Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

The British Establishment usually finds a topic at least once a year to be indignant about. This year it is a book by Churchill’s doctor. The correspondence columns of the London Times have been rocking with letters of protest against a breach of medical etiquette, friendship, etc. by someone who was in a unique position to observe the frailties of age. Lord Normanbrook, onetime head of the British Civil Service, and others have written denying that they had been indiscreet enough to sanction the publication of conversations attributed to them—as if anyone expected they would have been. Unquestionably Lord Moran has broken many conventions which are concerned with courtesy and trust. He must have known that many of those whom he quotes would not have given him permission to do so; that Churchill’s family would not relish a month-by-month account of his physical decline and the pettiness of old age; that propriety demanded that the book should have been published after Moran’s own death and at some decent interval after Churchill’s. But when Moran changed from the role of doctor to diarist, the instincts of an author took control. He had to see his brainchild born. Good writers, if they are any good, never bind themselves by propriety and the conventions of courtesy. Moran’s excuses sound pretty feeble, but he takes his stand on the advice of Smuts, Brendan Bracken, and G. M. Trevelyan, the last of whom said: “Everything about this man will be known in time. Let us have the truth.”

WE HAVE CERTAINLY GOT one side of the truth. Moran has a physician’s shrewd and piercing eye trained to observe. Perhaps some of those whom he observed are uncomfortable when they see how much this figure in the background took in. Perhaps also they are uncomfortable when they recognize what he was observing. For as a doctor Moran was observing Death. Very shortly after Churchill became his patient, the Prime Minister had his first indication of mortality: a small heart attack in Washington in 1942. There followed several attacks of pneumonia, his first stroke in 1949, and his second more serious stroke in 1953. Over his last few years, when he lived in twilight, Moran draws a veil. And all around him his captains and his friends were dying. Moran foresees their fate as Roosevelt, Admiral Pound, Field Marshal Dill, Harry Hopkins, and Dulles all betray the tokens of their inevitable end. “The President appears a very sick man. He has all the symptoms of hardening of the arteries of the brain in an advanced stage, so that I give him only a few months to live…” “Hopkins…is only half in this world…his skin was a yellow-white membrane stretched tight over the bones.” Bracken’s astonishing gaiety and courage when stricken with cancer is vividly described. Against this background is set Churchill’s defiance of the last enemy. Does he look a little ludicrous having his pulse continually taken, swallowing now a red, and now a blue, pill, urging Moran to new efforts? Does the spectacle of him clinging to power in his last administration detract from his greatness? Hardly at all. For however we may judge his erratic career up to the Second World War, with all its instability and succession of failures as strategist of the Dardanelles, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a diehard over India, even in his propensity to think in the Thirties in pre-1914 terms about foreign policy and not to realize that fascism whether in Spain, Italy, or Germany was the real threat to peace, Churchill’s reputation is very simply secure—as the savior of his country, after Dunkirk. The British people were then perfectly willing to fight on. But if Churchill had not been Prime Minister, some of the more cautious, sound, blinkered idealists who compromised with Hitler at Munich and who were still very much around, might well have tried to effect another compromise.

ONE OF THESE IDEALISTS was Halifax who is the subject of an excellent dispassionate biography by Lord Birkenhead. This is something of a feat in sympathy because Birkenhead dissociates himself from Halifax’s policies as Foreign Secretary: It is a professorial biography though it does not penetrate far into historical problems. Halifax was the antithesis of Churchill and was characteristic of those in the Tory Party who distrusted him. Halifax, indeed, had been the initiator when he was Viceroy in India of a moderate policy toward the Indian independence movement. To Churchill the spectacle of the Viceroy receiving Gandhi was anathema. He referred to him as “a half-naked fakir.” But then saints did not come within Churchill’s comprehension. In politics he fought his enemies with every weapon at hand, without rancor but never caring too much about scruples. Whether it was the Russian revolutionaries, or Irish or Indian nationalists, Churchill regarded them as rebels. They, or the Trade Union chiefs in the General Strike, or later Hitler, were enemies—and an enemy was a man to be smashed. The rambunctious, roistering buccaneers such as the first Lord Birkenhead or Max Beaverbrook, or a dozen others whom Churchill gathered around him, some of whom were dubious characters and few with good judgment, were feared and disliked by the gray, bienpensant, judicious members of the Establishment who formed the other, and by far the more powerful, part of the Tory party.


Halifax was the epitome of these men. A devout Anglo-Catholic, a Fellow of All Souls’ by examination, a Master of Fox Hounds, who like Baldwin preferred a day in the country to a day at his desk, a politician through a sense of duty who found the exercise of power and the maneuvers in politics as distasteful as Churchill found them exhilarating. Halifax embodied the spirit of the Establishment. He was decent, he was aloof, he lived in a world cut off from the lives of nine-tenths of his countrymen and almost entirely from the problems of European statesmen with whom he was later to deal. “Baldwin, Dawson (the Editor of the Times) or Halifax all had this in common,” wrote a contemporary. “They were all English country gentlemen, all good public school men, and all good churchmen. They seldom visited Europe or knew what Europeans were like. None of them could have had the slightest conception of the enormity of Hitler.” His letters continually describe a person as “a strange fellow”; anyone out of his walk of life is assumed to belong to an out-group; he found the Americans when he arrived as Ambassador “a rather odd people.” Whereupon his cousin, whom Halifax in his aristocratic way used to refer to as “Antrim’s boy,” and who did much to transform him into a good diplomat, burst out: “No! On the contrary. It is you who are odd. You have always kept yourself to a small circle of friends whom you have picked. You know nothing about people.” Late in life he learned to drive a car and was outraged when fined ten pounds for dangerous driving. What he liked were large issues of imperial or foreign policy which could be moulded to whatever shape his chief at the time wanted. He was a weak man, disguising his weakness under a cloak of religious austerity. He failed at the Ministry of Agriculture, for he was interested not in efficient farming but in keeping as many of the dear old tenants and farm laborers on the land as possible; and he was a failure as Minister for Education where he showed no interest in the problems of “their” children, i.e., the majority of his countrymen who did not send their children to public schools.

IT WAS CHARACTERISTIC of Halifax that he had a high regard for Churchill. He was both cautious and flexible, and unlike Chamberlain wanted to bring Churchill into the Government after Munich. He thought most things could be settled by negotiation. Only on matters concerned with the Blessed Sacrament was he obdurate and unyielding. Birkenhead maintains that his belief that God preordains events in this transient and mortal world was responsible for his extraordinary detachment from the consequences of political events. In fact God was responsible for Munich. His flexibility served him well in Delhi and in Washington but was fatal with Hitler; and he will go down in history as having sent a British Ambassador instructions in the highest degree craven and humiliating to his country. Nevertheless whereas Chamberlain would have accepted Hitler’s Godesberg demands, even Halifax’s sense of rectitude was affronted—after it had been jabbed by the head of the Foreign Office. He had in fact no principles which he could not get round. What he had was a code of conduct. Only if you appealed to that could you get a positive response. Churchill recognized this; and when he decided to get rid of Halifax from the Foreign Office and send him to Washington he simply appealed to Halifax’s sense of duty. (Lady Halifax, who saw what was up, protested in person to Churchill: He heard her out, orated about the “high and perilous charge” he had offered her husband, and Halifax gloomily accepted.) Halifax always saw himself as the landed aristocrat who assumes the duties of public life foregoing the pleasures of country life.

Yet Churchill and Halifax had this in common. They not only came from the same class and therefore made a lot of similar assumptions: They belong to the tradition of amateur statesmanship. This was the tradition which Bagehot praised in The English Constitution and which a generation of constitutional historians endorsed. In theory civil servants existed to offer technical advice and the well-bred gentleman minister, like Aristotle’s Eleutheros or free man, stood back and was able to judge correctly which solution to prefer because he was slave to none. As a politician, the minister was meant to forecast popular reaction to any scheme and ensure that no desiccated bureaucratic regulations would be imposed on an angry electorate. Certainly Churchill’s antennae were highly sensitive. He could guess how much “the people” would accept, and during the war kept a sharp eye out for the kind of civil servant regulation that would irritate popular opinion. Even his long delaying action against the imposition of clothes rationing, which was to save valuable shipping space, sprang from his determination to keep puritanical restrictions to a minimum. Moran tells a characteristic story of the Coronation in 1953 when Churchill, hearing that public lavatories were being erected along the route behind the stands, insisted with many chuckles that booths for selling beer and other drinks should also be erected, on the grounds that the public’s exports must be balanced by their imports.


BUT, LOOKING BACK today at that vanished age, one is astonished at the degree to which statesmen were inexpert. Churchill and Halifax knew nothing of economics or of the criteria for arriving at any conclusion on social policy. Birkenhead hints that Halifax had difficulty in taking part in the negotiations for the American loan to Britain at the end of the war. The truth is that he was incapable of understanding the language of economics. However often Keynes patiently and lucidly went over the facts, Halifax could not grasp the simplest issues in monetary policy. So long, Halifax thought, as there was a lot of pounds about he could see no reason why Americans wouldn’t be glad to exchange them for dollars.

If Halifax was an amateur in foreign policy, Churchill was an amateur strategist. General Marshall called his plans “all wishing and guessing,” and Alanbrooke complained that he could never master the fact that was a matter of logistics. Moran fails to remind the reader of some of Churchill’s most difficult and sound decisions—for instance his refusal to send Spitfire squadrons to France when she was stricken in 1940. Nor does he stress Churchill’s sound determination to keep strategy under civilian control: He remembered how Asquith and even Lloyd George were powerless against the brass hats. But in the main he is right to take the side of the generals who endured Churchill’s interminable monologues. He brings out the way in which Churchill dealt with problems simply by talking about them in those rich, orotund periods which were his natural style of expression. The contrast at Teheran or Yalta was painful. Churchill voluminous in speech, conscious of the historical moment, making a sweeping survey of the strategical scene; Roosevelt genial and vapid; and the silent, penetrating, ruthless Stalin, knowing exactly what he wanted and willing to sit still until he got it. Churchill belonged to the pre-1914 school of diplomacy which believed that tensions could be resolved by personal meetings between monarchs or statesmen. If he liked a man, he did not trouble about motives or the political forces which were bound to operate. He was not in fact interested in people. He liked to give happiness to those around him, but as Halifax, who prized humility as a Christian virtue, noted with pain, he was egotistical to the highest degree.

After his second stroke he clung to office partly from ambition, partly from reluctance to quit the scene, knowing that he ought to let Eden take over but comforting himself with the illusion that if only he and Malenkov could get together the cold war might unfreeze. Did his lingering-on affect Britain’s future? In my judgment not a whit. There was no major initiative in foreign or domestic policy which would have been taken by the Tories in his absence that was not taken with him nominally at the helm. It is believed that he had doubts about Eden: But Eden had been heir apparent too long, and his right to succession was unshakable. Personal motives in politics are always mixed. At the same time he mellowed, became kinder and more considerate. In the final three hundred pages of Moran’s eight-hundred-page book, Lady Churchill’s extraordinary devotion, humor, and patience are seen to be exemplary. Nor did she miss her chance. When Halifax told her that her husband ought to resign, she answered: “I don’t know what you are getting at. If the country had depended on you we might have lost the war.” Halifax was livid and asked Churchill for an apology. He did not get it.

THIS IS THE LEVEL on which the book is written. It is entertaining and perceptive gossip, a document and not history. If as the member of a profession Moran’s sympathies often appear to be with other professionals, for instance with upright, withdrawn soldiers such as Wavell, it is clear that he became devoted to Churchill, and like so many others never failed to be astonished by his vitality and eccentricity. For the most significant fact about Churchill is not whether he was right or wrong about some particular political or military issue. It is that he was quite unlike any other man in public life in his time. When he became Prime Minister he was sixty-five. In his roots he was a Victorian. Therefore he believed that a single individual could, and should continually attempt to, alter the course of history; and he pictured himself as part of the panoply of the past, a great personage whose name would live in the kind of history books which had caught his imagination as a young man. During his time government became infinitely more complex: The committee system bred committee men, international organizations led to diplomacy by conference. Churchill went on his way unheeding. He was the most splendid and extreme form of individualist. He ran counter to all the trends of his age in personality and in our understanding of social and political processes. That is why he dwarfed all those who surrounded him. Historians may well in the end conclude that this was an illusion; that contemporary observers were over-impressed by his character; that Hitler and Stalin altered history far more than he did; that his influence was less than he supposed and that his efforts throughout his long life more often than not were misdirected. But unless the study of history becomes totally depersonalized and severed from literature, they will also be forced to conclude that the time when the world ceased to be Europocentric and Britain a world power coincided with the Premiership and gradual decline to death of one of the most extraordinary and original of England’s aristocrats.

This Issue

July 7, 1966