Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

As I write this paragraph the General Election is still almost four weeks away, and yet it seems already to have stolen the show. There is nothing else to read in the newspapers of any significance. My problem is that the General Election itself is of singularly little significance. No one in his senses imagines that the result will make the slightest difference. We have lived in the shadow of two great problems for the last ten years and more. One is unemployment; the other is inflation. To my mind, inflation is the more catastrophic of the two because it saps the very foundations of civilisation. Maybe I think this because I am too old and too lucky to be affected by unemployment. At any rate, there are the two great problems and neither of our two parties has the slightest idea what to do about them. Does anyone suppose that if the Conservatives win the election they will do any better than they have done for the last few years? Does anyone suppose that if Labour wins the election they will improve on their previous record when in office? They tell me that there is some sort of jumped-up third party, but I don’t think we need bother about that. Third parties rarely succeed. I can only think of the Labour Party between the wars and it has run out of steam now.

In short, the General Election is likely to be more barren than any of its predecessors during my lifetime. Looking back, I can recollect one which we thought really would make a difference. That was the General Election of 1945. I did a good deal of speaking during that election. I won’t say that we thought that the revolution was just round the corner, but something pretty near it. The high expectations survived for two or three years and then ran away to nothing. After that we have never had confident morning again.

The present General Election seems peculiarly pointless. The Government has nothing to offer except a continuation of its record of failure. The Labour alternative carries little conviction. The only justification for voting at all is that the rival parties are no worse than they have been for almost forty years past. Or perhaps they are. The winning ticket is likely to give permission to do worse than anything that has gone before and we shall settle down in resignation. There is one problem for which I believe there is a solution, and yet no one does anything about it. That is Ireland. People are killed there every week. Indeed the death rate goes up. There have been feeble initiatives and they have all died away. There is, I believe, a simple solution and that is Troops Out. The killing started when the British troops were sent to Ulster years ago. It is just possible that it will stop when the British troops go away. At any rate, British troops will no longer be killed when they are no longer there.

I do not need to add that there is also a solution for the problem of nuclear weapons, and that is not to have them. This problem has been going the rounds for twenty years past and the solution has been on offer also. It is a strange idea that our country, or for that matter any other country, will be the stronger for having the capacity to murder the helpless civilian population of other countries. Those who prepare and plan nuclear war have nothing to be afraid of. They will be comfortably settled in nuclear shelters and will be safe from all harm. There will be one consolation for those of us who are already dead. The warmongers who have survived the nuclear war will emerge to find an uninhabitable world, and quite soon they will perish even more miserably than we have done. Clearly this is not a topic to be debated at a general election.

I turn to a more agreeable subject. I have just published a book. During the last ten years I have published volumes of essays and illustrated books. But my last real book was my life of Beaverbrook, which I published more than ten years ago. Now I have done something even more personal. I have published a book about myself. To my delight, I discovered that I had a good memory, and what is more, a memory of a visual kind. My past unrolled before me like a series of lantern slides. I can recall, say, the face of Kinder Scout or the buildings of Rievaulx Abbey. I am not so good with the appearance of human beings – perhaps they are constantly changing. But I can remember the back streets of Manchester or the Ghetto in Venice. These memories fill my mind when I am no longer able to re-stock them in real life. I can recall also conversations that took place twenty or forty years ago. At least I can recall the sight of people talking – I am less sure of what they are saying. I suspect that most of the conversations have an element of invention or perhaps ‘adornment’ is the better word.

How does my life look in the perspective of more than seventy years? There have been periods of boredom and occasional periods of distress, but mainly I can report that I have had lots of fun. I have not achieved anything of great substance: thirty or so books of history, some of them, I think, quite good, but all of them destined to be forgotten within a relatively few years; and a long run as a public entertainer. I cannot put my television appearances under any other heading. The achievements I am most proud of apart from my books are two lectures: the Ford Lectures given as long ago as 1957, and the Romanes Lecture given in 1982 – both, I need hardly say, without a script or notes. I have never achieved academic eminence except that honorary degrees are now showered upon me. It gives me more pleasure that taxi-drivers call me ‘Alan’.

What shall I be able to quote at the imaginary Day of Judgment? I drove a car for Preston Strike Committee during the General Strike of 1926. I spoke against the Hoare-Laval plan in 1935 and against the Munich conference in 1938. I also applauded the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in, I think, 1933, though I did not take part in it. After the Second World War I opposed the Cold War and have gone on doing so ever since. I formulated the Yugoslav claim to Trieste, though without success. I opposed the Korean War almost from the first day. And opposed the Suez aggression of 1956 even more passionately. Indeed I imagined I and my like would be committed to war resistance. It all turned out a false alarm. From 1958 to 1961 I served almost full time in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This is the only thing that will get me acquitted at the Day of Judgment.

In a different sphere, I am proud to have walked the Pennine Way and Offa’s Dyke Way, neither of them quite completely. I’d throw in the Fairfield Horse Shoe as the best day’s walk I have ever made. They are all beyond me now: my greatest pleasure is to sit in the sun when there is any, and what could be more agreeable than that. Oh, I have forgotten, there is something better – eating and drinking. As long as these hold out, I shall want to go on living. But I am on the home run.

For some weeks now and for some more to come I have been engaged in a formidable task. I have been reading Volume VI of Martin Gilbert’s Life of Winston Churchill. An alarming notice on the cover warns me of the most terrifying penalties if I divulge anything the volume contains. But I think I can risk stating that the volume starts in September 1939 and runs until December 1941. There is also another starting date: 10 May 1940, when Churchill became Prime Minister and virtually the dictator of the country. This became clearer to me the more I read. There have been strong prime ministers before and maybe since. But there has been none who actually ran the whole show. Churchill had colleagues. He had assistants and advisers, many of them of great ability. But in the last resort everything depended on him. He was the mainspring without which the machinery of state would not work.

The more one reads, the more extraordinary his achievement becomes. The intensity of Churchill’s interest no doubt varied from subject to subject, but he was capable of picking up some new subject that he had apparently forgotten and knew nothing about. Of course he made mistakes. He invented plans civil and military that did not come off. He missed some chances, though not many. But it is hardly an exaggeration to say that for fifteen months or so Churchill directed the entire Second World War on the so-called Allied side. Napoleon did something similar for France in the early 19th century, but not on the same scale. Churchill’s field of action was more limited once Stalin and Roosevelt were added to the War Lords: it was still true that Churchill ran the entire British war, at any rate, to the very end.

He acknowledged only two authorities: the King and Parliament, meaning the House of Commons. But the War Cabinet was primarily a gathering of colleagues who followed Churchill’s guidance. The physical achievement alone was staggering. No doubt it exhausted him, but he lasted another ten years. Churchill’s accomplishment was without parallel in modern times and no man could have exercised a dictatorship with more moderation.

Reading this volume puts another thought into my mind. The Second World War was the noblest task to which the British people ever set their hand. We alone on the Allied side entered the war of our voluntary choice and stayed in it till the end. No war has been fought for such noble motives. Yet it was hardly over before it was set aside and soon forgotten. When I finished my Second World War: An Illustrated History with the words, ‘Despite all the killing and destruction that accompanied it, the Second World War was a good war,’ a junior colleague rebuked me sternly and I felt quite ashamed. On reflection I still think it was a good war.