Personality in Politics

1 August 2015
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Winston Churchill, so Boris Johnson claims in his latest book, is ‘the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces … one man can make all the difference.’

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History is, at its core, founded on the idea that personality does matter. The course of history is not solely dictated by impersonal, unstoppable forces; individuals can and do influence history. Johnson makes an entertaining case that Churchill has had more impact on the course of history than most, and in more ways than is commonly known.

Known for his outlandish persona, Boris Johnson is currently the Mayor of London and has been described as one of the most popular politicians in the United Kingdom. Educated at Oxford University in Classics, he has previously worked as a journalist and the author of popular histories —including Johnson’s Life of London and The Dream of Rome.

Like his earlier books, The Churchill Factor is not an academic history by any account. Nor is it supposed to be an academic history—as Johnson notes in the opening, ‘as a student of Churchill I sit at the feet of Martin Gilbert, Andrew Roberts, Max Hastings, Richard Toye and many others’. Equally, this should not be considered a full account of Churchill’s life. If you are seeking a narrative biography of Churchill which chronicles his childhood, early political career, rise to the Prime Ministership, and his role in the Second World War and beyond, you had better look elsewhere. The Churchill Factor is more of a collection of essays or opinion pieces on different aspects of Churchill’s character, arranged in a broadly chronological order.

So far as a collection of opinion pieces about Churchill goes, however, the book is an informative and enjoyable read. Like most of Johnson’s previous books, The Churchill Factor is decidedly lighthearted, written in a jovial style and speckled with witticisms.

For example, Johnson, noting Churchill’s description of Bolsheviks as ‘baboons’, openly wonders what Churchill had against baboons. He comments that Churchill had ‘stamina, power, sheer mental grunt —as Jeremy Clarkson might put it’, and likens him to ‘some burly and hungover butler from the set of Downtown Abbey’.

Elsewhere, he notes that ‘[the Tories] think of [Churchill] as the people of Parma think of formaggio parmigiano. He is their biggest cheese.’

Inadequacies and light-hearted tone aside, The Churchill Factor also succeeds in making a number of potent points. The first chapter opens in 28 May 1940—the point at which Churchill, so Johnson contends, had the greatest impact on the course of history.

The Second World War was at a desperate low point for the Allies, with the situation in France becoming hopeless. Churchill —having been Prime Minister for less than three weeks —was under pressure from many of his colleagues, particularly Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, to enter into negotiations with Hitler and pull out of the War. After prolonged meetings, negotiations, and an impassioned speech, Churchill convinced his colleagues to continue fighting.

In his second chapter, ‘The Non-Churchill Universe’, Johnson enters the realm of speculation and considers what might have happened if Churchill had not have continued the war or had not lived to become Prime Minister.

Had Halifax got his way —so Johnson argues —Britain would have pulled out of the Second World War in 1940. He contends that the Nazis would have been free to invade the Soviet Union without risking the western front, the Americans would never have entered the war, Hitler would have dominated Europe unchallenged, and the world of the twenty-first century would be a very different and very grim place.

The remainder of the book explores various facets of Churchill’s personality and influence. These include the influence of his father Randolph, his obsession with taking risks such as flying, his marriage to Clementine, and his writing habits.

Clearly reflecting his background in Classics, in chapter seven Johnson also writes at length about Churchill’s usage of the English language, including his usage of chiasmus, or the reversal of causes (‘Now is not the end\it is not even the beginning of the end\But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’) and his preferencing of ‘short homely words’ of Anglo-Saxon origin over words with Latin and Greek roots in his speeches.

Other chapters explore the particular areas of Churchill’s legacy including his promotion of tanks in the First World War, the welfare state, the US entry into the Second World War, shaping the Middle East, and in Cold War Europe.

The book is certainly not devoid of some careless errors —for example, in chapter eleven Johnson dismissively notes that Croatia was ruled by ‘some Ustasha creep or another’ in the postwar period. Naturally, Johnson also has a tendency to over-exaggerate Churchill’s achievements in some areas. Of this, Johnson’s account of Churchill’s role in the development of the tanks is perhaps the most obvious example.

Moreover, as both a Eurosceptic and an admirer of Churchill, Johnson had to tread very carefully when dealing with Churchill’s views on the European Union. There are many who claim that Churchill was a proponent of ‘European unity’.

As many of his critics have pointed out, there is also little doubt that Boris Johnson—being a politician himself—has written this book to benefit his own political career. He repeatedly denies that he can be compared to Churchill, noting in his introduction ‘I am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoes’.

Yet there are some unmistakeable similarities between himself and the portrait that he paints of Churchill.

Both are notorious for their eccentric personalities and public personae; both were paid very well for their journalistic efforts and were widely popular with readers; both managed to write volumes alongside politics.

Churchill was possibly Britain’s most famous Prime Minister, and though Boris Johnson has hitherto not admitted it, there are rumours that he has ambitions to become Prime Minister himself. Does Boris think of himself as a bit of a Churchill? He might well. Perhaps only time will tell.

For all this, the essential argument still stands. In politics and in history, personality does matter, and Churchill’s life is a testament to this.

The Churchill Factor makes an entertaining read to anyone interested in Winston Churchill and the role of the individual in history.

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