Book review: Churchill, Walking With Destiny
Andrew Roberts' massive biography is now the best single volume on Churchill’s life.
Since Churchill’s death in 1965 there have been about 1,000 biographies of him and there were several hundred before the Second World War. Churchill was always sure that he was walking with destiny and from his early years believed he would help to save his Country. Writing a biography of Churchill is helped by the fact that his voluminous collection of papers – he kept everything from the significant to the mundane – are well kept in the archives at Churchill College Cambridge.
Until Andrew Roberts wrote this outstanding biography the best single volume was by Roy Jenkins published twenty years ago. The advantage that Jenkins had was he had occupied two of the great offices of state – Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary - as had Churchill, and understood the political pressures that were faced. His disadvantage was that his biography was based almost entirely on secondary sources.
Andrew Roberts biography of Churchill is massive – 1105 pages – and quite exhausting to carry and as a potential read. And yet this biography is now the best single volume on Churchill’s life. Roberts brings together a mass of primary sources including for the first time the diaries of King George VI and the correspondence of all the Churchill family.
Such a wealth of material might confound a biographer but Roberts is the master at combining serious assessment with wonderful anecdotes. Roberts admires Churchill but this is no hagiography. As he writes in his concluding chapter Churchill had a very long life and several careers – politics dominated but he had been a professional soldier and was a journalist and writer for most of his life.
Above all else Roberts shows that Churchill was physically brave and admired bravery in others. Always he advanced to the sound of the guns and at times it worried his staff during the Second World War. Although most of his political career he was a conservative, all too often it was in name only and some of his most creative ministerial work was done after becoming a liberal. Interestingly Roberts shows that whilst Churchill admired Lloyd George and saw him as a mentor, Lloyd George was critical of him and saw him as a rival.
Despite the many occasions when Churchill’s judgement was wrong – to pick just a few Gallipoli, employing the Black and Tans in Ireland, rejoining the Gold Standard, opposing dominion status for India and supporting King Edward VIII, Churchill was right on the three big issues – opposing the Kaiser’s Germany, Hitler and Nazism and the Soviet Union.
Although Churchill was seen by many contemporaries and historians as a reactionary and a xenophobe, Roberts shows that much of the criticism was wrong or exaggerated. Churchill was an innovator and supported those who offered solutions to new challenges. His support for social welfare before the First World War, his early interest in political and military intelligence, air power and the development of atomic weapons.
Roberts argues that Churchill learned from his mistakes, and when almost by chance he became Prime Minister in May 1940 he had nearly forty years of political and ministerial experience. In particular he learnt from seeing the arguments between politicians and the military in the First World War to make himself Minister of Defence and to ruthlessly chair the Chiefs of Staff.
Churchill was a passionate man and had many mood swings and would be reduced to tears at any opportunity. As well as being physically and morally courageous, Roberts shows that Churchill as a remarkable magnanimous statesman, both to defeated enemy nations and to personal opponents. Churchill literally stretched every day and his energy was amazing as can be seen from his published correspondence.
Roberts shows that throughout his life Churchill had a wide range of friends and acquaintances. He would mix work with leisure and was a well-known trencherman and imbiber of alcohol. Churchill’s rage could be alarming but he was often quick to apologise and had a good self-deprecating sense of humour. He and Clemmie had a loving relationship and although he tried to be a good father he was disappointed with his children apart from Mary.
Churchill was determined to be the great man of politics and he went out of his way to save his legacy by keeping his archives and by writing his history of two World Wars and hundreds of sketches of contemporaries. As Roberts concludes Churchill didn’t stop the German invasion in the Summer of 1940 but he certainly stopped a British government from making a humiliating peace.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.