World’s Greatest Statesman
- Churchill: The End of Glory by John Charmley
Hodder, 648 pp, £30.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 340 48795 X
- Churchill: A Major New Assessment of his Life in Peace and War edited by Robert Blake and Wm Roger Louis
Oxford, 517 pp, £19.95, February 1993, ISBN 0 19 820317 9
The highly practical Hellenistic solution to Britain’s insatiable Churchill/Finest Hour cravings would have been to establish a regular cult, with its own dedicated priests, rituals and sanctuaries. Facing a brazen engraving of the famously pugnacious 1941 Karsh photograph, surrounded by appropriate symbols or even original relics of Spitfires, Sten guns, Home Guard pikes and Montecristo cigars, listening to quadrophonic recordings of the major speeches in His own voice, peering into side-chapels dedicated to His companions (Beaverbrook, Birkenhead, Bracken), the average gent thrown into despair by the latest debacle of the British economy could swiftly revive his flagging spirits. Then on his way out of the shrine he could perhaps pause to purchase a Churchill amulet from one of the attending priests robed in 1940-style battle dress, with tin helmet and gas-mask satchel.
As it is, there are only television’s (almost weekly) World War Two documentaries and assorted World War Two romances to mitigate the withdrawal symptoms, as well as the steady output of Churchill books. Because so many are so ready to protest so much over anything not entirely uncritical written of Winston in World War Two (or WWW2 for short), there was no possibility whatever that Charmley’s 648 pages for 30 quid would pass by quietly, attracting deadly praise of ‘the best one-volume Churchill biography published this fortnight’ variety. Inevitably, the suggestion that post-1945 world events might have turned out more favourably had it not been for the errors and obsessions of WWW2 has started a very noisy debate which is being enjoyed by many, though the genuinely anguished cries of true devotees can also be heard above the din. When Lord Moran published his take-the-temperature-and-tell memoirs in 1966, not only breaching doctor-patient confidentiality but also revealing that WWW2 was sometimes ill as well as often tipsy, not to say smashed (things, to be sure, entirely unexpected of a hard-living lush in his middle sixties), everybody did their best to pretend that the news was actually new and even shocking, so that the controversy could occupy British public discourse for months on end, providing wonderful distraction from the grim realities of 1966. One Churchillian evocation or another likewise offered distraction from the grim realities of 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and so on, and on. Now that the Charmley debate has come along to afford relief from the grim realities of 1993, one hesitates to spoil the fun but some elementary observations are in order.
1. Charmley can legitimately argue that Churchill was an inveterate war-lover who flatly refused to consider a negotiated exit from the June 1940-June 1941 Anglo-German war. That Churchill was addicted to war is certainly beyond dispute. One reading of his often brilliant observations about nuclear weapons (the 1955 ‘Balance of Terror’ speech said it all) is that he deplored them more than most people, as the final and complete ruination not just of mere boring peace, but of the splendid (non-nuclear) warfare he had known and loved so well – for not even Churchill foresaw the emergence of the ‘post-nuclear’ era, in which combat would once more be feasible on a large scale and at high intensity. It is also beyond dispute that Hitler said he wanted peace with Britain, and that he said his terms would be mild, not much more than a retrocession of the lost African and Pacific colonies, and of course loyal co-operation with Hitler’s ulterior plans for Europe and the world.
2. By contrast, it cannot reasonably be argued that Churchill should have pressed for a separate peace during the September 1939-June 1940 period, when the Anglo-Franco-German war was conspicuously not raging after Poland’s rapid defeat. Newly-elevated into the government after so long an exclusion, with a well-deserved reputation for bellicosity being his only claim to office, Churchill could hardly exceed Neville Chamberlain’s enthusiasm for peace. It was of course Chamberlain who had started the war, as peace-lovers often do, not just by formally declaring war on Germany while Germany was merely waging war on Poland, but by having issued the unilateral guarantee that was activated by the German invasion of Poland. Had Churchill tried to start a peace-at-any-price Cabinet revolt, he would have merely repeated his father’s ruinous trajectory by being swiftly tossed out of the Government, the Party and his constituency.