Early Hillhead Man

Paul Addison

  • Churchill’s Political Philosophy by Martin Gilbert
    Oxford, 119 pp, £8.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 19 726005 5
  • Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years by Martin Gilbert
    Macmillan, 279 pp, £8.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 333 32564 8
  • Churchill and de Gaulle by François Kersaudy
    Collins, 476 pp, £12.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 00 216328 4
  • The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart edited by Kenneth Young
    Macmillan, 800 pp, £30.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 333 18480 7
  • Churchill’s Indian Summer by Anthony Seldon
    Hodder, 667 pp, £14.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 340 25456 4

Churchill, like Disraeli, turned his political struggles into a romance. To read his writings and speeches is to be invited into a special world of technicolor spendour, the stage for an epic with the author as hero. But ought we to suspend disbelief? A division of opinion has long existed between romantics, who feel themselves seduced and compelled by Churchill’s vision of events, and the sceptics who treat it as a fabrication. Until 1940 the sceptics outnumbered the romantics by about a hundred to one. Politicians and civil servants generally recognised a kind of erratic genius in Churchill, but his rhetoric was dismissed as the transparent disguise of an adventurer on the make. If he spoke of the future of Liberalism, it would be assumed that he was plotting with Lloyd George. If he condemned the state of British defences, it would be argued that he was trying to overthrow Baldwin.

The Second World War enabled Churchill to turn the tables on the sceptics. Having imposed his authority as a war leader, he proceeded to impose the Churchillian interpretation of events, enshrined in a six-volume war history. Here was Churchill the prophet, foreseeing the menace from Nazi Germany to which others had been blind. Here was Churchill the strategic impresario and architect of the Allied victory. It was a great story with all the elements of a successful myth, and for a long time it carried all before it. But since the Sixties a new generation of historians has begun to revive the sceptical tradition. As research has gone forward, interpretations have gone back – back to Churchill as he was understood in 1914 or 1939. Most British historians no longer see the world through Churchill’s eyes.

The one great exception is Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer since the death of Randolph Churchill in 1968. Gilbert is constructing a latterday Blenheim in scholarship instead of stone, a monument that will endure whatever the critics say of it. And only a very dim or disordered critic could fail to recognise the achievement. Three massive volumes of the biography proper, with seven companion volumes comprising just about every notable document by or about the great man: altogether a revolution in knowledge, and one that has knocked on the head many a misconception. No longer can it be said, for instance, that Churchill forced the Asquith Cabinet into Gallipoli or the Baldwin Cabinet into the General Strike. Gilbert has been setting the record straight, but what do we make of the evidence?

At first acquaintance, Gilbert’s work is painstakingly neutral and self-effacing. The facts, impeccably turned out, form ranks and march along in strict chronological tempo. The author does no more, apparently, than open a window from which we can see the procession go by. But this, of course, is passionate and committed biography. For while the views of Churchill’s critics are documented with apparent impartiality, the cumulative critique they provide is never allowed to form the basis of interpretation. We are inside Churchill looking out. Even though Gilbert corrects and supersedes Churchill’s own historical writing on points of fact, the character and purpose of the man unfold through the romance of his own words. And sometimes Gilbert’s Churchill is a decided improvement on Winston’s.

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[*] Anthony Seldon’s book was previously discussed in the LRB by Ian Gilmour (Vol. 4, No 1).