Death or Greatness

30 May 2019
Death or Greatness - Featured image

This article by John Roskam first appeared in the April 2019 edition of the IPA Review.

According to The Guardian there are more than 1,000 biographies of Churchill. There’s probably not much more that’s new about Churchill’s life that’s going to be discovered. In a world before Facebook and Instagram, Churchill lived as public a life as anyone ever has. It’s said anyone who ever bumped into Churchill in the street wrote a book about it.

Without doubt Churchill had an undeniably interesting life in tumultuous times, but that doesn’t quite explain the fascination with him. Many people have had interesting lives. But of course Churchill was more than just interesting. Depending on your definition of ‘great’, he was either the greatest person of the 20th century, or the greatest Englishman in history, or both. And there’s much else about Churchill to hold our attention.

Roberts subtitled his work Walking with Destiny. From childhood Churchill felt himself destined for one of two destinies—an early death or greatness—and Roberts provides the details of many instances of how that first premonition nearly came true, not just in the wars in which Churchill participated, but as an 18-year-old playing a game of chase and jumping from a bridge into a tree and falling 30 feet. He was concussed for three days and bed-ridden for three months with a ruptured kidney. Famously, in 1931 in New York, Churchill forgot he was not in England and having looked the wrong way was knocked down by a car and nearly killed. He wrote: “I certainly thought quickly enough to achieve the idea, ‘I am going to be run down and probably killed’. Then came the blow. I felt it on my forehead and across the thighs. But beside the blow there was an impact, a shock, a concussion indescribably violent. It blotted out everything except thought.” Churchill’s sense of both destiny and fatalism served him well.

More than 50 years after his death the parallels between his career and now are obvious. It’s impossible to follow the hopelessness and mendacity of the British cabinet in the 1930s without thinking about how the Conservative Party is managing Brexit. The ‘Deep State’ is a vague term that has all sorts of conspiratorial overtones, but it does describe the attitude and approach of parts of the government and its associated entities, including the elected politicians themselves, public servants, and the media. In the 1930s the Deep State in Britain was absolutely committed to appeasing Hitler and was completely opposed to Churchill assuming any role of national leadership. To appease Hitler required Neville Chamberlain to be kept as prime minister. In the same way to avoid Brexit—or at least what the public thought they were voting for when they supported Brexit—required Theresa May to stay as prime minister. The British ruling class came to recognise what Nazism was much later than Churchill did (and the British public), which was something the British elites always resented about him.

Then there the debates about Churchill and history. For Australians, most notably there’s the question of responsibility for the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. Clement Attlee was one of the last British soldiers to be evacuated from Suvla Bay at Gallipoli in November 1915. Attlee—who later served in Churchill’s war cabinet and succeeded him as prime minister—believed Churchill’s Gallipoli strategy could have succeeded, which “gave him his lifelong admiration for Churchill as a military strategist which contributed enormously to their working relationship in the Second World War”.

At Gallipoli, 8,141 Australian, 21,882 British and 17,235 French soldiers were killed. As Roberts explains:

Churchill was by no means the sole person responsible for the decision to occupy Gallipoli, but he was the politician most closely associated with the catastrophe and he did allow himself to become scapegoat-in-chief. This was partly because it was indeed his original plan—however many other people had initially supported it—but also because he insisted on seeing it through to the end, long after others had distanced themselves from it. In the Second World War his bulldog obstinacy proved invaluable; during the Gallipoli campaign it left him appallingly vulnerable.

Churchill also learned it was sometimes better to cut one’s losses than to massively increase the stakes. So in Norway, Dakar, Greece and elsewhere—and especially with RAF fighter squadrons over France in mid-May 1940—he vigilantly guarded against mission-creep, and disengaged without allowing considerations of prestige to suck him into deeper military commitments.

As Roberts explains, this attitude influenced his approach to Australia’s contribution in the Second World War. Churchill believed Australia’s commitment should be to help defeat Germany as a priority, and he was frustrated when Australians argued their primary concern was to defend themselves against attack from the Japanese.

The best assessment of what may be the one thousand and first published biography of Churchill, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, has already been provided in The New York Times. In a review at the end of last year it was described as “the best one-volume biography of Churchill yet written”. Roberts was praised for telling his story “with great authority and not a little panache” and for writing elegantly, “with enjoyable flashes of tartness, and is in complete command of both his sources and the vast historiography”. All of these descriptions can be endorsed completely. Roberts’ Churchill is more than a thousand pages long, but he never loses the thread of his story. While the reader might know what’s coming next in Churchill’s life, Roberts’ willingness to comment and offer not-uncritical judgments keeps the book engaging and sometimes quite enthralling.

The New York Times’ review did, however, make one strange comment that reveals a great deal about modern-day history writing. The reviewer, Richard Aldous, the author of the excellent Reagan and Thatcher, said:

Some may find Roberts’ emphasis on politics and war old-fashioned, indistinguishable, say, from the approach taken almost half a century ago by Henry Pelling. He [Roberts] is out of step with much of the best British history being written today, where the likes of Dominic Sandbrook, Or Rosenboim and John Bew have successfully blended cultural and intellectual history with the study of high politics.

(Pelling was a British historian who pioneered writing the history of modern elections and political parties.)

If you’re not interested in politics and war you probably won’t be reading a biography of Winston Churchill. And while some people, of course, might not have an interest in politics and war and might find works of history such as Dominic Sandbrook’s A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties more to their taste, without an understanding of politics and war it’s difficult to understand anything about the 20th century.

In fact it’s the way Roberts handles politics and war that makes Churchill: Walking with Destiny so successful. And it isn’t just the day-to-day politics that he manages so masterfully. Roberts does a brilliant job at communicating just how disliked Churchill was by his colleagues, both when he was a Conservative, and a Liberal, and again as a Conservative. It wasn’t only that Churchill ‘ratted’ by leaving the political party he represented in parliament, not once, but twice. Roberts is correct when he writes that because Churchill was willing to sacrifice his political career on matters of principle it meant Churchill was often immune to the blandishments of preferment and promotion. Churchill’s opponents had such a difficult time managing him precisely because he wasn’t an opportunist. This political selflessness—together with his communication skills and his phenomenal capacity for hard work—meant even if Churchill wasn’t ever to reach the pinnacle of British politics, he always was going to be there or thereabouts, which indeed he was almost from the moment of entering parliament at the age of 25.

Roberts takes Churchill’s political philosophy seriously. Although Churchill introduced a number of important social welfare measures, his contributions to public policy reform were minimal. This became very apparent after he became prime minister again in 1951. But what Churchill did have was a belief in democracy, freedom, and in laws made by the people, which goes to explain his opposition to fascism and communism. For Churchill, parliamentary democracy was the great legacy of the of his attitude to race. This might be partly true, but as Roberts carefully explains by far the most important explanation for Churchill’s belief in empire was because it promoted freedom and what we’d today call ‘human rights’.

Churchill wasn’t the first person to quote the line “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. This and other comments from Churchill—such as “democratic governments drift along the line of least resistance, taking short views, paying their way with sops and doles, and smoothing their path with pleasant-sounding platitudes”—have sometimes been taken as Churchill having lost faith in democracy. Rather, what Churchill was criticising was democracy as it was so often practised whereby elites and experts acted in their own interests rather than the interests of the community. As Roberts explains:

In fact the opposite was true; he was calling for a reinvigoration of democracy, and arguing that “It is therefore above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own … Without an equal growth of Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love, Science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable”.

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