The enigma of Winston Churchill

More than the sum of his parts: The enigma of Winston Churchill

Allen, Brooke

“THE FIRST TIME YOU MEET WINSTON,” Winston Churchill’s friend Lady Lytton once remarked, “you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” It was a perspicacious comment, and goes some way toward explaining the paradox of a man who was overweeningly ambitious, bumptious, slapdash, reckless, and a monster of egotism, yet who has been generally judged as the greatest British statesman of the twentieth century, possibly of all the nation’s history. Can it be that these qualities, though accounted to be character flaws in ordinary times, turn into strengths at moments of extreme crisis? Can only a natural high-wire artist have guided Britain through a situation as perilous as the one it faced in 1940?

A senior civil servant who had to cope with the obstreperous young Churchill as a junior minister during the first years of the century expressed the unease he widely inspired. “He is most tiresome to deal with and will I fear give trouble-as his father did-in any position to which he may be called. The restless energy, uncontrollable desire for notoriety and the lack of moral perception make him an anxiety indeed.” Churchill did not, as it would turn out, lack moral perception, but the first two shots definitely hit home. The unedifying memory of Lord Randolph Churchill lingered on throughout his son’s youth and left its taint: on the surface, father and son were not dissimilar, and it would take many years for the son’s more substantial talents and character to make themselves evident. He was long suspected, and not without reason, of latent Bonapartism, and, later in his career, of hoping to become an English Mussolini. But that turned out to be a misjudgment: as Simon Schama has stated, Churchill had a sense of the ridiculous and, most importantly, a “fundamental decency” that precluded monomania. This is true, and it is the key to the man’s consummately strange career.1

As Roy Jenkins has commented in his fascinating new biography of Churchill,2

There are lines of attack to which some politicians, whether or not they are “guilty as charged,” are peculiarly vulnerable because they seem to fit in with their general character and behaviour. Thus a charge of trickiness in Lloyd George or indolence in Baldwin or indiscretion in Hugh Dalton clung to them like a spot of grease on a pale suit. And there was always sufficient of the “galloping major” about Churchill to make it easy to assume that he was acting with over-boisterous irresponsibility, power having gone to his head.

The biographer of Asquith, Baldwin, Attlee and, most recently and notably, of Gladstone, Jenkins is a self-professed Asquithian liberal with politics somewhat to the left of Churchill’s. He was urged to write his newest book by Andrew Adonis, who told him that “After Gladstone, there is one direction, and only one direction to go which will not be an anti-climax, and that is Churchill.” At the time, Jenkins believed Gladstone to be the greater man, but in the course of writing the biography he changed his mind: “I now put Churchill,” he sums up, “with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.”

Roy Jenkins possesses qualifications for the task that are nearly unique. His father was parliamentary private secretary to Attlee during the Second World War and then a junior minister in Churchill’s coalition government. Jenkins himself entered the House of Commons as a Labour member in 1948, and remained there for some forty years, an impressive span, although not as impressive as Churchill’s own run of nearly sixty-four. Like Churchill, he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary. He knew Churchill only very slightly (although, as he points out, whether or not this has any bearing on the potential quality of a biography is uncertain) but, as he says, “throughout the war and its aftermath he was an imminent presence in my life, and in that of my contemporaries.” For the first half of his life, Jenkins inhabited Churchill’s world. No doubt he will be the last of Churchill’s biographers to have done so.

With a figure of Churchill’s stature, large-scale revisionism is inevitable. Even his supreme achievement, the resistance to Hitler and the leadership of his nation from 1940 to 1945, are of course subject to attack. John Charmley and Alan Clark have both argued that, in terms of Realpolitik, Churchill would have served his country better by coming to some sort of terms with Germany. Others, less tendentious and more serious, have expressed certain reservations about Churchill’s military vision. Some have accused him of allowing Stalin too free a hand in Eastern Europe; some have criticized his lukewarm support of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in France. According to Noel Annan, within limitations a Churchill admirer, “the best that can be said of him is that he knew how to avoid defeat: but not how to win.” 3

Jenkins exonerates Churchill of these charges, at least up to a point. If Churchill had been doubtful about Overlord, no one can deny that once the decision had been made he threw himself into the preparations and was only with difficulty dissuaded-by the tactful intervention of King George VI-from joining the invasion troops at sea on D-day. And when dealing with the United States and the Soviet Union as the nascent superpowers became increasingly involved in the war effort and increasingly powerful vis-a-vis a declining Britain, it was Churchill, and not his revisionist critics, who truly grasped the essence of Realpolitik. He was made very uneasy by the speed with which the Russian troops were overrunning Eastern and Central Europe, and did his best to urge Roosevelt and the Americans to preempt them. As by far the least powerful of the Big Three-in reality, as we now know, the Big Two-and– a-Half-at Yalta, he was in no position to resist Stalin’s designs on Poland. His strong suits were persuasion, moral authority, and the personal touch, and these he played with as much finesse as was possible under the circumstances. His much-vaunted special relationship with Roosevelt, for example, was only achieved by dint of considerable effort: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt,” he later recalled. “With both Roosevelt and Stalin he was dealing with spiders at the centres of most formidable webs,” Jenkins reminds us. “Furthermore, if there were difficult crunches he did not have the cold immovability of a Stalin or a de Gaulle. He tended to break rather than to maintain silences…. If he did not get his way he was not, at the highest level, very good at sulking ominously.”

Churchill’s genius, and it was nothing less, lay in grasping the importance of symbolic speech and action. Jenkins, nineteen years old in 1940, recollects that Churchill produced “a euphoria of irrational belief in ultimate victory”-the key word being, of course, “irrational.” It was only thanks to the uniquely flexible British parliamentary system that the wrong man for the job, Neville Chamberlain, was eased out, and the right one put in, against the better judgment of nearly everyone who counted. It is important to remember that Churchill “was not the choice of the King. He was not the choice of the Whitehall establishment, which reacted with varying degrees of dismay to the prospect of his alleged wildness. And he was not the choice of the majority party in the House of Commons. In an inchoate way, however, he was, or quickly became, the accepted champion of the nation in the eyes of both public and press.”

Churchill’s oratory, so florid that under any other circumstances it would have been considered impossibly over the top, is rightly seen as having been instrumental in reconstructing and boosting British morale, but whenever it was feasible he matched actions to words. His decision, after the fall of France, to destroy the French fleet at Oran in order to keep it out of German hands, must have been a difficult one– 1,299 French sailors were killed, and the incident precipitated years of French resentment-but it showed, once and for all, that Britain meant business. He also created a climate in which it was simply unacceptable to bring up the possibility (or, as many saw it, the probability) of ultimate surrender: Lord Halifax’s subtle defeatism, for example, cost him his place in the Cabinet. In the summer of 1940 Churchill circulated a rather extraordinary -minute to his ministers and senior officials:

In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimizing the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination.

Churchill’s infectiously ebullient personality had served his government and his country well in the First World War as well as the Second. Asquith, with whom he was later to fall out, was grateful for his presence during the terrible stresses of 1914: “I can’t help being fond of him, he is so resourceful and undismayed, two of the qualities I like best.” And when Lloyd George assumed the leadership of the coalition government in 1916 he responded happily to Churchill’s perpetual buoyancy: as Lloyd George’s mistress, Frances Stevenson, remarked, the Prime Minister wanted and found, in Churchill, “someone who will cheer him up and help & encourage him, & who will not be continually coming to him with a long face and telling him that everything is going wrong.” It was this tonic effect he had on others, as well as his obvious but frequently misused gifts, that kept him in government office throughout most of World War I despite the personal hostility of many power brokers and the disgrace he incurred by the botched Gallipoli invasion.

While he clearly reveres Churchill, Jenkins never descends to the level of hero worship: his tone is gently ironic; he always sees the funny side of his subject. “I have become increasingly convinced that great men have strong elements of comicality in them,” he remarks. “This was certainly true of Gladstone and Churchill, and, as an offstage example, it was also true of General de Gaulle.” In Churchill’s case, the comic aspects were especially marked, because, unlike de Gaulle, he himself acknowledged them and understood their value. Churchill never exactly struck a pose, but he did play the colorful role of Winston Churchill to the hilt.

As Beatrice Webb once remarked, he appeared to be “more of the American speculator than the English aristocrat” (one of his grandfathers was the New York financial buccaneer Leonard Jerome, the other the seventh Duke of Marlborough). He made no apologies for his rackety lifestyle, his liking for louche and even sleazy companions, his lavish consumption of cigars, brandy and champagne. Physically almost a caricature, he accentuated his baby-like form with sartorial oddities: as Jenkins says, “he did not despise attention to presentation as opposed to substance” and was frequently “accoutred in one of his ‘funny’ hats and never without a cigar.” And what other great world leader can one imagine forcing his entourage-which included some famously fastidious characters-to join him in singing old music-hall numbers, as Churchill did on a brief working holiday in Canada?

The strength Jenkins brings to his task is his extensive practical knowledge of twentieth-century parliamentary politics, and he has played to this strength. As a subject, Churchill offers plenty of scope for psychobiography: his distant, wistful relations with his self-involved parents; his frequent bouts of paralyzing depression; his apparently happy but semi-detached marriage; his sexual probity, so rare in politicians; his relationships with his children, especially with the rumbustious Randolph: all these tantalizing matters are treated extremely briefly. Where Jenkins really delivers the goods is in his portrayal of Churchill as a great player in the British parliamentary system.

Churchill was always the opportunist, as testified by his veering, zigzagging course through the House of Commons. As early as 1897, when he was still in the army and had yet to stand for Parliament, he could foresee a breach between his own developing views and the official line of the Conservative party to which he assumed he would belong: “I am a Liberal in all but name,” he wrote. “My views excite the pious horror of the Mess. Were it not for Home Rule-to which I will never consent-I would enter Parliament as a Liberal. As it is-Tory Democracy will have to be the standard under which I shall range myself.” His experiences in the Boer War, where his sentiments developed in a surprisingly pro-Boer direction, reinforced these rebellious urges; and although he did indeed enter Parliament as a Conservative in 1901, he only lasted three years in the party, dramatically crossing the floor to the Liberal side to take his seat beside his new political mentor and patron, Lloyd George. “Churchill brought no experience of government [to the Liberals],” Jenkins writes, “but he brought a famous name, an ebullient personality and a sense, not entirely complimentary, that he was unlikely to join a losing side.”

The Liberal party was indeed in the ascendant-Jenkins compares its position at the time Churchill joined it with Tony Blair’s Labour party in 1995-C6-and Churchill threw himself into the fray with his customary gusto, radicalizing his politics in lockstep with Lloyd George’s and attacking his former Conservative comrades in a most aggressive fashion. The Conservatives, he raged hyperbolically in a 1905 speech, were “a party of great vested interests, banded together in a formidable confederation, corruption at home, aggression to cover it up abroad, the trickery of tariff jingles, the tyranny of a party machine, sentiment by the bucketful, patriotism by the imperial pint, the open hand at the public exchequer, the open door at the public house, dear food for the million, cheap labour for the millionaire.” The stormy rhetoric that would move the world in 1940 was already being honed.

Churchill soon became a junior minister (“As for Mr. Churchill he is almost more of a cad in office than he was in opposition,” commented King Edward VII to his son, the future George V) and rapidly rose in the party ranks, becoming under-secretary for the colonies, then President of the Board of Trade, then Home Secretary, and finally in 1911, First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he held until his temporary downfall after the Dardanelles catastrophe. Politically he followed Lloyd George’s lead as a social reforming New Liberal, pioneering programs in organized labor, unemployment insurance, and other areas. These achievements were real enough, although Jenkins, as ever, sees the funny side: “He always spoke of the deprivation which he was eager to relieve in a peculiarly de haut en bas way,” he remarks, and notes that “He naturally had a lively sympathy for the underdog, particularly against the middle-dog, provided, and it was quite a big proviso, that his own position as a top-dog was unchallenged.”

After Gallipoli Churchill suffered ungracefully out of office until Lloyd George’s landslide 1916 victory, when he was brought back in as Minister of Munitions. He performed well in this job, fostering the newly-created RAF and presiding over demobilization, but he was once again disgraced in a futile and unpopular attempt to intervene militarily against the Russian Bolsheviks. His career was by now wholly dependent on that of Lloyd George, who appointed him to the War Office in 1919 and the Colonial Office in 1921, and when Lloyd George fell in 1922, Churchill fell with him.

The Labour party had been destroyed in 1916 along with Asquith, its leader, and the Conservatives feared, despised, and would, at least for the moment, have nothing to do with Churchill. Churchill’s rightward political move at this moment may have been sincere-and Jenkins believes that it was-but it was also convenient. He was allowed back into the Tory fold with some trepidation, contesting a seat in 1924 not as a Conservative in name but as a “Constitutionalist”-“whatever that meant,” Jenkins comments dryly. Arthur Balfour unexpectedly rewarded him by appointing him Chancellor of the Exchequer, a higher office than he had ever received under the Liberals or the Lloyd George coalition.

With the return of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1929, Churchill was out again, and would not hold high office until he was nearly sixty-five. During these years he blundered down some blind alleys that all but paralyzed his political career, most notably his unwillingness to countenance self-government and Dominion status for India, a stand that necessarily allied him with the far-right wing of the Conservatives and alienated him from the more progressive Tories– Eden, Macmillan, Duff Cooper and others-who would later become his valued partners in the fight against appeasement. The Indian issue, Jenkins writes, led him into “a miasma of impotent isolation.” There is a good case to be made, and many have made it, that Churchill would never have become Prime Minister, might never again have held any high office, without the galvanizing necessity of war.

Jenkins believes that after so many years of party politicking Churchill began, in the late 1930s, to transcend party politics, and this is an important point. The fight against appeasement, and eventually the fight to the death against Hitler, demanded a laying aside of party and class loyalties. For the first time Churchill, by now on the brink of old age, shed the “galloping major” image and became, oddly for someone of ducal provenance in what was quickly turning into the Age of the Common Man, a folk hero. “Churchill, who was the most clearly upperclass Prime Minister since the end of Balfour’s premiership thirty-five years before, was also the one whose authority most stemmed from popular acclaim.”

And despite his die-hard Tory image in the postwar years of opposition (1945-51) and office (1951-5)-and in spite of his use of party-driven electioneering tactics-Churchill continued to pursue policies that transcended party interests. He was keenly aware of the terrible dangers of the atomic age and did his best to warn the world. He was prescient, too, in recognizing the importance of a United Europe as a necessity to future peacekeeping and a healthy balance of power, and didn’t mind stating his belief, firm although in many circles unpopular, that a strong Germany must be an integral part of the new Europe. And he was openly distressed when his old allies the Democrats lost the White House in 1952: he mistrusted the new president, Eisenhower, as potentially trigger-happy and certainly a cold fish, and instinctively hated John Foster Dulles with his “great slab of a face.” Still, he managed to keep the Anglo-American alliance alive against any number of odds, while his successor, Eden, effectively destroyed it within eighteen months of taking office.

“Mercurial!” wrote Neville Chamberlain about Churchill in 1925. “A much abused word, but it is the literal description of his temperament.” It is one of the great ironies of political history that a man who was mercurial to the point of being unreliable proved in the crunch to be more reliable than anyone else. It is very easy in retrospect, certainly with our own advantage, sixty-odd years later, of having witnessed a grotesque array of tyrants in every corner of the globe, to recognize that the great blight of the twentieth century was ideologically- and nationalistically-driven tyranny. It was not so obvious between 1935 and 1940 when, as Jenkins reminds us, “deep-seated hopes needed some time to prepare themselves for death. And the climate of the time was profoundly anti-war and semi-pacifist.” How many of us-decent, moral, idealistic people-would, under the same circumstances, have been appeasers? More, certainly, than we would care to admit.

Churchill’s position was so quickly and resoundingly proved right, and his parliamentary foes were so soon won over to his side in the months after the fall of France, that with characteristic generosity and lack of vengefulness he chose to pretend that there had never been any serious disagreements in the first place. In his war memoirs, which were published between 1948 and 1954, he claimed that “Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda. It was taken for granted and as a matter of course by these men of all parties in the State, and we were much too busy to waste time upon such unreal, academic issues.”

It was, as Jenkins says, “the most breathtakingly bland piece of misinformation to appear in all those six volumes.”

1 The New York Review of Books, 2/28/02.

2 CHURCHILL: A Biography, by Roy Jenkins. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $40.00.

3 From The New York Review of Books, 4/8/93.

BROOKE ALLEN is a frequent contributor to The New Criterion and The

New York Times Book Review. She lives in New York City. ..

Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2002

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