The great Churchill boom now in progress is a very instructive sign of the times. When Churchill died in 1965, we thought we were burying the past. Richard Crossman, a reluctant mourner at the funeral, wrote afterwards: ‘It felt like the end of an epoch, possibly even the end of a nation.’ But what era feels more remote today than that of Wilson and Heath, the great modernisers for whom modernity failed to arrive? In spirit at least, Churchill has outlived them, taking his place again in British politics as one of the household gods of Mrs Thatcher. Once more his legend influences the future.
There is more to his renewed fame than mere politics. Churchill always had one foot in the realm of popular culture. From youth onwards he was a best-selling writer in the categories of war, travel and adventure. The Second World War turned him into a movie star, prompting him to remark in 1942 that he had already sold the film rights of his war memoirs. Later, Jack le Vien’s television series The Valiant Years seemed, as I recall, to run for ever. But as the swinging Sixties gathered pace, such productions struck the wrong note. The patriotic epic, except in the debased and self-destructive form of the Bond films, was an offence to the spirit of the age. The old military-imperial spectaculars were acceptable only when infused with anti-war feeling and social satire, as in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. In recent years there has been a conservative revival, apparent in the reappearance of John Buchan on the shelves, or the clean-cut manly values of Chariots of Fire. Churchill is modish again, and all the more so after the Falklands.
Those who followed Southern Television’s series about the Churchill of the 1930s will recognise the extent to which it was devised with a transatlantic market in mind. Here is an intriguing aspect of our popular culture, anticipated no doubt by Hollywood in its heyday, and subtly underwriting the Reagan-Thatcher alliance. The themes of British life most attractive to the media on financial grounds are the ones most likely to attract audiences in the United States. So the documentaries and dramatisations of British life shown over here are often preconditioned by the tastes of a North American public. Glamorous treatments of the old governing class, with some American characters and a message of Anglo-American cordiality, would seem to be indicated. These cultural factors affect even the austere and disinterested realms of scholarship. It is difficult to imagine that the gigantic official biography of Churchill would have been conceived on such a scale but for Churchill’s enduring appeal in the United States as the Yankee Marlborough and a patron of Zionism.
For all these reasons the Churchill industry thrives in a variety of forms, both academic and popular. And on the academic side the pre-eminent authority, Martin Gilbert, has taken advantage of the ambitious scope of the official life to construct a triumphal arch of scholarship. Since 1968, 12 large volumes of the official biography have appeared under his name: four of narrative, and eight ‘companion’ volumes of the documents he has assembled and edited. The most recent of the companions prints the sources for January 1936 to September 1939. The editing is immaculate, with every individual mentioned in the text identified in a brief biography, and every unexplained allusion sorted out. True to his brief to record the whole man, Gilbert finds room beside Churchill’s solemn reflections on the European crisis for a ripe little episode like his attempt to smuggle a case of liquor through the customs with a bold declaration of ‘nothing to declare’. The companion volumes are an ornament to publishing, and incidentally a rather generous act whereby Gilbert parts with the labours of his research. If I wish to knock out an article, say, on Churchill’s method of writing history, I have only to look up the appropriate entries in the index and half my work is done for me.
With the latest volume of the biography proper, Gilbert has met and mastered the greatest challenge of the enterprise. In the period between the outbreak of the Second World War and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the British entered the worst crisis of their history and Churchill reached the climax of his career as he struggled to extricate them from it. Other writers tend to lose their cool at this point and break out into a rash of sub-Churchillian rhetoric. Gilbert’s approach remains as measured and controlled as ever, absorbed by the fascination of collating documents and reconstructing meetings and decisions. While he credits Churchill with high motives and a rich humanity, it is Churchill’s intellect that grips him as he seeks to show him thinking his way into new and ever-changing circumstances.
As in 1914, Churchill began the war at the Admiralty. Mentally, too, he was back in 1914, duplicating similar offensive plans for an attack in the Baltic or the creation of a Balkan front. But this time his Gallipoli took the form of the Norwegian campaign. In the opening months of the war Churchill profoundly misjudged the strategic balance. No one knew better than he the deficiencies of the RAF, but he did not grasp the bearing of air power on naval and military operations. He assumed therefore that the superiority of the Royal Navy over the German fleet would guarantee British control of Scandinavia. When the Germans invaded Norway he rejoiced in the belief that they were walking into a trap. But Churchill’s Narvik expedition turned into a fiasco and he was lucky to escape the wrath that fell on the Chamberlain Government and the ‘men of Munich’. Churchill won the premiership by default, all the other leaders of the National Government having exhausted their credit over the years.
As Prime Minister, Churchill at once put before the House of Commons the bleakest prospectus ever issued by an incoming administration: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ The Norwegian campaign had revolutionised his ideas and he was determined to make no more promises of a swift or easy victory. In the weeks that followed, as the French capitulated and invasion threatened, the policy of iron realism was vindicated and the emergency strengthened his hand. Churchill even played up the invasion threat as a calculated stimulus to the war effort. As everyone knows, Churchill was at his magnificent best in the months between Dunkirk and the Blitz, and enough has been said of his unquenchable spirit and inspiring rhetoric to satisfy the most passionate admirer. Gilbert mirrors the dynamism, but his achievement is to probe more deeply into Churchill’s state of mind as he struggled to keep the show on the road. The British public in 1940 may have supposed that inbred superiority of national character would lead to victory in the end, as in the past. But Churchill was in possession of the most secret military information, including a buff-coloured box containing the Enigma decrypts, decyphered at Bletchley Park. He lived with the vivid realisation that the game was very nearly up. Often he would repeat to himself Byron’s lines from Childe Harold:
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state,
An hour may lay it in the dust.
In retrospect, it may seem that Britain had only to hang on until the United States entered the war, a hope dangled before the House of Commons in some of Churchill’s speeches. But Churchill greatly feared that the trickle of United States aid to Britain camouflaged a hostile intent: to sit out the war until Britain was defeated, then pick up the pieces of the British Empire. Though he tried to keep Roosevelt in play by correspondence, the President remained a stranger and an enigma. The special relationship only began once the United States Government was convinced that Britain would hold out, and this was not until the end of 1940. Churchill expressed the heart of his policy when, on another occasion, he told his staff: ‘We must just KBO’ – Keep Buggering On.
Some time ago there was a heated correspondence in the Times on the subject of whether or not Churchill had a ‘cruel streak’. We appear to have a yen in this country for warm and compassionate leaders, though common sense suggests that to govern effectively you need to be a bit of a brute. Woe betide Neil Kinnock or Roy Hattersley if he turns out to be a quintessentially decent fellow like Michael Foot. Churchill was not altogether decent, otherwise he would have been a lesser man. Gilbert records his magnanimous gestures, such as the considerate letters written to the dying Neville Chamberlain, or the glorious episode of the Bovril and sardines. On this occasion Churchill insisted at 4.30 one morning that General Pile accompany him back to Downing Street for a reviving meal of Bovril and sardines. Churchill rapped at the pantry door and when the butler appeared announced: ‘Goering and Goebbels come to report.’ With such flair Churchill was often forgiven his trespasses, but they were many. Clementine Churchill had to warn him against his rough and sarcastic treatment of subordinates, but his devoted personal staff felt the brunt more lightly than the commanders in the field. He once proposed that General Mackesy should be arrested for failing to pursue the attack at Narvik, and Wavell incurred his scorn as ‘a good average colonel’ who would make ‘a good chairman of a Tory association’.
For many years controversies have rumbled on over Churchill’s relations with his commanders, and his responsibility for military setbacks. Gilbert presents fresh evidence on Churchill’s behalf. He shows that Churchill had a high opinion of Dowding and that it was the Air Ministry which treated him shabbily. He shows that initially Churchill’s instincts were against the Dakar operation, as well as the intervention in Greece in 1941. But Churchill’s reputation as a strategist still looks shaky, and one devastating little word cannot be excised from the text: Japan. ‘Churchill,’ writes Gilbert, ‘was under no illusions about Japanese intentions.’ At this, I rubbed my eyes. For Churchill repeatedly stated in the course of 1941 that a Japanese attack in the Far East could be discounted, as when he commented four days before Pearl Harbor that it was ‘a remote contingency’. Churchill calculated that a mere show of force would deter the Japanese and, having overcome the resistence of his Naval advisers, despatched the Prince of Wales and the Repulse to their doom. His biographer, however, is discreetly silent on the implications of the tragedy.
Martin Gilbert is over-protective of his subject’s reputation in minor affairs as well as great. He is at pains to point out that Churchill insisted on the very weakest of whisky and sodas. But this hardly disposes of the suspicion that Churchill often drank pretty hard, and why shouldn’t he have done? A.J.P. Taylor refers to a letter from Churchill to Beaverbrook as ‘brusque’. Gilbert queries whether the description is just, though the letter looks brusque enough to this reviewer. On Gilbert’s behalf it should be urged that there are many black legends about Churchill, put about originally by Lord Haw-Haw and his friends during the war. One of the few certainties we still cling to is that the Nazis were defeated: but you never know, and in this context Gilbert’s defensiveness is comprehensible. In any case, it is important to stand back from the criticism and recognise the scale and force of Gilbert’s achievement over the years. His work is in a class by itself and as he begins the next volume we should send him this message: KBO.
If the official biography is definitive, why should two American authors, Ted Morgan and William Manchester, have embarked on their own lives of Churchill? Many authors explain in a preface how and why they came to begin a book, but neither Morgan nor Manchester offers a clue. From the tone of celebration in which they write it is obvious that both of them admire and romanticise Churchill. Then again, both are professional writers and storytellers. Irrespective of the deeper historical implications of his career, Churchill has an archetypal appeal. He was, after all, ‘the most unforgettable character you ever met’, and his life ‘the greatest story ever told’. Who could fail to turn in good copy about his escape from the Boers, the Siege of Sidney Street, or Gallipoli? Who could fail to read about all this with pleasure, except someone who had read it all before a dozen times? This train of speculation leads us closer to the mark. The official biography, and Churchill’s own works, are far too extensive for most people to read even if they could afford to buy them, which they cannot. So there is a huge and lucrative gap in the market for the middle-range biography. The point happens to be very familiar to me, as many years ago I was commissioned to write such a book. I never did, since I got bored with reams of military history, and gravitated instead towards a study of Churchill’s conservatism. But with this background it would hardly become me to criticise Morgan and Manchester for taking up the task.
All the same, their books are disappointing. The texts are readable and efficient enough if you can live with Time Magazine characterisations, dollops of schmaltz and some hair-raising experiments by Manchester in painting historical back-cloths. They will appear in public libraries and satisfy the curiosity of many readers about Churchill. But factually, and in their interpretations, they are stale. For the periods they cover, the record of Churchill’s activities is pretty well-established and they have only to follow it. Both make a certain show of having consulted manuscript sources, but the consequences are negligible. (Manchester’s acknowledgments are a treat for connoisseurs of this kind of thing, but as they are decently tucked away at the back they may rest in peace.) The truth is that both works are strongly derivative from the official biography and Churchill’s own writings. Morgan even incorporates passages from The World Crisis virtually unchanged into his narrative.
The repetition of well-known facts and anecdotes might serve a purpose if only some new ideas were being injected into the story. But the judgments are predictable. ‘In the Colonial Office,’ writes Manchester, ‘he seemed to be a combination of Pitt and Puck.’ ‘In his two years at the Board of Trade,’ writes Morgan, ‘Churchill turned an archaic, sprawling department into an instrument of social reform.’ Now it is Manchester’s turn again to tell us that ‘marital strains reverberated through his career like a kind of background score.’ At the Home Office, Morgan chips in, ‘he felt the same concern for the individual whiplashed by an impersonal bureaucracy as he had at the Colonial Office.’ Manchester does not doubt that at Gallipoli Churchill was the strategic genius and the naval and military commanders donkeys. Both Morgan and Manchester are too cosily entrenched in a system of Churchillian mythology to realise that they could or should dig themselves out.
Many American writers have a perennial innocence about Churchill, but it would be wrong to attribute it to ignorance. In American eyes, Churchill had all the virtues. He was in fact better adapted as a cultural hero of the United States than of Britain. A rampant individualist and buccaneer, he resembled in type his dare-devil New York grandfather, Leonard Jerome. In Britain we mistrust the heady American mix of the hard sell accompanied by the affirmation of a semi-religious faith in civic values. But Churchill epitomised it with his tireless self-promotion and rhetorical tributes to Democracy, Empire and Historical Destiny. The American orthodoxy is that everyone should live vibrantly, go on competing, and win. By these tests Churchill exceeded the highest expectations. Sceptical British observers look for the historical realities behind the overblown Churchillian image. But it is the overblown image that inspires Morgan and Manchester to write about him, and they take it to be a mark of greatness in itself. They are here to celebrate Churchill as one of the Kids from Fame who went on to save Western civilisation. That he should have united American values with the riveting enchantments of royal and aristocratic England, the fantasy world of the Anglophiles, is too good to be true. No wonder Churchill knocks them dead in the USA: but we should think twice before taking this particular local hero into our hearts.