got the rub of the green and the majority of parliamentary seats, but the party with the most votes was actually Attlee's Labour party.
Whatever his leadership qualities, Churchill never got the British electorate to vote for him, a matter of outrage and bafflement to some Americans. If I say that I think the British public was right let me make it clear also that I join in the wholehearted admiration, indeed near-incredulity, that Churchill's flair for leadership still evokes. If ever there was the right leader for his time surely it was Churchill, and I feel that Keegan shows sensitivity and perceptiveness in his analysis of the temperamental gifts that made Churchill the leader he was. He was no natural orator like Lloyd George, indeed he had a speech impediment, but he turned his self-education in English historiography to brilliant account in making some of the most memorable rallying speeches that any national leader ever made. On a football field or a cricket field we are becoming more aware of what leadership consists of and who counts as a real leader. The truth seems to be that different conditions call for, and with luck sometimes get, the precise sort of leader that the occasion demands, and writers as well as readers of history are becoming better at distinguishing the real deal from the sentimental caricatures that used to be standard. Churchill's sheer belief, sometimes against all rational probability, seems to have been what kept his team going in their darkest hours.
All that is very well handled by this distinguished military historian. His subject is Churchill, not the wider conduct of WWII, but I wonder just the same whether he could have cast a bit more light on some closely related issues. For instance `appeasement' covers a multitude of sins -- Chamberlain had to juggle various competing interests like the outright nazi sympathisers in his party, the pacifists and see-no-evil types. I don't really find any appeasing going on, more temporising and hoping for the best. One way or another, it is a matter of fact and flyers, not of Churchill, that the Royal Air Force beat back the Luftwaffe in 1940. Again Hitler's projected sea invasion Operation Sealion surely would have struggled to get its troop carriers across the Channel when Germany had only 10 destroyers to escort them while the British Home Fleet had nearly 10 times that if my figures are correct.
Food for thought.