- Never despair: Winston Churchill 1945-1965 by Martin Gilbert
Heinemann, 1438 pp, £25.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 434 29182 X
The final volume of Martin Gilbert’s Life opens with Churchill celebrating the defeat of Germany in May 1945. He was 70 years old and completely exhausted. Two months later, he led his party to a shattering defeat at the general election. A lesser mortal would have taken the opportunity of retiring to the backbenches as an elder statesman. But Churchill fought back and carried on for another decade. After six frustrating years as leader of the Opposition, he returned to power as prime minister in 1951. Though disabled for a time by a severe stroke in July 1953, and harassed by colleagues who urged him to go, he struggled on until April 1955.
Martin Gilbert devotes 1128 pages to the last ten years of Churchill’s political career. But he never poses a question that will occur to many of his readers: should Churchill have quit in 1945? On the evidence provided here, I am inclined to think that he should.
It is most unlikely that Gilbert agrees. But as with his previous volumes, it is hard to tell exactly what his opinions are. The most self-effacing of all biographers, he has adopted the method of allowing the documents to speak for themselves. Since most of the documents are letters or speeches by the great man, or snatches from his conversation, Churchill’s perceptions dominate the narrative. If the Grand Old Man asserts that the Attlee Government has brought the country to the brink of economic ruin, or destroyed Britain’s position as a great power, there is no one to confirm or contradict him, or put his remarks in context. What Churchill says, goes.
There is something to be said for Gilbert’s method. At least he is not fabricating a Churchill from conjecture and selective quotation. To read Gilbert is to enjoy something very like direct access to the sources, in the company of an expert archivist. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that since taking over the biography from Randolph Churchill in 1968, Gilbert has performed a truly stupendous feat of scholarly endeavour. Now that the labour of a lifetime is complete, the scale of his achievement stands out more plainly than ever. But there is no escape from the fact that a great opportunity has been missed: the opportunity of placing Churchill in his full historical context. While examining British history through the eyes of Winston Churchill, Gilbert might also have examined Churchill in the perspective of British history.
In the final decade of his career, Churchill played two main roles, as leader of the Conservative Party, and as Prime Minister. A realistic assessment of his significance would have to begin by asking whether he played either of these parts successfully.
The best that can be said for Churchill as leader of the Conservative Party is that he exercised a vague but olympian authority and kept the show on the road. This was not too difficult. Though Churchill was frequently absent from the House of Commons, and generally neglected the Party’s affairs, most Conservatives would gladly have followed him over the edge of a cliff if he had asked them to. Besides, there were others to keep the machine working. But the Conservative problem after 1945 was obsolescence. In social and economic policy the Party was intellectually bankrupt, and it was overpopulated with the sons of Empire, for whom the colonies were more real than home.
Churchill contributed to the Party’s malaise. His strident anti-socialist rhetoric disguised the lack of a coherent alternative, and he did what he could to prevent constructive policy-making. When he returned to power in 1951 his real strategy, as distinct from his declared intention, was to conserve the Attlee inheritance. When Brendan Bracken urged him to look into the efficiency of the nationalised industries, he took no notice. Contrary to the instinct of many Conservatives, he cherished the trade unions as an estate of the realm, and appointed Walter Monckton as Minister of Labour with instructions to prevent strikes by accepting inflationary wage settlements. Of all this domestic history there is barely a whisper in Gilbert’s account. There is, indeed, no reference to the fact that Monckton ever was Minister of Labour.