The Churchill Factor

Posted: November 13, 2015 in Book reviews
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By Boris Johnson.


Much as I love history, it has to be said that some history books can contrive to make even the most interesting of subjects seem dry, even dull.

Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill is not such a book.

Johnson begins in 1940, with Churchill newly installed as Prime Minister and facing an offer from the Germans, a kind of live and let live; a peace treaty that would have, in hindsight, likely let the Nazi rampage across Europe go unchecked. Imagine if Hitler had been able to concentrate all his forces on Russia, and imagine if the US hadn’t entered the war, worst still imagine if there hadn’t been a handy island off the coast of Europe from which to launch the liberation of Europe even if the US had decided to intercede.

Of course the men—and they were all men—who sat in Downing street with Churchill had no way of predicting the future, what they saw was a diminished Britain, an army in retreat, a populace hardly aching for war, and an enemy that seemed unstoppable. In the face of all of this it was Churchill who pushed to refuse all overtures of peace, Churchill who, through sheer force of will, made Britain stand her ground in those early years whilst he waited for America to make her mind up whether or not to intervene. Not that he left the US to it, far from it, like a boy chasing a girl who’s far too pretty for him Churchill wooed America, wangling concession after concession, even if at times the price was high (for the record we made our final repayment to America circa 2008 for their ‘help’ during WW2) and sometimes all we got were old rifles and rusty ships.

Churchill has undergone revisionist history in recent years, as people have poked holes in the legend, rightly pointed out the mistakes (and there were a lot of them and some of them were pretty catastrophic) and highlighted the less salubrious elements of his character: the racism, the suggestion that poison gas be used on Arabs, his order to soldiers to fire on strikers if needs be. And yet in spite of this Johnson argues, forcefully yet eloquently, that Churchill was pivotal to defeating the Nazis, even if by the end of the conflict the net contribution of British and commonwealth forces was far less than the contributions of the Russians and Americans. Remember though, in 1940 the Americans wanted no part in another European conflict, and the Russians had signed a pact with Hitler to carve up Poland. If Britain, chivvied on by Churchill, hadn’t stood her ground in 1940 it’s probable the world would look very different today.

Though Johnson argues there’s far more to Churchill than his wartime exploits, and from his schooldays to his time as a reporter on the front lines, his long political career (which, remember saw this supposed bastion of conservatism switch sides to the Liberals for a long period) his highs and lows in both wars, his appetite for alcohol and smoking, his ability to function on barely any sleep and dictate ream after ream of notes to his army of secretaries. This was the man who sparked the initial idea for the tank, this is the man who coined the term “The Iron Curtain”, one of the few to see what a threat the jumped up corporal in charge of Germany might be, and what threat the Soviet bloc might pose.

Johnson skips back and forth along Churchill’s timeline, essaying a boy deemed something of a runt eager to impress his cold father, and reliant for some of his early opportunities on the, ahem, dalliances of his American mother.

What becomes apparent is that Churchill was something of a one off, and that his one of a kind recklessness could be as much a negative as a positive. He was certainly no coward, and was one of the early pioneers of flying. In fact it’s incredible to see how many times Churchill placed himself in harm’s way, how many brushes with death he had—charging the enemy in Africa, car crashes, plane crashes. In fact several of his flying tutors died in crashes not long after tutoring him. He had to be talked out of stationing himself on a ship in the channel during the D-Day landings to boot!

And lest we forget, for all that his Dardanelles campaign was a horrendous disaster, this is a man who, in the aftermath of that defeat, tromped off to the front line to sit in a trench. How many modern politicians would do that? Of course his trench had a few more luxuries on tap than the average one, but still, he was close to battle and could have quite easily been killed (apparently he and Hitler were likely very close to one another at one point.)

We all have a vision of Boris Johnson in our heads, the clownish buffoon, the man who can get away with things few other politicians can, and it’s clear he seems Churchill as a hero figure, and also as a kindred spirit (and I think it’s a safe bet that Boris would like to emulate Churchill in several ways, most notably in relation to 10 Downing Street). What it’s often easy to forget about Boris is that he’s an intelligent man, and as it turns out an excellent writer. He’s erudite and amusing and his prose rattles along at a fair old pace. Yes at times there are a few golly gosh turns of phrase, and he used a number of words that had me reaching for the dictionary, but for the most part this is an engaging and accessible book and frankly more history should be like this.

His bias is pretty clear, he admires Churchill and it shows, but what history book or biography isn’t written from one perspective or another, and Johnson doesn’t try to blindside the reader, and even if he does at times defend some of Churchill’s excesses he never excludes them and he isn’t shy of admitting where the man got things horribly wrong.

What emerges is an interesting study of a man who really was unique. Was he brave or reckless, impetuous or decisive, arrogant or genius, moderniser or conservative, pro or anti-European…the truth that comes across from Johnson’s work is that Churchill was, at one time or another, all of these things, a mass of contradictions who could order soldiers to use force against strikers, yet who, along with Lloyd George set in motion the initial foundations of a welfare state, he was a man who preached about the Iron Curtain and the dangers of communism long before the cold war truly began yet who desperately wanted East and West to come together (this is the man who created the word summit in reference to a meeting of world leaders after all) a man who led his nation to the pinnacle of its greatness to the start of its decline as a major world power.

Whatever your view of Churchill it’s hard to imagine the history of the 20th Century without him. Heartily recommended.

  1. Boris is very good at playing the buffoon to gain popular appeal. I reckon if he ever gets the top job we’ll see a radically different Boris.

    Churchill is a fascinating character; as you say, deeply flawed, but the right man for that time – and possibly only that time.

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