July 24, 2015

Finest Hour 166, Winter 2015

Page 24


The most widely noted new book about Churchill published in 2014 was that written by the ebullient Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. A robust and unapologetically pro-Churchill study by a major politician with an eye to the future calls for our full attention.  So we have departed with tradition and commissioned three different reviews: one each from a Canadian, American and British perspective. While our reviewers do not hesitate to hold Mayor Johnson to account on matters of fact and interpretation, they all admire his gusto. We are pleased that the mayor will be our keynote speaker at the 32nd International Churchill Conference, to be held 26—29 May 2015.

Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, London: Hodder & Sroughton, 2014, 408 pages. £25, member price $22.35

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Churchill FactorEnjoyed  the Read

A book by Boris Johnson, like almost any book about Winston Churchill, is bound to be interesting. The combination of this author with this subject cannot fail to be a good read—nor does it. While usually unwise and presumptuous to impute motives to an author, it seems a reasonable surmise that Johnson, currently the Mayor of London, wishes also to occupy some of the great offices held by Churchill and hopes this book will help propel him along that path. There is nothing wrong with that, and, as Johnson explains, that was sometimes Churchill’s motive in writing.

The Churchill literature is so vast it would be hard to break new ground and what Boris (disclosure: we are friends and former colleagues at the Spectator and Daily Telegraph) has done is a combination of anecdotal accumulation and authentication and analyses of some of the techniques and qualities that contributed to Churchill’s long, eventful and varied career.

In his portrayal of Churchill the adventurer and writer, Boris is fairly unexceptionable, but in his description of the statesman he strays into attributions of infallibility. And in playing the British nationalist card, he takes what any serious historian would have to regard as liberties. There is some mind-reading: we do not know that if Hitler had set Guderian’s armoured divisions on Dunkirk it would have reduced the embarkation point much more quickly and bagged a much larger number of prisoners. We do not know that French premier Paul Reynaud sought German armistice terms in order to try to be accompanied by Britain into the ignominy of defeat. Reynaud and de Gaulle denied it; Churchill did not allege it; and no source is cited.

It was true that Lord Halifax was Neville Chamberlain’s choice to succeed him, but Chamberlain had also been shopping Halifax’s position around to waverers in his last-ditch attempt to keep the premiership. Churchill’s Plan Catherine, to send two battleships into the Baltic without air cover, like his espousal of aid to Finland against Stalin, are passed over without a word. Both would have been disastrous.

There is no doubt that Churchill got mixed reviews from many of his parliamentary party colleagues when he became prime minister, but he was vested with practically unlimited power; the country and Empire placed their bets on him. That Winston Churchill was a great orator is not at issue, but that he was “the most glorious political speaker of any age” is open to debate. Nothing would have been lost in allowing room for competition: Gladstone, Lloyd George, Lincoln, FDR. Boris concedes only Martin Luther King as a rival.

The case made for Churchill’s immense physical and moral courage is elegant and indisputable. The ability to write good prose after a long day and a boozy dinner was conspicuous but not confined to Churchill; Boris and I both know many people who can do this, and we have done it ourselves.

Yet, while Boris knocks down a lot of minor naysayers (he quotes a fatuous complaint from Walpole’s biographer Jack Plumb), his reflections on the grumpy Evelyn Waugh are unfounded, as is his speculation about why Hitler declined to meet Churchill in 1932.

What the book does do is provide a mine of useful vignettes illustrating that Churchill had style, loved luxury and though often rude, did possess megalopsychia (greatness of soul). He was a romantic, unlike his great contemporary Roosevelt, who, although Boris swaddles himself in the Union flag and declines to recognize it, was co-saviour of the West and Churchill’s rival as the century’s greatest statesman.

The sections on Churchill’s marriage and children put that contentious and sometimes tragic family in a soft light, just as Churchill’s depressive tendencies are glossed over as part of the normal “cycle,” but that is just as well. That Churchill’s mother had as many as 200 lovers isn’t strictly relevant (or bad) if true, and is a wild surmise. The same goes for speculation in several areas about Churchill’s father.

Some points made are dubious. Churchill was a reforming Home Secretary but not a reforming Chancellor. He was a median Liberal and a pink Tory, but he does not rank supremely as a reformer. Some facts are wrong.  For example, there were not 37 million people killed in World War I or 30 million in World War II but 16 million and 70 million respectively. Hood and Prince of Wales were not sister-ships, and Belfast is not a battle-cruiser with 12-inch guns but a cruiser with six-inch guns anchored still near Tower Bridge. These are not important errors, but neither do they build confidence. And the author takes a little too much pleasure in Churchill’s supposed practice of exposing himself before his staff and even the president of the United States.

The assessment of blame is fair for Gallipoli, Chanak, and the bungled intervention in Russia in 1919, while India, the abdication, and the return to the gold standard are downplayed. But other misjudgments are omitted, including devotion to the Italian campaign, tenacious efforts to defer D-Day and duck the invasion of Southern France altogether, the signing over to Stalin of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and—against Roosevelt’s wishes—the prior agreement of German occupation zones.

In assessing Churchill’s war role, Boris almost ignores Roosevelt, who said it would be impossible to coexist with Hitler starting in 1933. He writes of the contribution of “Russian manpower and American money,” though at the end of the European war there were on the Western front just 14 British divisions alongside 72 American. Worse, Boris dives head first into the Yalta myth claiming Roosevelt gave Stalin Eastern Europe. The Yalta myth is a gigantic fraud confected by various disgruntled factions. Boris’s understanding of Lend-Lease, which Churchill called the “most unsordid act in history,” is deeply flawed and confuses the details with the post-war loan from the US and Canada.

Boris stretches things to credit Churchill with “winning the Cold War,” founding Israel, and creating a united Europe while retaining his British anti-federalist credentials. Certainly, Churchill deserves credit as an early Cold Warrior and supporter of European cooperation and a Jewish state. We owe the survival and victory of democracy and the free market system jointly to Churchill and Roosevelt; there is gratitude, credit, and admiration to share for both without short-changing one at the expense of the other. But I always identify with a biographer championing his subject and have done it myself. I like and admire Boris and wish him well, revere his subject, and enjoyed the read.

Conrad Black is the former owner of the London Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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