Churchill: Walk­ing with Des­tiny by An­drew Roberts

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - ASH Smyth

A S H SMYTH Churchill: Walk­ing with Des­tiny By An­drew Roberts Allen Lane £35 Oldie price £21.30 inc p&p

My favourite item of Churchilliana oc­curs in The Gath­er­ing Storm (fea­tur­ing Al­bert Finney and, in this scene, Ron­nie Barker). Churchill is dic­tat­ing to his sec­re­tary when the but­ler char­ac­ter dis­turbs him. Churchill tries to kick him out; but Mr Inches stands his ground.

Churchill: ‘You are verry rrrude to me, Inches.’ Inches: ‘Well, you’re very rude to me, sir!’ Churchill: ‘Yesh’ – [beat] – ‘but I am a Gr­reat Man.’

It’s a com­mon­place that if the Sec­ond World War had not oc­curred, Churchill would not have been the Great Man we know to­day. But his achieve­ments up un­til that point could still have filled hun­dreds of books – not least the ones he wrote him­self – and it is easy to lose track of just how much he packed in to his nine full decades, six of which he spent as­sid­u­ously in pub­lic of­fice.

Born at Blen­heim, the home of his all-con­quer­ing ducal fore­bear, Marl­bor­ough, he set out con­sciously, and when young, to be an heroic English leader – and by ex­ten­sion, as he might have thought, a world leader. ‘It will fall to me to save the cap­i­tal and save the Em­pire,’ he said at 16. The first of lit­er­ally a thou­sand bi­ogra­phies of him ap­peared when he was 31.

In­her­it­ing his fa­ther’s ‘Tory Demo­crat’ ideals, he un­der­stood no­blesse obliged him to im­prove life for the na­tion, not just the class he’d had the for­tune to be born into. As an MP, he ploughed his own fur­row (once stand­ing as an ‘in­de­pen­dent anti-so­cial­ist’) and was in­creas­ingly re­spected for his pre­pared­ness to be un­pop­u­lar. Serv­ing in the bet­ter part of a dozen Cab­i­net po­si­tions, he was a friend to the work­ing man, and so­cially he en­joyed peo­ple with di­ver­gent char­ac­ters and back­grounds.

He was per­son­ally cour­te­ous even to his par­lia­men­tary en­e­mies, and gen­er­ous to a fault; but he had lit­tle time for ‘form’. He could main­tain un­fal­ter­ing con­fi­dence in Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism while speak­ing ve­he­mently against the Am­rit­sar mas­sacre in 1919.

But for all Churchill’s well-earned rep­u­ta­tion as a mav­er­ick, An­drew Roberts cred­its him with a re­mark­able po­lit­i­cal con­sis­tency over 60 years, be­liev­ing that the par­ties he aban­doned and re­joined changed around him. When the time came, this colos­sal in­di­vid­u­al­ist born in a palace ma­jes­ti­cally turned down a duke­dom in his own right, be­cause he ‘wished to die in the House of Com­mons’.

Along­side this sto­ried par­lia­men­tary ca­reer, he fought in sev­eral wars, trav­elled hun­dreds of thou­sands of miles, wrote more than Shake­speare and Charles Dick­ens put to­gether, won a No­bel Prize, and out­sold da Vinci at the Royal Academy – in a life stream­lined by never hav­ing had to wash a dish (although he did build one or two brick walls). It’s easy to for­get that he was 65 when he be­came Prime Min­is­ter. The Sec­ond World War was his apoth­e­o­sis, and the thou­sand-plus pages of Roberts’s book are di­vided 50/50 be­fore and after his ac­ces­sion to the pre­mier­ship – which was cer­tainly how Churchill saw it: ‘All my past life had been but a prepa­ra­tion for this hour...’

Ac­claimed bi­og­ra­pher of, among oth­ers, Sal­is­bury, Hal­i­fax and Napoleon (a bust of whom would later sit on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell), Roberts is the man for Great Man his­tory. Churchill ben­e­fits from his dis­cov­ery of ‘new’ War Cab­i­net ac­counts, ac­cess to the pri­vate di­aries of Ge­orge VI, and some 40 other archives that have be­come avail­able in the past decade.

Against the in­ex­orable swell of des­tiny, he stresses Churchill’s fre­quent back-handed po­lit­i­cal good for­tune (his fa­ther’s early death, elec­tion de­feats and the Nazis’ ur­gency); his phys­i­cal luck (he was nearly killed on any num­ber of oc­ca­sions); and a long, long list of po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary mis­judge­ments from op­pos­ing the Suf­fragettes to re­fus­ing to leave No 10 after a stroke.

As Churchill told his beloved wife, Clem­mie, ‘I should have made noth­ing if I had not made mis­takes.’ Still, Roberts is at pains to note that when Churchill was wrong (Gal­lipoli, for in­stance), he was usu­ally wrong in quite il­lus­tri­ous com­pany. But he was right about the very big­gest pic­tures – Prus­sian mil­i­tarism, Nazism and com­mu­nism – and of­ten very much alone.

So re­sound­ingly his­tor­i­cal a fig­ure was Churchill that many mod­ern Bri­tish teenagers ap­par­ently be­lieve the ‘Great­est Bri­ton of All Time’ was, in fact, not real. Vis­count Alan­brooke, a stri­dent critic, re­ferred to Churchill as a ‘su­per­man’. And so syn­ony­mous was Churchill with the na­tion he had led that, when he died, de Gaulle averred, ‘Bri­tain is no longer a Great Power.’

Un­be­liev­ably, then, and rather sadly, Churchill’s own last words were ‘I’m so bored with it all’. The same, at least, can­not be said for Roberts’s read­ers.

The Fairy God­fa­ther

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.