Piers Brendon is a former Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Churchill’s Shadow: An Astonishing Life and a Dangerous Legacy, The Bodley Head, 2021, 624 pages, £25.
This book literally fell to pieces in my hands. As I turned the pages they came adrift from the binding, and I ended up with a clutch of loose leaves between hard covers. I soon found, too, that the text is marred by a rash of small errors, insignificant in themselves but together casting doubt on the author’s reliability. Geoffrey Wheatcroft repeatedly says, for example, that the official biography of Winston Churchill, begun by his son and completed by Martin Gilbert, consists of seven volumes instead of eight. More perturbing is the general tone of the book. Wheatcroft maintains that his appraisal of Churchill’s career and influence is “alternative” rather than hostile. But this claim is at once thrown into doubt by his endorsement of H. G. Wells’s opinion that the ideal biographer is “a conscientious enemy.”
In fact, Churchill’s Shadow is the most substantial attack on Churchill’s reputation since John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory (1993). It is cogent, trenchant, witty, and well written. It strikes hard and shrewd blows not only against Churchill but against his champions, notably Andrew Roberts, whose mature Churchill: Walking with Destiny sometimes contradicts his youthful Eminent Churchillians. Wheatcroft also excoriates political leaders (among them Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Boris Johnson) for wrapping themselves in Churchill’s mantle and exploiting his legacy for their own purposes. Most pertinently, Wheatcroft shows how false analogies about appeasement have proliferated and how the mantra of Munich is almost always invoked inappropriately or opportunistically. When Britain’s former Foreign Secretary David Owen warned Tony Blair about the dangers of invading Iraq, Blair responded: “Saddam is Hitler. You are Chamberlain. I am Churchill.”
Wheatcroft’s book is not an unrelenting assault on its subject. He pays tribute to Churchill’s immense and “endlessly fascinating” personality. He acknowledges not only the great statesman’s fortitude but his “flashes of real brilliance.” Hawks who insist on enrolling Churchill in their flock are reminded of Churchill’s assertion that “appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble.” Wheatcroft mounts a sophisticated justification of Churchill against right-wing historians such as Maurice Cowling, who condemned his “war of moral indignation.” And Wheatcroft salutes 1940 as “the one irredeemably sublime moment in [Churchill’s] life, when he saved his country and saved freedom.”
Wheatcroft’s central allegation, though, is that this was the only time that Churchill did get things right. Otherwise he was demonstrably wrong, “like a stopped clock.” To illustrate the point Wheatcroft reproduces Low’s famous cartoon in which a check-suited Churchill, armed with a shotgun, is surrounded by dead cats tagged with such labels as “Antwerp Blunder,” “Gallipoli Mistake,” and “Russian Bungle.” As this suggests, the catalogue of errors attributed to Churchill is all too familiar. It was endlessly rehearsed by detractors during his lifetime, and as early as 1970 it was authoritatively detailed in Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900–1939 by Robert Rhodes James, who cited episodes such as Churchill’s return to the gold standard at too high a rate, his provocative anti-union conduct during the General Strike, his diehard resistance to Indian independence, and his ill-judged support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis. So there is nothing very original on Wheatcroft’s charge sheet, which relies entirely on secondary sources. These are wide-ranging but some he found hard to check during the pandemic, which explains sporadic misquotations.
Wheatcroft does, though, inject a fresh element of personal animus into the arraignment of Churchill, whom he regards as a rash, rude, racist, brutal, drunken, unprincipled adventurer. He mocks Churchill’s own “soft underbelly.” While acknowledging that Churchill condemned “the disgusting butchery of the natives” in Natal, he suggests, quite illegitimately, that Churchill would have “minded less” about Germany’s “near-genocidal massacre” of the Hereros in Namibia. In the same vein, Wheatcroft implies that Churchill’s eugenicist views, though held by many progressive people at the time, accorded with the “perverted science of National Socialism, beginning with sterilisation and proceeding to extermination.” All told, Churchill the benign, chivalrous democrat is eclipsed in Wheatcroft’s account by Churchill the would-be dictator.
Similarly, minimal space is devoted to Churchill’s achievements. Wheatcroft disparages his writing, ignoring, say, his feat of producing in his early twenties a work as accomplished as The River War. He skates over the social reforms Churchill initiated as a Liberal MP when President of the Board of Trade. Yet the welfare state probably owed more to Churchill than to Lloyd George. Wheatcroft admits that Churchill was an enlightened Home Secretary but offers no details; he could have said that Churchill insisted on prisoners being supplied with “food for the mind,” whereas over a century later a Tory minister banned them from receiving books. Churchill is chiefly represented as a warmonger in 1914 rather than the man who ensured that the fleet was ready and the hero whose “courage and gallant spirit and genius for war,” as Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey put it, “inspires us all.”
The same one-sided pattern is repeated throughout this volume. It is an indictment rather than an assessment. It lacks balance, emphasising Churchill’s defects at the expense of his qualities. Critics often assume that Churchill is a monolith rather than a man who, like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes. Wheatcroft is not that naïve. But he does fail to see Churchill in the round and to portray adequately a character as multi-faceted as a mirror ball. His book makes some telling points and advances some powerful arguments, which students of Churchill’s career would do well to take seriously. But the moment the case he sets out is subjected to close examination it begins, like my copy of his book, to come apart at the seams.
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