Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine


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.”

But one affinity beyond all others seems to tie the knot between author and subject: their intertwined careers as both historian and politician, which make the distinction between history as lived event and history as report of that event moot. Nor, in either case, has this been a matter of alternative vocations; the writing used as compensation, both psychological and pecuniary, for the loss of office and power (as it was with Clarendon). Jenkins’s career as a thoughtful, elegantly readable political historian goes back almost fifty years. As a schoolboy in the late 1950s, I read and admired his biography of Charles Dilke, the nineteenth-century radical imperialist who self-destructed in a sexual scandal, and his brilliant account of the Liberal government’s onslaught on the House of Lords, Mr. Balfour’s Poodle, before I knew much about Jenkins as a rising Labour Party politician. Virtually all his books (until this one) have been, one way or another, commentaries on one of the two issues which have most engaged him in public life: the complicated, sometimes tortured, relationship between liberal democracy and social justice, and Britain’s relationship with Europe. The writing has informed the career and vice versa.

So too with Churchill. Before 1945, it had emphatically not been a case of the politician exploiting his reputation to launch a literary career; rather the other way around. From the time he went to Cuba in 1896 to his exploits on the northwest Indian frontier, Sudan, and South Africa, shamelessly exploiting his and his mother’s social connections to put himself on the front line over the objections of local commanders, Churchill reinvented the war correspondent as both fighter and writer. And the more he scripted his destiny, the more outlandishly heroic it conveniently became, culminating in his escape from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria, followed by a trek through the veldt to liberty, before, it goes without saying, reenlisting.

Copy flowed from his pen to popular British newspapers like The Daily Graphic and was then expanded into three substantial books in which Churchill, perfectly judging his readership, managed to combine ripping yarns with romantic laments for the nobly fallen foe. (He was moved to indignant protest when, after the battle of Omdurman, during which he’d taken part in the famous, nearly suicidal charge of the 21st Lancers, he learned that the commander, Lord Kitchener, had desecrated the tomb of the defeated Islamic jihad leader, the Mahdi, mutilated his body, and used his skull as an inkwell.)

Recognizing a fellow compulsive scribbler, Jenkins can’t help be impressed by the single-mindedness with which Churchill went after contracts and royalties, and the adroitness with which he translated his maverick persona into bankable political capital. But when he returns to Churchill’s later work, it’s more to register his entrepreneurial savvy, running battalions of researchers and landing fat advances to pay for the country house at Chartwell, than to ponder with much sustained curiosity how history profoundly shaped his sense of political purpose. No British statesman since William Pitt the Elder was more deeply marked by so providential a view of his nation’s past, and by extension a conviction that his own political life was to be spent in its perpetuation. His account, to be sure, is the conventional sea-girt epic of Protestant parliamentary liberty, unfolding as if through divine dispensation from Magna Carta to Mr. Gladstone and related by Macaulay and Henry Hallam, whose books Churchill first greedily consumed between sets of polo in India.

The history was national rather than monarchic and, despite Churchill’s birth, not especially aristocratic. (As a Liberal colleague of Lloyd George’s attack on the veto power of the House of Lords, Churchill was hot to press for its abolition as an absurd anachronism.) This history was Churchill’s religion. Its saints and martyrs spoke to him on a daily basis. When he met with Franklin Roosevelt on board HMS Prince of Wales in Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, in 1941, Churchill chose, for the concluding hymn, sung by the mingled ranks of American and British sailors, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The reason was that it had been sung by Cromwell’s Ironsides as they buried the parliamentary tax resister John Hampden, killed in action against the royalists. That was his reply to the “Horst-Wessel-Lied.”

It’s fashionable, not to say mandatory, for serious, critical historiography to write off English parliamentary history as so much “elitist,” self- congratulatory, Whig teleology. But when Churchill returned again and again to the Manichaean confrontation between liberty and tyranny, and to the canonical moments in the British past when despotism had been resisted (the Armada in 1588; the Camp de Boulogne in 1803), those convictions were infectious, not just because they were so heroically articulated but because they were not, in fact, false. If people wish to know why exactly we are fighting, he told his listeners in 1941, let them abandon the war and they will very soon find out!

In the service of these—to Churchill—self-evident historical truths, he could resort to outrageous acts of casuistry, characterizing, for example, Britain’s terrifying isolation after the fall of France as the “honour” which had fallen to Britain of being Germany’s “foremost foe.” His strategy was to compliment his listeners—whether on the BBC or in the House of Commons—by always assuming that they all shared this lofty ideal, when for many millions the main aim of the war was to get through it in one piece, preferably without one’s house in rubble. The flattery worked (as it did on FDR, who was coopted by correspondence as a fellow defender of democracy). In no time at all, the British public did come to believe that on its resolve turned the fate not just of national survival, but the fate of democracy. It’s this fundamental Churchillian generosity, half cunning, half instinctive, which also accounts for the otherwise inexplicable failure to tell the truth in his war memoirs about the deep divisions in the War Cabinet over whether to go it alone or to sound out “Signor Mussolini.” In 1948, with Neville Chamberlain dead, Churchill could so easily have taken the personal credit due for stifling the last gasp of the appeasers but he preferred instead to pretend that they were, in their heart of hearts, always on his side.


Roy Jenkins’s jaunty narrative seldom pauses for reflections of this kind, much less to give Churchill’s eloquence the kind of close analytical scrutiny offered in, for example David Cannadine’s illuminating preface to the Penguin edition of the speeches, or the extraordinary essay by Isaiah Berlin entitled “Mr. Churchill in 1940,” which doesn’t even rate an appearance in Jenkins’s bibliography. “If somebody asked me what exactly Winston did to win the war,” Clement Attlee wrote, “I would say, ‘Talk about it.'” And although it was important that Churchill attended to the supply of ships and planes and men that would defeat the Axis, he was also the only leader who could take on the Führer’s manic logorrhea and wipe the floor with it. Jenkins has a tendency to take at face value the weaponry of Churchill’s oratory, a unique, at times almost Shakespearean marriage between the grandil- oquent and the puckishly conversational, even though these spoken masterpieces were the product of countless hours of labor. (His friend F.E. Smith joked that Winston spent the best part of his life preparing impromptu speeches.) As a writer he could be either flatfooted or twinkle-toed, but when he was on song he was unbeatable. Who else would have described the collapse of the old monarchies in 1918 as a “drizzle of empires falling through the air”? At Harrow, wrote Churchill in his dazzling and often funny My Early Life, “I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.” But Jenkins sometimes betrays a tin ear for the succinct earthiness which, even at its most theatrically lime-lit moments, made it, as Orwell recognized, a true language of the people. Compare the two on his stint in the Cuban war in 1895. Churchill writes, “We are on our horses, in uniform; our revolvers are loaded. In the dusk and half-light, long files of armed and laden men are shuffling off towards the enemy.” Jenkins writes of Churchill’s being “under mild fire” on his twenty-first birthday: “This he regarded as a very satisfactory concatenation.”

Nor would Lord Jenkins be seen dead in the company of psychobiographers, so don’t go looking here for speculation about Churchill’s reliance on silk underwear, his invention of the velveteen siren suit, essentially, as startled witnesses reported, overgrown baby rompers, the oral fixation of the cigar, lit or unlit, or the strenuous overcompensation (as with Theodore Roosevelt) for the thirty-one-inch, hairless chest, or the pursuit of oratory as a campaign of conquest over the stammer and the lisp.

There’s a clubby smoothness about Jenkins’s prose, which isn’t much interested, either, in walking the growling Black Dog of Churchill’s fits of self-annihilating depression, or pondering his moments of truly apocalyptic pessimism, both before and after the Second World War, when he imagined bombs raining from the sky in an immense, even universal immolation. While Jenkins duly notes the baleful influence of Churchill’s father, the glowering, embittered Lord Randolph, on the insecure, physically delicate boy, he omits the one story that most dramatically conveys the pathetic intensity of Churchill’s efforts to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his unspeakable parent.

Writing from Sandhurst Royal Military Academy (where he’d been sent, having been judged too stupid and idle to amount to anything in the law), Winston confessed, in a state of abject terror, that he had wrecked the gold watch his father had given him, not once (when another cadet ran into him) but twice (when it had fallen from his fob pocket into a pond). Correctly anticipating the cannonade of cold fury, the denunciations for incompetence, irresponsibility, and all-around worthlessness that would come his way, Winston mounted a desperate salvage operation with the same manic energy with which he would later conduct world wars—mobilizing a company of infantry, then a fire engine, to dredge the pond, finally diverting the headwaters before retrieving the mud-caked timepiece, irreparably ruined. All he could do was to prostrate himself before his father’s wrath in one of the saddest letters he ever wrote. To his father’s implacable denunciation, “I would not believe you could be such a young stupid. It is clear you are not to be trusted,” Winston bleated: “Please don’t judge me entirely on the strength of the watch. I am very very sorry about it.” More than sixty years later, after his Nobel Prize and his elaborately hagiographic biography of Lord Randolph, he was still trying to justify his life to the bug-eyed bully. One of the last pieces he ever published—mentioned by Jenkins—was “The Dream,” in which a phantom Lord Randolph materializes in front of Winston as he dabs at a canvas, the father baffled by the inexplicable affluence of the wastrel’s house until the son proudly recounts the history of his prodigious career.

This still leaves a lot of Churchill’s hectic life for Roy Jenkins to write wonderfully about, and he unquestionably does. Few writers know more about the heady days of the great reforming Liberal governments of 1906– 1916 than the author of an earlier, fine biography of H.H. Asquith, and Jenkins lucidly charts Churchill’s desertion of the Tories followed by his meteoric rise through ministerial ranks from a colonial under-secretary to the Board of Trade, to home secretary and, finally, the Admiralty. Jenkins gives the tyro proper credit, along with his friend and mentor Lloyd George, for pushing through a raft of progressive reforms—labor exchanges, unemployment insurance, mine inspection improvements.

But like Robert Rhodes James and Geoffrey Best, he rightly points out that more than once in his career in government Churchill was the author of policies he later attacked as short-sighted. Thrice he was the impassioned advocate of reduced arms expenditure, as Tory, Liberal, and Tory again, and thrice again (in the naval arms race immediately before the First World War, in the 1930s, and in the cold war) he was gung-ho for rearmament. Though he took the lion’s share of blame (not altogether without justification) for the catastrophically botched attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915, he somehow escaped whipping entirely for the almost equally appalling fiasco of the Norwegian campaign of 1940.

Field Marshal Alanbrooke, his bird-watching, pious chief of imperial general staff, in his withering private diaries, often portrays Churchill as strategically incompetent, deaf to informed counsel, violently abusive to subordinates, and pigheaded in standing by opinions all too often arrived at without even a modicum of familiarity with their logistical implications.10 Sometimes—as when he claims Churchill’s famous “Action This Day” memoranda suggested greater familiarity with detail than was actually the case—Alanbrooke is unduly harsh. But it is true that from 1943, the relentless comings and goings over the Atlantic, along with equally grueling trips to Russia and North Africa, took a toll on Churchill’s clarity and grip. In cabinet meetings his attention wandered and he was capable of rambling on to no particular point, bluffing his way through matters he had failed to prepare for by reading the proper papers. Pushed beyond endurance by this lackadaisical inattentiveness, the normally equable Attlee was goaded into sending Churchill a memorandum of disgusted protest and reproach. Increasingly fatalistic about Britain’s inevitable subordination to American and Russian global power, Churchill enjoyed victory much less than he had anticipated.

But unlike his opposite number in the Bunker, much less the man in the Kremlin, Churchill took the criticism on the chin and would snap out of his brandy-lubricated bouts of gloom, summoning ministers to his bedside for morning conferences where he would hold forth, deep in breakfast crumbs and war maps, attired in his red and gold dragon robe like some omnipotent mandarin. And as even his most severe critics conceded, all his shortcomings were as nothing compared with the supreme accomplishment of giving Britain the collective will to fight at the time no one else would or could, and when opinionated observers like Ambassador Joseph Kennedy assumed it was not a case of whether the country would capitulate but when. Alanbrooke would be on the verge of speaking his mind and then Churchill would have him to dine and he would marvel at the prime minister’s buoyant courage and iron resolve.

What he may have lacked in micro-managerial attentiveness he more than compensated for by moral clarity. During the 1930s, when it was the political norm among the appeasers to hold their noses and turn a blind eye to what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, commenting, in effect, that doubtless it was all very deplorable, but what did one expect in a world which also boasted Mussolini and Stalin, Churchill understood the incommensurability of Nazi bestiality and unhesitatingly said so, over and over again. After Kristallnacht he was unembarrassed to shed tears while describing the torments in a culture which looked on such demonstrations of emotion as dreadfully bad form.

But then, one of the many reasons to be grateful to Roy Jenkins’s fine book is to be reminded of Churchill’s fundamental decency, the quality that made Orwell forgive him his anti-socialism and his sentimental imperialism. Though limited in education and social experience, Churchill nonetheless had no difficulty in translating his own romantic feeling for nationality to the aspirations of other cultures. It was natural, then, for him to end up the friend of Michael Collins as well as F.E. Smith, Chaim Weizmann as well as Emir (later King) Abdullah, and to see that a two-state solution in both Ireland and Palestine was the only way to satisfy equally legitimate longings for homeland.

In this as in so many other aspects of the twentieth century, Churchill was a good deal more prescient than the clichés about his octogenarian dotage usually allow. Arguably the very best chapters of Jenkins’s book are the last ones dealing with the late 1940s and 1950s, after the victorious war leader had been rewarded with the stinging electoral defeat of 1945. Jenkins argues persuasively that even if, when reelected in 1951, at the age of seventy-seven, Churchill did have a tendency to treat his “Auld Lang Syne” government as a reunion, he had adjusted his historicist insularity to envision a Britain both enthusiastically pan-European and committed to the Atlantic alliance. The latest chapter of the providentialist story, then, was Britain’s indispensable bridge-making between Europe and America.

His last cause, motivated by the certainty that any kind of nuclear exchange would presage the end of human history, was the diplomatic campaign fought doggedly but fruitlessly between 1953 and 1955 to defuse the cold war. His last speech to the House of Commons before retiring as prime minister, ostensibly devoted to a White Paper on Defense, was prepared with excruciating care and was full of dark visions fitfully lit by flashes of optimism, the “zigzag lightning” which Asquith had identified as the sign of his genius. Its rhythmically intoned peroration sounded, as Churchill- ian rhetoric had so many times before, the mighty chimes of his call to perseverance: “Never flinch; never weary; never despair.” It’s the achievement of Roy Jenkins’s book to let us hear this voice again; to liberate the man from the mausoleum.

This Issue

February 28, 2002