Excelsior!

Churchill: Young Man in a Hurry, 1874-1915

by Ted Morgan
Simon and Schuster, 607 pp., $22.50

Most men are content with one career. Winson Churchill had half a dozen. Time and again he mastered a different field of politics and rose to a great height. On every occasion except the last his career ended in failure and even on the last occasion he was not sure that he had succeeded. If Churchill had died before the outbreak of the Second World War he would have been written off as a failure—a splendid failure no doubt, but a failure all the same. Churchill’s career is fascinating in its achievements and in its setbacks. How did he impress the shrewdest politicians simply by the impact of his personality? And how did he emerge from failure with his reputation undimmed? Was it the sheer impudence of his pretensions—a young man, as Ted Morgan writes, in a hurry?

Morgan’s book covers Churchill’s first successes when he rose to become a member of the Liberal Cabinet and ends with his first great fall, which followed the failure of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. This ground has of course been covered already by the “official” biography of Churchill by Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert. Their work consists of ten volumes—three of text and seven of documents—to Morgan’s one. What is more, much of Morgan’s book is drawn from the documents published in the larger work. The reader who has struggled through the ten volumes of Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert will find few surprises in the single volume by Ted Morgan, but I doubt whether this is a highly numerous group.

Morgan is the more entertaining, perhaps too much so. For instance, he is fascinated by the private life of Asquith, the Liberal prime minister: a prime minister often overcome by drink who spent his time in Cabinet writing letters to his girl friend. These stories are a little overdone. Asquith was getting on in years and had to handle great political crises. No doubt he often fell asleep in the House of Commons, as many sensible members do, and no doubt he often stumbled as he left the House. If he had made a habit of being drunk there would have been a political scandal, or is the explanation that too many members of parliament were drunk to cause any sensation when the prime minister joined their number?

As to the girl friend, in those days elderly statesmen often had innocent flirtations in the hope of recapturing their youth. Churchill was one of the very few British statesmen who never cared for any woman except his wife. This, he claimed, was why he had so much more time than his colleagues to get on with his political work or, when out of office, to write books about his achievements. This he did for instance with the First World War, about which Balfour said, “Winston has written a book about himself and called it ‘The World Crisis.’ ”

The key to Churchill’s career …

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Letters

Young Churchill October 21, 1982