July 24, 2015

Finest Hour 166, Winter 2015

Page 26

By Michael McMenamin

Like other Churchill scholars, I am frequently asked what one book I would recommend for someone who wants to learn more about Churchill. My answer long has been Martin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill. I will still recommend it, but I will also add a second choice because London Mayor Boris Johnson’s new book The Churchill Factor is as good an introduction to Churchill as there is. Unlike with Gilbert, though, my recommendation of Boris will come with a few caveats.

Ignore Boris, I will tell them, when he writes that Churchill was not “a man of principle; he was a glory-chasing, goal mouth-hanging opportunist” when he left the Tories and joined the Liberals in 1904 over the Tories’ abandonment of free trade (35). Ignore him when he writes “In the course of his forty-year parliamentary career Churchill had shown a complete contempt for any notion of political fidelity, let alone loyalty to the Tory Party” (34). Ignore him as well when he writes that Churchill “was fundamentally a Tory” (125). Ignore him on these points because he is simply wrong.

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Overweening ambition (which Churchill had in spades) and devotion to political principles are not mutually exclusive. Churchill certainly was not loyal to the Tories, but he was loyal to his political principles that were rooted in nineteenth century classical liberalism. Martin Gilbert in Churchill’s Political Philosophy (1981) and Paul Addison in Churchill on the Home Front (1992) reach a similar conclusion. Boris cites both in his bibliography, so he should know better.

Churchill thought of himself as a Liberal from an early age and that never really changed. In 1896, the 21-year-old Churchill wrote to his mother from India that “There are no lengths to which I would not go in opposing [the Tories] were I in the House of Commons. I am a Liberal in all but name. My views excite the pious horror of the Mess.”

Churchill still felt the same way about the Tories, the Liberal Party and his own politics in 1903. This was expressed in an unsent letter to a Tory friend: “I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory Party, their men, their words, their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them.”

By 1929 even his detractors privately conceded that his political principles had not changed. The protectionist MP Leo Amery wrote in his diary that year that “on essentials, [Churchill] still is where he was 25 years ago, in intellectual conviction at least. He just repeats the old phrases of 1903” (when Churchill had not yet bolted from the Tories).

One final caveat I would offer. Boris is somewhat ungallant when it comes to Churchill’s American mother Jennie. She certainly had lovers both before and after Lord Randolph’s death, but no modern biographer of Jennie would agree that she “attracted scores of lovers” (41), let alone the 200+ often carelessly cited by some.

Likewise, Boris offers no authority for his claim that Jennie “actually cheated [Churchill] of his £200,000 inheritance.” Anne Sebba wrote in her 2007 biography of Jennie that Lord Randolph’s bequest to both Winston and Jack was only “£75,971 gross …but was practically all swallowed by debts [including] £66,000 to the Rothschild Bank [Lord Randolph] having become increasingly dependent on it in the last decade of his life.”

In other words, Randolph left his sons next to nothing for their mother to “cheat” them of. Moreover, Churchill’s mother was instrumental in promoting his early writing career, with the assistance of former lovers with whom she remained on good terms.

By 1900, he could boast to her in a letter of being one of the few twenty-five year old men who had accumulated a fortune of £10,000 (US$1 million in current value). His mother helped him do that.

So, with these few caveats, The Churchill Factor really is a fun and mostly accurate take on Churchill’s adventure-filled life from a politician who has a genuine sense of humor and a way with words. Give it to friends, but give them the caveats as well. Churchill’s consistency in adhering to his political principles (about which he was quite sensitive) and his mother’s memory deserve no less.

Michael McMenamin writes the Finest Hour feature Action This Day and is a member of its editorial board. He is co-author with the late Curt Zoller of Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor (Enigma Books, 2009).

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