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Rescuing Churchill

Churchill

by Roy Jenkins
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1,002 pp., $40.00

1.

The last thing George Orwell published was a May 1949 review of Volume Two of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of the Second World War, Their Finest Hour. You might expect him to have been allergic to its chest-thumping patriotism, its flights of empurpled rhetoric; but not a bit of it. Churchill’s writings, Orwell observed, bestowing the most meaningful accolade he could manage, were “more like those of a human being than of a public figure.” Though in 1939 Orwell had been suspicious of Churchill’s belligerent rhetoric and ominous potential for a personality cult of his own, by the time he came to write 1984, it was not Big Brother who would be baptized Winston but the doomed renegade, “the last man.”

Churchill may have been born in Blenheim Palace but Orwell was right to grant him the gift of the common touch. When the prime minister toured the scorched and shattered remains of Bristol after a particularly hellish air raid in April 1941, a woman who had lost everything and was awash with raging tears, on seeing the jowly face and cigar, stopped crying and waved her hanky, shouting her-self hoarse, “Hooray, hooray!” Along with the millions of his compatriots, Orwell believed that, more than any political, or military, gifts, it had been Winston’s exuberant humanity—egotistical, erratic, histrionic—as well as his long career as a word-warrior, that had taken a people, shaking with trepidation, and made of them comrades in arms.1

Of a piece with that humanity was Churchill’s large capacity for self-mockery. Orwell also recycled the story that Churchill followed up “we will fight on the beaches” with “we’ll throw bottles at the b——s, it’s about all we’ve got left,” but that the candid addition was buzzed out by the quick hand of the BBC censor just in time. The story was apocryphal, but the point was that such Churchilliana existed at all. No leader who made jokes against himself was in much danger of turning dictator. In the same vein, Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader who served in his War Cabinet and who could, at times, be a fierce critic, commented not long after Churchill’s death that he was “a supremely fortunate mortal” but that “the most warming thing about him was that he never ceased to say so.”2

But the comedian and the tragedian lived within the same surprisingly delicate skin. The challenge facing any biography added to the groaning shelves of Churchill histories is somehow to do full justice to the Promethean character of its subject, the richly lived (not to say gluttonously engorged) career, without ever being a slave to its mystique. Mere character delineation—easy enough in Churchill’s case—won’t suffice. The hard work is to demonstrate exactly how the outsize Churchillian personality, so truculent, so impulsive, so often profoundly wrongheaded, became, in the dark spring of 1940, just what was needed for national survival. There’s no doubt that Roy Jenkins has risen splendidly to this challenge, succeeding, much better than many biographers before him, in bringing to life Churchill the political animal, whose impatient appetite for power, and strenuous exertions to secure it, are often hidden beneath the grand opera of his speechifying. He was smoke, certainly, but he was also mirrors. And Jenkins catches Churchill’s studied self-inspection with the sure-shot sharpness of an expert portraitist, a Karsh who has the cheek to stare back.

His big book appears at a doubly interesting moment. The popularity of biographies of heroic but unimpeachably democratic leaders on both sides of the Atlantic owes something, obviously, to the present craving for both public reassurance and political education. The temptation is to return Karl Rove’s call and deliver an anatomy of charisma, stripped down to interchangeable parts, available for selective cannibalization, and rebuilt to cope with the Crisis of the Week, the very stuff (as Churchill might have said) of that most egregious waste of time and money: leadership seminars. Perennially shrewd politician (even, or rather especially, in his eighties) though Lord Jenkins is, he also knows that the cloth from which Churchill was cut is deeply unsuited for modern imitations. (Who, these days, writes his own speeches, much less has the guts to begin one: “The news…is very bad”?) So he preserves and celebrates Churchill in all his titanic, unreproducible peculiarity; the storms of petulant fury rage along with the cherubic smiles. Jenkins’s angle of vision is that of undeluded, critically intelligent appreciation, wisely informed by his own lifetime of governing experience, neither adulatory nor hyper-skeptical.

His biography also coincides, though, with a moment when Churchill revisionism shows signs, perhaps welcome, of running out of steam. The genre began with the most cumulatively powerful and perceptive book ever written on the daunting subject, Churchill: Four Faces and the Man, published in 1968,3 only three years after his death, when the marble at Bladon churchyard was still shining white. Such collections usually suffer from curate’s egg syndrome, with some good pieces and some bad; not, however, when its authors are A.J.P. Taylor (on the statesman), Robert Rhodes James (on the politician), J.H. Plumb (on the historian), Basil Liddell Hart (on the war leader), and Anthony Storr (on the “Black Dog” bipolar depressive). While the memorable book was in no way a hatchet job, the authors were nonetheless determined to look at their subject without stars, or tears, in their eyes. While they all acknowledged his indispensability, they were equally forthright (as was Churchill himself) about his many failings. For Plumb (notwithstanding the fact that he had worked on the proofs of the last volume of The History of the English-Speaking Peoples), the histories that won Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature were just so many anachronistic swashbuckling failures, Gibbon’s orotundity married to Ma-caulay’s complacent insularity. Liddell Hart thought he had been excessively criticized for disasters in the First World War, but not nearly enough for the Second World War, not least because he had rewritten its history so selectively. And A.J.P. Taylor pointed out with typically unsparing sharpness that the man who, during the 1930s, had so obstinately and so noisily resisted the demise of empire, especially in Asia, actually guaranteed its collapse in 1941 by starving its defenses of fighter planes, warships, and manpower, in favor of the North African theater and, less forgivably, the catastrophic attempt to take on the Germans in Crete.

As the tomes of Martin Gilbert’s multi-volume Churchilliad arose in the 1970s and 1980s like some massive biographical Stonehenge, revisionists, as if in resistance, became correspondingly more audacious. Robert Rhodes James’s book Churchill: A Study in Failure, 1900–19394 made the fair point that had, in fact, the taxi that struck Churchill on Fifth Avenue in 1930 hit with lethal force, his career would indeed have been judged on its impulsive blunders (the Dardanelles in 1915) and its quixotic devotion to deservedly doomed causes—the gold standard, the British Raj in India, the constitutional viability of King Edward VIII. Likewise, Paul Addison’s fine scholarly history of Churchill’s career in domestic politics and government5 pulled no punches about his tendency to favor trigger-happy solutions for difficult problems—calling out the troops in 1911 and 1926 to deal with industrial strikes, for example.

A step very definitely too far, however, was taken by John Charmley, whose Churchill: The End of Glory (1993)6 was the most ambitious attempt yet to reach up and pull the giant from his pedestal, but which succeeded only in having his full weight collapse back on the author. Starting with Taylor’s insight that the most intransigent defender of the Raj had ironically ended up being the inadvertent instrument of its downfall, Charmley added to it fresh research about the tentative suggestions mooted in the War Cabinet by Lord Halifax in the gloomy days of late May 1940, when France was on the point of collapse, for an approach through Mussolini, to discover what Hitler’s terms might be.

The premise of any such negotiations was the proposition, raised as early as 1937 by von Ribbentrop in a private conversation with Churchill when the latter was still just an MP, that Hitler would be prepared to leave Britain’s insular sovereignty and its empire intact, in return for a free hand in Eastern Europe. By 1940 this hegemony was to be extended through the whole continent, and Churchill’s response—superlatively chronicled in John Lukacs’s moving Five Days in London, May 19407 was the same as it had been three years earlier: indignant categorical rejection.

Charmley, appealing (as self-appointed revisionists invariably do) to the calculus of national interest rather than to “emotive” morality, argued that if imperial self-preservation, not to mention freedom from postwar economic and military dependence on the United States, was British policy, it might have been better to take the deal. But as Geoffrey Best’s excellent, concise new biography (which has had the bad luck to appear at the same time as Jenkins’s),8 points out, even supposing that British national independence, courtesy of the Third Reich, would have fared any better than the French, especially when it came to the little matter of saving Jews from the gas chambers, there is an air of quaintly naive parochialism about Charmley’s assumption that the Raj (already exposed by Gandhi as intrinsically ungovernable) would somehow have been granted a stay of execution thanks to the Swastika and the Rising Sun. It is, in fact, to Churchill’s imperishable credit that, faced with the alternatives of hanging on to the scraps of empire, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, or fighting to the end, whatever long-term damage might accrue to British power, he unhesitatingly opted for the latter. Even for its most conspicuous eulogist, better by far an “end of glory” than the end of freedom.

What, then, moved Lord Jenkins, at a time in his life when less compulsively prolific souls would be booking their poolside loungers in the Bahamas, to enter this crowded fray? According to his own disconcerting admission, he was moved less by any gladiatorial impulse or by the discovery of new information than by the avoidance of anticlimax in his literary résumé following his richly merited success with Gladstone.9 Then, too, there seems to have been the desire to decide whether or not Churchill was indeed Top Prime Minister, a determination made at the very end of the book with Jenkins duly awarding him prime space in the pantheon. Whatever the motives, Jenkins’s qualifications are unarguable. Like Churchill, he has been very much a cat who has walked on his own. Both were long kept at arm’s length from their party’s leadership by suspicion about their loyalty to its core principles. (Arguably Churchill would never have been prime minister but for the war.)

Both also put ideas above party allegiance, and they were, in fact, the not dissimilar ideals of anti-Marxist liberalism and state-sponsored social reform, a combination once thought to be an anomaly in the polarized struggle between capitalism and labor, but which, a century after its birth in the early twentieth century, actually looks very much like becoming, at least in Europe, king of the zeitgeist. Churchill was a penal reformer; Jenkins an early campaigner against capital punishment. Both men suffered at the hands of the more puritanical elders of their respective parties for their unapologetic celebration of the pleasures of the table and the cellar. It’s hard not to believe that Churchill wouldn’t have been pleased by this most epicurean biography, in whose pages no memorable bottle ever goes uncorked. It’s certainly the only Churchill biography in which the phrase “a very remarkable Liebfraumilch,” quoted from the recitation by Churchill’s aide Jock Colville of the menu on The Queen Mary in 1944, seems as inevitable as “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

  1. 1

    The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Vol. 4, In Front of Your Nose, 1945–1950 (Harcourt, Brace, 1968), pp. 491–495.

  2. 2

    Clement Attlee, “The Churchill I Knew,” quoted in Churchill by His Contemporaries (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), p. 35.

  3. 3

    London: Allen Lane; Dial, 1969.

  4. 4

    World Publishing Company, 1970.

  5. 5

    Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front, 1900–1955 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1992).

  6. 6

    London: Hodder and Stoughton.

  7. 7

    Yale University Press, 1999. See the review by M.F. Perutz, “What If?,” The New York Review, March 8, 2001.

  8. 8

    Churchill: A Study in Greatness (London: Hambledon Press, 2001).

  9. 9

    Random House, 1997.

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