Churchill, like Disraeli, turned his political struggles into a romance. To read his writings and speeches is to be invited into a special world of technicolor spendour, the stage for an epic with the author as hero. But ought we to suspend disbelief? A division of opinion has long existed between romantics, who feel themselves seduced and compelled by Churchill’s vision of events, and the sceptics who treat it as a fabrication. Until 1940 the sceptics outnumbered the romantics by about a hundred to one. Politicians and civil servants generally recognised a kind of erratic genius in Churchill, but his rhetoric was dismissed as the transparent disguise of an adventurer on the make. If he spoke of the future of Liberalism, it would be assumed that he was plotting with Lloyd George. If he condemned the state of British defences, it would be argued that he was trying to overthrow Baldwin.
The Second World War enabled Churchill to turn the tables on the sceptics. Having imposed his authority as a war leader, he proceeded to impose the Churchillian interpretation of events, enshrined in a six-volume war history. Here was Churchill the prophet, foreseeing the menace from Nazi Germany to which others had been blind. Here was Churchill the strategic impresario and architect of the Allied victory. It was a great story with all the elements of a successful myth, and for a long time it carried all before it. But since the Sixties a new generation of historians has begun to revive the sceptical tradition. As research has gone forward, interpretations have gone back – back to Churchill as he was understood in 1914 or 1939. Most British historians no longer see the world through Churchill’s eyes.
The one great exception is Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer since the death of Randolph Churchill in 1968. Gilbert is constructing a latterday Blenheim in scholarship instead of stone, a monument that will endure whatever the critics say of it. And only a very dim or disordered critic could fail to recognise the achievement. Three massive volumes of the biography proper, with seven companion volumes comprising just about every notable document by or about the great man: altogether a revolution in knowledge, and one that has knocked on the head many a misconception. No longer can it be said, for instance, that Churchill forced the Asquith Cabinet into Gallipoli or the Baldwin Cabinet into the General Strike. Gilbert has been setting the record straight, but what do we make of the evidence?
At first acquaintance, Gilbert’s work is painstakingly neutral and self-effacing. The facts, impeccably turned out, form ranks and march along in strict chronological tempo. The author does no more, apparently, than open a window from which we can see the procession go by. But this, of course, is passionate and committed biography. For while the views of Churchill’s critics are documented with apparent impartiality, the cumulative critique they provide is never allowed to form the basis of interpretation. We are inside Churchill looking out. Even though Gilbert corrects and supersedes Churchill’s own historical writing on points of fact, the character and purpose of the man unfold through the romance of his own words. And sometimes Gilbert’s Churchill is a decided improvement on Winston’s.
In the past Mr Gilbert rarely spelt out his ideas. But in 1980 he gave a series of lectures, now published as a book, on the question: ‘Did Churchill have a political philosophy?’ Stimulating on Churchill, they are indispensable on Mr Gilbert. None but a biographer writing straight from the heart would strive to prove that his subject was so consistently on the side of the angels, meaning in this context humanitarian liberalism. Admittedly Churchill can be found expressing many a noble sentiment in his speeches, but the connection between rhetoric and decisions is not obvious. Hatred of tyranny was a constant and no doubt sincere theme of his oratory, but no particular conclusion followed. War against the Bolsheviks, co-existence with the Bolsheviks, alliance with the Bolsheviks, each could be justified in turn as the best policy for the defence of freedom. A creative and volatile individual, Churchill is not easily saddled with a philosophy. So strongly does Mr Gilbert emphasise his belief in a moderate centre party that I began to wonder whether Churchill was the spiritual ancestor of the SDP: until I recalled that Churchill merely swung through the centre from time to time, like a pendulum. And while it is a useful corrective to emphasise Churchill’s sense of the pity and horror of war for individuals, it is misleading to omit his glorification of war as the triumph and test of nations. There were indeed recurrent motifs in Churchill’s life, and Mr Gilbert is persuasive enough on social reform or Zionism as points of reference. But even the most ingenious selection of quotations fails to conjure a consistent liberal from a devious Whig, soaked in the pride of family, class and Empire.
The romantic Winston rides again in The Wilderness Years, a television tie-in published last autumn to coincide with the drama series from Southern TV. For the screen version the scriptwriters invented a great deal, whereas Mr Gilbert’s account, a distillation from the official life, sticks to documented fact. Yet book and series alike were a quixotic return to the historical ideas of a quarter of a century ago. Once upon a time the history of the Thirties used to be discussed as though the issues were black and white. Churchill, having prophesied the danger from Hitler and called for measures to resist him, was right. The appeasers, having failed to rearm or call a halt to aggression, were wrong. Time, detachment, and a generation of research, have altered the perspective. If not vindicated, Baldwin, Chamberlain and company are better understood as the leaders of a pacific, liberal and declining nation which could not reasonably expect to defeat Hitler, or to survive another war as a great power. Churchill, too, has to be reconstructed as he appeared at the time in the eyes of respectable opinion: the Enoch Powell of the day. Alas, biographers often confine their sympathy to a single individual and his allies, and so it is here. The wealth of research is flawed by a determination to prosecute ‘the guilty men’ on Churchill’s behalf. But if the function of historians is to put leaders on trial, Churchill will have to be arraigned on similar charges. Why in the Edwardian period, did he make speeches denying the likelihood of conflict with Germany, and opposing extra expenditure on the Armed Forces? Why, in the Second World War, was he prepared to sacrifice areas of Eastern Europe to Stalin, and trust in his word, when he had denounced parallel dealings with Hitler? Moral indignation is one of the great temptations of contemporary history but we would all do better to sign a pledge of abstinence.
The advantage of seeing a conflict from both sides is evident in François Kersaudy’s Churchill and de Gaulle. Among the motives inspiring Churchill in the Thirties was an irrational faith in the Napoleonic qualities of the French Army. With the fall of France in 1940 some remnant of this faith was transferred to the lofty and courageous person of General de Gaulle. It was Churchill who proclaimed de Gaulle as leader of the Free French, and built him up as a world-famous name. But, as is well-known, the creation got out of hand. As de Gaulle grew in confidence, he claimed to speak as the sole representative of France, to be treated as an equal among allies, and to be recognised as the ruler of his liberated homeland. Churchill, however, treated the Free French as a useful auxiliary force subordinate to British strategy. Politically he refused to identify de Gaulle with France, and sided with Roosevelt in working to detach elements from Vichy. Since Churchill and de Gaulle alike were born fighters with a baronial appetite for conflict, the result was a series of earth-shattering quarrels, often set off by trivialities.
It was a bright idea to trace the rise and fall of the relationship. M Kersaudy has enriched the printed sources by working through 20 archives in six countries, but the materials are assembled with artistry in a highly readable book. Anecdotes which deserve to be true are included in spite of a whiff of brandy and cigars, and this is fair enough. The clash of two sacred egos, each aflame with a vision of history, but alert to put the boot in, does raise diplomatic history to a high pitch of irony and humour. It would be a shame to miss the scene in which de Gaulle complained to Churchill that he was a prisoner and would soon be interned on the Isle of Man. ‘Non, mon Général,’ Churchill replied, ‘pour vous, très distingue, toujours la Tower of London’. The contrast of personalities and policies is very well done as a narrative, but the missing ingredient is a thorough analysis of the factors at work. Can it be true, as M. Kersaudy remarks at one point, that 90 per cent of the difficulty arose from rivalries in the Middle East? How far were these wartime rows the falling-out of two prima donnas, and how far the continuation of traditional animosities between London and Paris?
Churchill crops up again, and again and again, in the diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart. This is odd in a way, for there is only one occasion recorded here when he met him. Bruce Lockhart, however, was often in the company of people who had themselves just met the great man, and having earned part of his living through journalism, carefully laid in a stock of Churchill stories as an investment. Not necessarily a guide to the truth, his diaries are nevertheless a marvellous tape-recording of the rumours, speculations and fears of wartime Whitehall. Politicians, generals and diplomats blow off steam in the best clubs and hotels, intrigues fester and alcohol flows. As director of political warfare, Bruce Lockhart was responsible for overt propaganda to Europe in the shape of pamphlets and broadcasts. But the content of political warfare remains obscure, blotted out by the scheming and backbiting of rival officials. ‘The Battle of Whitehall,’ Bruce Lockhart noted in 1940, ‘is far more important to civil servants than the Battle of Britain.’
The diaries after 1945, the sad story of a writer’s battle against drink and debt, are mainly of interest for Bruce Lockhart’s many conversations with Anthony Eden. The recurrent topic was the aging Churchill’s refusal to step down as leader of the Opposition. It is clearer than ever that if the Conservatives could have quietly dumped the old man between l945 and 1955 they would have done so. Extra proof is to be discovered in the course of Anthony Seldon’s history of the first post-war Conservative government,a hotbed of antiChurchill cabals almost from the start. It has often been argued that Churchill was exhausted by the end of the war and ought to have retired gracefully, but Mr Seldon believes that he was justified in carrying on and made an impressive peacetime premier.
A government is a house of many mansions and Mr Seldon’s study is the first to anatomise a modern British administration department by department, assessing the policy-makers as well as the policies. Fortunately for him, the PRO files were still closed – otherwise the avalanche might have buried him – and he relied for inside information upon private papers and over two hundred interviews, the majority with civil servants. One can sense at times the weight of senior Establishment opinion pressing down on a young man’s shoulders, but he seems to have welcomed the burden or at any rate made good use of it. The first important lesson is the high level of continuity with the previous Labour regime. ‘Some Treasury officials,’ he writes, ‘feel that less change occurred in 1951 than at any other changeover of administrations in the thirty years following the end of the Second World War.’ The second great insight is the pervasive influence of top civil servants like Maud at the Ministry of Health, Newsam at the Home Office, or Plowden and Hall at the Treasury.
Immersed in the question of who was who at Agriculture and Fisheries, one begins to wonder where Churchill fits in, and why Mr Seldon feels he was such an admirable prime minister. True, he set the tone by his initial appointments, but time and again one finds a note to the effect that in this or that area of policy he was conspicuous by his absence. By comparison with the war years, Churchill drove nothing through. Mr Seldon comes to the rescue with the claim that no other postwar prime minister possessed his immense capacity ‘to inspire and unite’. A more candid way of putting it would be to say that Britain was so tranquil and stuffy a society in the early Fifties that only the figurehead of a wise old man was needed.
There was no necessity for conflict, for choice, for a radical Cabinet to impose fresh priorities. Churchill made the speeches appropriate to a golden age when politics were almost extinct and civil servants ran the country. Perhaps he qualifies as an ancestor of the SDP after all.