Over Several Tops

Bernard Porter

  • Churchill: A Study in Greatness by Geoffrey Best
    Hambledon, 370 pp, £19.95, May 2001, ISBN 1 85285 253 4
  • Churchill by Roy Jenkins
    Macmillan, 1002 pp, £30.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 333 78290 9

Why two more Churchill biographies? Geoffrey Best reckons there are fifty or a hundred out there already. Two good reasons to want to add to them would be the unearthing of new evidence or a radically different interpretation. Roy Jenkins says he is not ‘a great partisan of the “revelatory” biography’, and claims that for Churchill nearly all the ‘facts’ are known in any case. One of Best’s motives for writing his book is to scotch some of the wilder recent interpretations he believes have obscured an older and safer wisdom. Neither author professes originality. So why did they bother adding to the list?

One can see the attraction. Churchill is an alluring subject, and it must be nearly impossible to write an uninteresting book about him. His own dicta, if liberally quoted, would keep the dullest narrative dancing along. Take this, from a speech in the House of Commons in 1922; the debate is on Ulster, and Churchill has just finished describing the upheaval and transformation created everywhere in the world by the recent war:

But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world. That says a lot for the persistence with which Irishmen on the one side or the other are able to pursue their controversies. It says a good deal for the power which Ireland has, both Nationalist and Orange, to lay her hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics and to hold, dominate and convulse, year after year, generation after generation, the politics of this powerful country.

A very English view, of course, but expressed vividly and sonorously. It is this sort of thing that makes his Nobel Prize for Literature, incongruous as it seemed at the time, not entirely unmerited. (If the bare mention that this success receives in both biographies is anything to go by, he himself did not rate it very highly: he thought he should have got the Peace one. He could not attend the ceremony and I’m told wrote a gracious letter to the Nobel Prize committee saying how much he admired Sweden, especially her ‘warriors’. Was that meant as a barb, in view of Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War?)

There are other attractions. Churchill is incontrovertibly a ‘big’ subject; the only one worthy of Jenkins’s pen, he says, after scaling the heights of Gladstone. All that previous work on him, including the huge Companion Volumes to Martin Gilbert’s exhaustive official biography (‘largely unread’, Best’s publisher claims), means that it is possible to do him justice without – theoretically – leaving one’s study. That is what Jenkins seems to have done. His sources are astonishingly narrow – only biographies, memoirs and the Companion Volumes; no history books, for example – yet he manages to get over nine hundred pages out of them. (For his mere 336 pages Best casts much wider.) John Morley and William Harcourt, whom Jenkins toyed with doing before deciding on the big ‘un, would have required far more research. There is also clearly a market for Churchilliana, not only in Britain but in the US (for which Jenkins’s glossary of British Parliamentary peculiarities is presumably intended), especially if it comes from the pen of another political celebrity (in Britain, at least). This after all is how Churchill managed to sell so many of his own books, largely – Jenkins speculates – to ‘the great unread market’. There Best, of course, is at a disadvantage. It was rotten luck to have his old-fashioned little trawler launched almost simultaneously with Jenkins’s great factory ship. With luck he will pick up some of the fish thrown back into the water in the latter’s wake. It would be a shame if his more discursive and analytical volume, which is also more compact, and just as well written, were lost in the shadow of Jenkins’s greater fame.

But does any of this justify the enterprise? Well, if Jenkins’s name – and also, it’s fair to add, his reputation as a political biographer – attracts more interest in this kind of subject than would have come to it otherwise, it can’t be bad. Both books are intended for a general, not a scholarly, market, and each of them is more up to date and readable than most of their competitors. They also claim to add something. In Best’s case it is his personal memory (he is in his seventies) of a time and an ethos that he believes callow younger historians simply do not understand. He knows, for example, that families did indeed cluster round their wireless sets to listen to Churchill’s broadcasts in the war years, which apparently some youngsters cannot credit today. Jenkins also makes much of his – greater – age: the question of old age is always coming up in his book; and of his political and ministerial experience, especially in high office, as the frustrated victim of internal party battles and as a turncoat. This comes through in a score of marginal references to his period as Home Secretary, to Labour ‘tribalism’, his SDP adventure, and his Presidency of the European Commission – none of which can be said to illuminate the main story in any significant way.

Both are anxious to establish Churchill’s ‘greatness’. Best incorporates the word into his subtitle; Jenkins finishes his book – rather feebly, in view of all the much more interesting points that arise from it – with the disclosure that, whereas he used to think that Gladstone was greater, he now puts Churchill in front by a short head. This is a silly game. Both also acknowledge Churchill’s faults, which were enormous. Stanley Baldwin put it well – almost, one might say, Churchillianly:

When Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts – imagination, eloquence, industry, ability, and then came a fairy who said, ‘No one person has a right to so many gifts,’ picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom. And that is why while we delight to listen to him in this House we do not take his advice.

That was in 1936. It was perfectly reasonable to distrust him then. On two particular topics of the day – Communism and Indian nationalism – he was quite unbalanced. Whatever the moral rights and wrongs of these issues – conventional wisdom today would hold him right about the Soviet Union and wrong about India, but that might change – Churchill grievously miscalculated the strength of both ideologies at that time. Hence the disaster of Allied ‘intervention’ against the Reds after the Great War, and the troubles caused by the ‘diehards’ over India. These issues were also responsible for Churchill’s two most notorious insults, calling Gandhi a ‘half-naked fakir’ and linking Labour to the Gestapo, which are absolutely unforgivable, or would be had he not done enough during the Second World War to deserve forgiveness for almost anything. He was also unwise to back Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis (just as well he lost, Jenkins jokes, or he might have had to intern him in 1940 as a Nazi sympathiser), and in some of his friendships, such as that with Beaverbrook. Some of his misjudgments in office may have been disastrous, though both books are charitable to him over the Dardanelles fiasco (‘it could have worked’). Many of his Parliamentary interventions were terribly botched. Harold Nicolson thought he could tell when he was about to blow it:

I knew that Winston was going to do something dreadful. I had been staying the weekend with him. He was silent and restless and glancing into corners. Now when the dog does that, you know he is going to be sick on the carpet. It is the same with Winston. He managed to hold it for three days, and then comes up to the House and is sick right across the floor.

This happened often. He misjudged the situation, or his audience, or the pitch of his rhetoric, which had a tendency, as Jenkins puts it, ‘to go over several tops’. His betrayals of party, jumping from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904, then back again in 1924-25, could be seen as opportunistic – in both cases he was abandoning a sinking vessel for what appeared to be a more buoyant one – which compounded even his new comrades’ distrust of him. He seemed to have a self-destructive streak. From early on, we are told, he was convinced that he was a man of destiny, invulnerable to bullets both literally (in his early military adventures) and metaphorically; but that was no reason, surely, to put himself in the path of so many shells.

Most opportunists also lack consistency of principle. Churchill seems not to have done. It is a mistake to judge these things by mere party affiliation, especially when dealing with times when politics are fluid, and with people – Jenkins himself may be another example – who are not easily squeezed into normal party moulds. Churchill changed his mind, certainly: it was part of his bigness (and one reason both authors are, rightly, irritated by the more narrow-minded Thatcher’s brazen attempts in the 1980s to identify with him). But usually it was in response to circumstances that had changed. That covers the ‘paradox’ (Jenkins) of his campaign against naval rearmament in Asquith’s Cabinet in 1908, and his constant willingness, both before and after the Second World War, to consider the ‘apaisement’, as he called it then, of various hostile interests (the House of Lords, trade unions), so long as they were not the Nazis. One unfortunate side-effect of Munich has been to brand ‘appeasement’ as intrinsically wicked, which of course does not follow, and was not Churchill’s way.

Outside European affairs it is possible to see a woolly consistency in all his major lines of political thought. Its roots lie in the ‘feudal, patriarchal paternalism’ (Best’s phrase) he was soaked in from birth, and which again marks him out strongly from both Thatcher and the proto-Thatcherites of his time, of whom there were many. Contemporaries wondered how the man who sent in the Army to shoot at striking miners in Tonypandy in 1910 (a myth, according to Best), and resisted the General Strike so adamantly, could also claim to be a friend of the workers, and push through collectivist reforms for them in the 1910s and 1950s. The simple answer is that Churchill genuinely believed in bettering the lot of the people, but – as Jenkins puts it – ‘in a peculiarly de haut en bas way’.

Exactly the same attitude informed his imperialism. (Was this one of the few things he learned from his stretch at Harrow, I wonder, headmastered at that time by the grotesquely imperialist and rather stupid J.E.C. Welldon, whom Churchill met again in India when Welldon had become Bishop of Calcutta, and who later apologised to him for his unhappiness at school?) Churchill always put ‘good’ (by which he meant just and kind) government before self-government. Best, rather unfashionably, suggests there may be something in this. Of course, it partly depends on how good one believes British colonial government to have been. Churchill had little first-hand knowledge of this, despite two rather undistinguished spells at the Colonial Office. Both books point out how fundamentally ignorant he was both of the Empire, apart from what an early spell of polo-playing in Bangalore and some bullet-dodging in the Sudan and South Africa could teach him; and of the working classes, in what he persisted in calling their ‘cottages’. The roseate image that conjures up is typical. His whole political philosophy – if it can be called that – derived from a romantic ideal of noblesse oblige, working-class gratitude, British goodness, and English-speaking loyalty. Hence what Jenkins calls his ‘fantasies’ early on in the Second World War that it was inevitable that England’s American cousins would help her out. He was just as ignorant of the US. It was all based on feeling, not on facts.

Wrong – or wrong-footed – on so many of the great issues of the day, why was he so right about Hitler? That wasn’t from knowledge either: he knew little of Germany or its history, except in battles. His stand against the Nazis certainly could not have been predicted from his known views before the mid-1930s (Jenkins quotes him in February 1933 expressing admiration for Germany’s ‘splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on the road of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their Fatherland’), or from the political alliances he was forging during that decade. Other virulent anti-Soviets and India diehards positively welcomed Hitler, or were at least inclined to tolerate him as a bulwark against the greater danger of Communism, and to ensure that the British Empire stayed up. (He had promised them that.) There has always been an argument, developed most recently and notoriously by John Charmley, that it was the damage the war did to Britain’s material capacity that lost her the Empire: destroyed, that is, what was dearest to Churchill’s heart. If this was true Churchill obviously did not suspect it, misled probably by his romantic belief in the loyalty and gratitude of those whom Britain so nobly obliged. Rightly or wrongly he did not trust the Germans to keep their hands off the Empire, and in any case balked at its being ‘dependent on their good will or pleasure’. But that may not have been his first consideration. Both Best and Jenkins portray him as at least as much moved by Hitler’s domestic policies, especially his anti-semitism, as by the threat he posed to Britain’s interests. Best thinks that his early realisation of the scale of the Nazi horror was ‘probably just brilliant intuition’. As a basically intuitive politician, he was bound to guess right sometimes.

It was his rightness over this that hiked him into the premiership in May 1940, together with the fact that people were desperate. Neither of these circumstances, of course, guaranteed that he would be consistently right after this. His track record was against it. Those who worked for him during the Second World War testified that on most days he buzzed with ideas, nine out of ten of which were impractical or mad. Whether those that were actually realised were always the least mad ones must be left to military experts to discuss, if not to decide. On most of the controversial strategic and tactical decisions both these authors, who are not military experts, make a virtue of seeing his point of view. They also agree, however, on the much greater importance of his rhetoric as a morale-boosting factor in the dark early days of the war, at least. In a 1940 broadcast he spoke of the importance, in winning wars, of ‘a cause which rouses the spontaneous surgings of the human spirit in millions of hearts’. He created that; or, in his own more modest appraisal, gave voice to it. ‘Churchill,’ Best writes,

made the people feel proud and strong. His speeches set them on a world stage, somewhere few had dreamed of ever finding themselves, defending values important for the world at large. Their survival was to mean more than the survival of their insular selves, it meant the survival of civilisation and freedom.

For this purpose, and in these circumstances, no rhetoric could be too extravagant. Jenkins quotes some instructions Churchill gave to his copy-editor in 1933, asking him to look out for words he knew he was fond of over-using: ‘e.g. vast, bleak, immense, formidable etc’; but they were just the sorts of word the situation of 1940 required. This was where Churchill came into his own: Churchill the literary man, that is, the reluctant 1953 Nobel Prize winner. Asked to assess Churchill’s greatest qualities for a collection of tributes shortly after his death, Clement Attlee first considered ‘wisdom, practical judgment and vision’, before rejecting them all in favour of ‘energy and poetry’. (This is in Best.) These, he wrote, were what ‘really summed him up’. Some might want to come back at Attlee on the ‘vision’ thing; but the poetry was arguably central even to that.

This is where Jenkins scores. As a considerable and stylish writer himself, with more titles to his name than Churchill, although fewer words (he is sniffy about Churchill’s prolixity), and without – he insists – the ‘cottage literary industry’ of helpers the latter could get to do his leg-work, and even much of his wrist-work, for him from the 1930s on, he has a particular empathy for the poetic side of Churchill, and a natural tendency to write up this aspect of his activities. The overall impression one gets is of Churchill the literary man first, and the soldier and politician second. That is a novel perspective, I think (I’ve not read the other fifty or hundred biographies, so I can’t be sure), and a valid one. It also makes up for the disadvantages of Jenkins’s biography on other fronts – its length, the narrowness of its sources, its concentration on high politics, and the lack of a proper conclusion – just as Churchill’s morale-boosting rhetoric of the early 1940s compensates for all his other faults. On many aspects of Churchill’s career, and especially its historical context, Best is better. But, with less hard work, Jenkins the writer-politician may have got to the heart of Churchill the writer-war leader.