The final volume of Martin Gilbert’s Life opens with Churchill celebrating the defeat of Germany in May 1945. He was 70 years old and completely exhausted. Two months later, he led his party to a shattering defeat at the general election. A lesser mortal would have taken the opportunity of retiring to the backbenches as an elder statesman. But Churchill fought back and carried on for another decade. After six frustrating years as leader of the Opposition, he returned to power as prime minister in 1951. Though disabled for a time by a severe stroke in July 1953, and harassed by colleagues who urged him to go, he struggled on until April 1955.
Martin Gilbert devotes 1128 pages to the last ten years of Churchill’s political career. But he never poses a question that will occur to many of his readers: should Churchill have quit in 1945? On the evidence provided here, I am inclined to think that he should.
It is most unlikely that Gilbert agrees. But as with his previous volumes, it is hard to tell exactly what his opinions are. The most self-effacing of all biographers, he has adopted the method of allowing the documents to speak for themselves. Since most of the documents are letters or speeches by the great man, or snatches from his conversation, Churchill’s perceptions dominate the narrative. If the Grand Old Man asserts that the Attlee Government has brought the country to the brink of economic ruin, or destroyed Britain’s position as a great power, there is no one to confirm or contradict him, or put his remarks in context. What Churchill says, goes.
There is something to be said for Gilbert’s method. At least he is not fabricating a Churchill from conjecture and selective quotation. To read Gilbert is to enjoy something very like direct access to the sources, in the company of an expert archivist. Nor must we lose sight of the fact that since taking over the biography from Randolph Churchill in 1968, Gilbert has performed a truly stupendous feat of scholarly endeavour. Now that the labour of a lifetime is complete, the scale of his achievement stands out more plainly than ever. But there is no escape from the fact that a great opportunity has been missed: the opportunity of placing Churchill in his full historical context. While examining British history through the eyes of Winston Churchill, Gilbert might also have examined Churchill in the perspective of British history.
In the final decade of his career, Churchill played two main roles, as leader of the Conservative Party, and as Prime Minister. A realistic assessment of his significance would have to begin by asking whether he played either of these parts successfully.
The best that can be said for Churchill as leader of the Conservative Party is that he exercised a vague but olympian authority and kept the show on the road. This was not too difficult. Though Churchill was frequently absent from the House of Commons, and generally neglected the Party’s affairs, most Conservatives would gladly have followed him over the edge of a cliff if he had asked them to. Besides, there were others to keep the machine working. But the Conservative problem after 1945 was obsolescence. In social and economic policy the Party was intellectually bankrupt, and it was overpopulated with the sons of Empire, for whom the colonies were more real than home.
Churchill contributed to the Party’s malaise. His strident anti-socialist rhetoric disguised the lack of a coherent alternative, and he did what he could to prevent constructive policy-making. When he returned to power in 1951 his real strategy, as distinct from his declared intention, was to conserve the Attlee inheritance. When Brendan Bracken urged him to look into the efficiency of the nationalised industries, he took no notice. Contrary to the instinct of many Conservatives, he cherished the trade unions as an estate of the realm, and appointed Walter Monckton as Minister of Labour with instructions to prevent strikes by accepting inflationary wage settlements. Of all this domestic history there is barely a whisper in Gilbert’s account. There is, indeed, no reference to the fact that Monckton ever was Minister of Labour.
In international affairs, Britain was a great power in sharp decline and a rethink was called for. No one was much good at this, so it would be wrong to single out Churchill for censure. But he was guilty of raising hopes that were later to be dashed. In Opposition he took the lead in the campaign for a united Europe, and gave the impression that under his leadership, Britain would participate. But once in office he made it plain that Britain would remain outside, locked into the ‘special relationship’ and the Empire.
As he was shortly to discover, neither Truman nor Eisenhower was prepared to underwrite the Empire. Churchill was obsessed with the preservation of Britain’s strategic and imperial role in Egypt, where there were 80,000 troops stationed in the Suez Canal Zone. He fought a long and belligerent rearguard action against withdrawal, and fondly imagined that the United States would step in to guarantee Britain’s position in the Middle East. The chief casualty was his browbeaten Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, who was trying to conduct an honourable retreat, but found himself opposed at every turn and accused of defeatism. Churchill might have expended his remaining energies in a more profitable cause.
In Gilbert’s biography, no such issues are raised. The technique of day-by-day narration simply rules out the discussion of historical problems. This is all the more irritating when one reflects that Gilbert probably knows more about Churchill than anybody else in the world. Even at the end of the book he makes only the most perfunctory effort to sum up the nature of the man, or his place in our past. Churchill, he writes, was a ‘noble spirit’, and the English owe him Liberty itself. On balance, this is preferable to the view that he was a drunken warmonger financed by the Jews. But it is the feeblest of conclusions all the same.
The odd thing is that Churchill was a historian and biographer whose work overflowed with argument and ideas. The conclusion to his life of Lord Randolph is a model of the way these things should be done. In 1946 he began work, with the aid of a research team, on his six-volume history of the Second World War. The influence of the book was colossal: a generation of readers took it to be the definitive history of the war from the British point of view. Much of its authority derived from the fact that Churchill decided to fling open the state archives and print thousands of very recent, top-secret documents. There has never been a revelation like it – but no one knew better than Churchill which documents to put in and which to leave out. His book was intended, as he said himself, to present his own case.
Gilbert tells us in great and fascinating detail how Churchill put the book together. Many passages were drafted by others but Churchill dictated the key sections and imposed his style overall. The whole exercise, the proceeds of which were to go to his children, was so lavishly funded that much of the profit must have been consumed in advance. The setting-up of a rough draft of the text in galley proofs, for the convenience of Churchill and his assistants in rewriting it, was a luxurious procedure in itself. There were several trips abroad when Churchill and his team, escaping from the austerity of post-war Britain, lived in selected villas, all at the expense of Time-Life. Churchill got through $60,000 to $70,000, and as the editor of Life put it in an internal memorandum, this was ‘very delicate money’. Who is to say that Churchill did not exploit the special relationship to his advantage?
The account of Churchill as an author at work is one of the high points of the book, but it would be interesting to know more about the ways in which Churchill manipulated the recent past. There are glimpses of the process. When Eisenhower was elected President in 1952, Churchill, who was once again Prime Minister, instructed that all critical references to Eisenhower be deleted from the next volume. He even wrote to Eisenhower to explain what he was doing. This is informative, but Gilbert knows more than he chooses to tell us here. If he were asked to explain exactly how Churchill shifted the scenery, he would no doubt be able to do so. Three or four pages on the subject would be enough to satisfy the curiosity of most readers. But silence reigns.
In the final reckoning the official biography is as good as the source materials on which it rests and these, as ever, are abundant. There is more dependence, this time, on familiar printed sources like the Colville and Moran diaries. There are long and excessive quotations from speeches, and too many courtesy letters from guests, hosts, fellow politicians and members of the royal family. On the positive side, there are marvellous letters from Churchill to his wife. Churchill is often supposed to have been the kind of public man who lives only for his career. But anyone who could spare the time from world affairs to build a large brick hen-house known as ‘Chickenham Palace’ had something of the common touch. Neither Hitler nor Stalin went in for this kind of thing. Whenever Churchill was parted from Clementine, he would write and give her all the latest news of the small, private world they shared. Yet the marriage rested on a tacit agreement that husband and wife ought not to see too much of one another. A hapless American businessman, quizzed at Chartwell about his private life, admitted to Churchill that he invariably had breakfast with his wife. ‘My, my!’ Churchill exclaimed. ‘My wife and I tried two or three times in the last forty years to have breakfast together, but it didn’t work.’ Winston and Clementine often holidayed apart and Clementine experienced frequent ill-health and anxiety. There was much to worry her. Randolph and his father quarrelled ferociously and Randolph was barred, for a time, from all social occasions of political significance. Sarah Churchill lived on an emotional high-wire as an actress, and Diana committed suicide in the last year of Churchill’s life. Only Mary, with her husband Christopher Soames, provided a sheet-anchor of stability.
Where Churchill’s public life is concerned, the principal theme of the book is his contribution to the politics of the Cold War. In this respect his record is well-known and, as far as I can see, the sources at Gilbert’s disposal do not modify it. If Gorbachev should ever release the Kremlin archives, Western historians will be able to investigate the other side of the Cold War with quite unpredictable consequences for the writing of history. One topic worth investigating will be Soviet perceptions of Churchill. Churchill may not have initiated the Cold War, but he was the first to proclaim its existence in his ‘iron curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946. Widely regarded at the time as alarmist and provocative, the speech now reads like a sober analysis of the true state of international relations, and an accurate prediction of the future course of events. His conception was one of appeasement from strength. The West should unite and re-arm, but always hold out to the Soviet Union the prospect of a conciliatory settlement, including mutual disarmament with strict verification procedures. Churchill was not always as controlled as this: in 1947-8 there were moments when he suggested privately that the United States should threaten the Russians with the atom bomb unless they behaved themselves. But he could switch rapidly from hawk to dove, especially when he imagined himself back at the Kremlin talking man to man with his old wartime comrade, Uncle Joe.
Churchill had great faith in his capacity to make international relations work by personal contact. Throughout his second premiership his great ambition was to break down the barriers of the Cold War with a summit conference. With the death of Stalin he redoubled his efforts in the optimistic belief that Soviet policy might be changing for the better. But for the fact that the ‘special relationship’ bound him to act in concert with the United States, he would have flown to Moscow at the first opportunity. When at last, after prolonged resistance from Eisenhower, Churchill succeeded in obtaining the President’s permission to approach the Russians, his Cabinet colleagues rebelled and put a stop to the plan. They protested that he had sent a message to Molotov without consulting the Cabinet: but the deeper fear was the prospect of a rift in Anglo-American relations. ‘Allies’, it seemed, might be as dangerous as ‘enemies’. Lord Salisbury argued that the United States was more likely than the Soviet Union to start a war. Hence the supreme object of British policy should be to maintain the unity of the Western alliance and thereby restrain the United States.
Churchill’s bid for disarmament and peace was not at all out of character. It took him back to the radicalism of his youth, when he had preached against the dangers of militarism and the wastefulness of defence expenditure. The Late Victorian strand in his outlook was coupled now with a haunting vision of the consequences of nuclear war. Churchill believed that nuclear weapons were qualitatively different from all previous forms of armament. In this he differed from Eisenhower, who argued that the atomic bomb was merely the latest and most advanced form of conventional weapon. Churchill saw further ahead to the prospect of global annihilation, and he also envisaged the alternative: a world in which the resources previously devoted to the arms race were channelled into the raising of living standards for the masses. It may be that Churchill’s hopes of a breakthrough in East-West relations were quite unrealistic in the circumstances. But if we ever do stumble into the world of peace and prosperity he envisaged, his grand design will take its place, after all, as a prophetic scheme.
Churchill’s bid for peace was an old man’s attempt to round off his career with a triumph, and, perhaps, to refute once and for all the charge that he was by nature a warmonger. When the plan miscarried there was nothing left for him but resignation and death. He was 80 and almost senile by the time he relinquished office in April 1955. But there were still ten more years to endure. For a while, he occupied himself by revising for publication his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, the first draft of which had been completed in 1939. He travelled and painted, read or reread the classics of English literature and caught up at last with music, listening intently to Mozart on the gramophone. But gradually, as his mind and body failed him, he was ceasing to be Winston Churchill at all. To read of his slow decline into a helpless, suffering geriatric is so painful that his death, in January 1965, comes as a relief.
Churchill did not believe in life after death. His Christianity, like his conservatism, was a shallow affair and he was fundamentally a liberal humanist, confident that civilisation would prevail over barbarism, and the human race advance towards ‘broad, sunlit uplands’. As his friend Oliver Lyttelton remarked, ‘he saw man as a noble, not as a mean creature.’ Churchill was no cynic, and his romantic vision of himself and the world was of critical importance in his career. But how far did it correspond with the realities and requirements of the time?
Churchill after 1945 looked old and out of date. Aneurin Bevan likened him to ‘a dinosaur at a light engineering exhibition’. In many areas of practical politics he was undoubtedly out of touch and something of a liability. Yet in his myth-making capacity he was much more in harmony with the times than Bevan realised. His imperialism was obsolete, but his Whig-liberal convictions were a currency that retained its value. The governments of Britain and the United States still subscribe, ostensibly at least, to the values propagated by Churchill. The ‘special relationship’, with its ‘common heritage’ of freedom under the law, is still invoked. The Cold War is still interpreted as a contest between liberty and totalitarianism. ‘Set the people free’, the slogan Churchill employed as a battering-ram against the Attlee Government, is still the burden of the Conservative attack on socialism in the Eighties. A historical treatment of Churchill might in some ways cut him down to size, for he was seldom as important or as far-sighted as he made himself out to be. But in his Late Victorian liberalism he was the most eloquent exponent of Anglo-Saxon attitudes.