Winston Churchill was born on 30 November 1874 at Blenheim Palace. He was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, who from 1880-86 was the Conservative Party’s most brilliant speaker. Nobody could raise morale like Lord Randolph: he was astonishingly rude about Gladstone and attracted even larger crowds to public meetings.
Randy-Pandy, as he was known in the music halls, understood (in the words of the indispensable Lord Lexden) “that most Tories would rather laugh than think”. When the serious-minded wife of an Oxford don suggested to Lord Randolph that Conservative supporters needed some solid political education, he replied: “No, the only way is to amuse them: they’re quite incapable of anything else.” He set about ridiculing Gladstone’s hobby of cutting down trees: “The forest laments in order that Mr Gladstone may perspire, and full accounts of these proceedings are forwarded by special correspondents to every daily paper every recurring morning.”
The newspapers are just now full of articles about whether or not Boris Johnson resembles Winston Churchill, about whom he has written a book, The Churchill Factor. But perhaps the closer resemblance is with Lord Randolph, a Tory adventurer and orator with the gift of cheering people up.
At the end of 1886, Lord Randolph resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It appears that he expected to be able to remain in office on his own terms. But his impulsive gamble failed: his resignation was accepted, and his career was finished. In 1895, he died, possibly of syphilis, at the age of only 45.
It remained for his son to attain the enduring fame which had eluded him. Like his father, Winston Churchill took great risks in pursuit of glory. But he first spent, as a schoolboy, the most unhappy period of his life. He was insubordinate, and no good at Latin: in My Early Life, he has left a delightful account of his difficulties with that language. At Harrow, he long remained in the bottom class, where he had an excellent English teacher, Mr Somervell. The young Winston displayed flashes of ability: he won a prize for reciting 1200 lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and also won the Public Schools fencing championship. He resolved to go into the Army, and at the third attempt he passed into Sandhurst.
All this, one may observe in passing, is quite different to the young Boris Johnson, who was exceptionally good at Latin, had an outstanding career at Eton and won a classical scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. And yet the question is more convoluted than that. For as Sebastian Haffner points out, in one of the best and shortest biographies of Churchill ever written:
“Despite his years at Harrow, he never became a genuine product of the English public school system: not a man of understatement and arrogant self-effacement, not a cricketer, not a polished ‘English gentleman’, but rather a character from Shakespeare’s England, where public schools were still unknown.”
Johnson too did not become a genuine product of the public school system. David Cameron is that type, which is why he has trouble connecting with the wider public. Johnson, with his unabashed interest in sex, is a Chaucerian figure.
Churchill passed out eighth in his batch of 150 cadets at Sandhurst and joined a cavalry regiment. Late Victorian England was sunk in deepest peace:
“When I joined the 4th Hussars in January 1895 scarcely a captain, hardly ever a subaltern, could be found throughout Her Majesty’s forces who had seen even the smallest kind of war. Rarity in a desirable commodity is usually the cause of enhanced value; and there has never been a time when war service was held in so much esteem by the military authorities or was so ardently sought by officers of every rank. It was the swift road to promotion and advancement in every arm. It was the glittering gateway to distinction. It cast a glamour upon the fortunate possessor alike in the eyes of elderly gentlemen and young ladies.”
In these depressingly tranquil circumstances, Churchill demonstrated his courage, resourcefulness and competitiveness by arranging, within a short period of time, no fewer than four opportunities of getting himself killed. He came under fire in Cuba, to which he fixed up an expedition accompanying Spanish forces fighting rebels. He got himself to Malakand, north of Peshawar in what is now Pakistan, where as well as frequently coming under fire, he started writing dispatches which were published in the Daily Telegraph: a book followed.
Before long, a new campaign opened in the Sudan, and Churchill managed to get there too. He had to overcome increasing resistance, for not everyone in the Army liked this pushy young officer who pulled strings, got long periods of leave from his regiment and wrote articles for the newspapers in which he had the cheek to criticise his superiors. But in 1898, Churchill took part in the cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman, after which he blamed Kitchener, who was in command, for the pitiless treatment of the enemy wounded.
The following year, Churchill stood unsuccessfully for Parliament and set out for South Africa as a war correspondent, a status which did not inhibit him from playing a conspicuous and gallant role in the fighting when the armoured train on which he was riding was ambushed by the Boers. Churchill was taken prisoner, made a dramatic escape which made him famous, did some more fighting and in 1900 entered Parliament as Conservative MP for Oldham. He was 26 years old, and ten years later became the youngest Home Secretary since Robert Peel. For purposes of comparison, at the same age as Churchill became Home Secretary, Boris Johnson entered Parliament, and he has not yet held any ministerial post.
“Who are your political heroes?” When I put this question to ConHome interviewees, more often than not they reply Churchill and Thatcher. But Churchill is in some ways a curious answer for a Conservative, for in 1904 he joined the Liberals, only to rejoin the Conservatives 20 years later. As Johnson (a review copy of whose book has at this moment reached me through the post) writes of Churchill: “No one, before or since, has been so magnificently and unrepentantly disloyal.” Almost none of the material in this profile is drawn from Johnson’s book, which instead takes a series of penetrating stabs at about 20 different aspects of Churchill: the writing, the speeches, the relations with America and so on.
Throughout his life, Churchill felt no loyalty to party machines. In his life of Lord Randolph, he said his father’s appeal was to “an England of wise men who gaze without self-deception at the failings and follies of both political parties”. Soon after becoming an MP, Churchill expressed his desire for a “Government of the Middle – the party which shall be free at once from the sordid selfishness & callousness of Toryism on the one hand & the blind appetites of the Radical masses on the other”. Forty or fifty years later, as Prime Minister, he preferred leading a coalition to forming a single-party Government: even as a peacetime leader he tried and failed to bring in the Liberals.
His early ministerial career saw him energetically involved in social reform, but culminated, as First Lord of the Admiralty, in urgent work to prepare the Royal Navy for war with Germany. He was fascinated by new technology, and in 1913-14 took numerous flying lessons, at a time when this was a perilous thing to do: in vain his family and friends pleaded with him not to do it. He pushed for the attack on the Dardanelles in 1915, and when it failed, the Conservatives saw their chance to take revenge on him for his disloyalty, and forced him out of power. He responded by rejoining the Army, and was put in command of a battalion on the Western Front. But in 1917 he returned to the Government as Minister of Munitions.
Throughout his career, Churchill possessed a kind of irrepressibility: an ability to recover from blows which would have felled a less resilient figure. The same, at a much lower level, might be said of Johnson. He too is a larger than life figure, a journalist-politician who makes wonderful copy for other journalists. In the autumn of 2004, he suffered a series of setbacks, entertaining for newspaper readers but painful for those close to him, which culminated in his sacking by the then Conservative leader, Michael Howard, from the post of shadow arts minister. This meant he was in no position to challenge for the Tory leadership when Howard announced, after losing the 2005 general election, that he would himself be stepping down. Yet only three years later, in 2008, Johnson bounced back by getting himself elected Mayor of London.
From the confusions of the first half of the 1920s, when Labour took huge strides towards replacing the Liberals as one of the two parties of government, Churchill emerged, a few days before his 50th birthday, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Conservative government, the post he occupied from 1924-29. But then he was out again, and this time it seemed his exile might be permanent. He identified himself with unpopular causes: opposed moves towards self-government in India, championed Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, and above all warned of the growing danger posed by Nazi Germany, which could only be met by a resolute programme of rearmament. Most people rejoiced when at the end of September 1938 the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned from Munich claiming to have made peace with Hitler, albeit at the expense of Czechoslovakia. On 5th October 1938 Churchill told the Commons:
“The Prime Minister desires to see cordial relations between this country and Germany. There is no difficulty at all in having cordial relations with the German people. Our hearts go out to them. But they have no power…there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi Power, that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force. That Power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy. What I find unendurable is the sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure….And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
Hitler was triumphant, and told an audience at Munich:
“Mr Churchill may have an electorate of 15,000 or 20,000. I have one of 40,000,000. Once and for all we request to be spared from being spanked like a pupil by a governess.”
Johnson’s book does not say very much about these prescient warnings in the 1930s: it opens with the drama of late May 1940, when Churchill, having succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister, ensured that Britain fought on and put fresh spirit into the nation with immortal speeches. No book about Churchill can be expected to say everything: he is too protean a figure. But one may observe in passing that his loneliness during much of the 1930s, and his willingness to incur deep unpopularity by voicing warnings about the threat to British democracy which few democrats wished to hear, find as yet no parallel in Johnson’s career.
It is true that when Churchill uttered these warnings, he was older than Johnson, who is now 50. But in reviewing, however briefly, the whole sweep of Churchill’s career, one is struck by his invigorating willingness, from his schooldays onwards, to trust his own judgment. From his days as a young soldier, he enjoyed, he needed to take the risk of being out in front of everyone else, and being seen to be out in front, in danger of being cut down by a stray bullet, or indeed by a well-aimed shot.
At every phase of his career, he provoked criticism. At the general election of 1945 the British electorate threw him and the Conservatives out. The party and its grand seigneur of a leader were blamed for the unemployment of the 1930s, and were reckoned to have no programme for ameliorating the conditions in which the working class now lived. Churchill endured as leader, and returned to power in 1951, at the head of a party which accepted much of what Labour had done in the intervening years.
Johnson has protested, in interviews to accompany the publication of this book, that there is no comparison between himself and Churchill. He is right: but when did one have to be on the same level as one’s subject in order to be allowed to write about him? Churchill is a wonderful subject for a book, as he himself demonstrated, and as Johnson has now reminded us. Disraeli’s novels are in their way a hundred times more absurd than anything Johnson has written here, and look where he ended up*.
*Disraeli was 63 when he “climbed to the top of the greasy pole” and became Prime Minister. Churchill was 65.