Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts

We think we know Winston Churchill, yet are constantly surprised by him. He possessed an insatiable craving to place himself at the centre of events, and from the end of the Victorian era until the early years of the present Queen’s reign, succeeded triumphantly in doing so, often by embracing dangers which sober, prudent, cautious members of the British Establishment thought were better avoided.

To them, he often seemed like an irresponsible and disreputable adventurer. The condemnations of Churchill uttered at every stage of his career would alone be enough to make a book, and can be found scattered through this one. Lord Crawford, who sat in the same Cabinet as him from 1916-22, regarded him, Roberts tells us, as “‘a born cad’ of Indo-Mexican blood who was prone to lunacy”.

The materials on Churchill are so abundant, vivid and significant that to keep this volume to just under a thousand pages of text, while avoiding any impression of offering a mere digest, is a considerable achievement.

Such a feast of materials makes the book difficult not only to write but to review. My usual method, when reading a work of history, is to mark whatever strikes me as particularly good, and make a note of the page number inside the back cover.

This has the advantage that if one takes the book down 15 years later, one can immediately find whatever seemed best in it, including, perhaps, the half-remembered quotation one wants to verify. And it also shows, if one is writing a review, the passages to which one should at least try to allude when indicating the volume’s virtues.

After marking a few dozen pages of Roberts’ book, I gave up. There is too much to mark. Wherever one opens the volume, one finds fascinating things, which is partly thanks to Churchill for living a life so crowded with astonishing incidents and brilliant phrases, and partly thanks to Roberts for possessing the gifts of selection, verification and presentation needed to bring this life convincingly before us.

Roberts begins by observing that his subject was “a profoundly unusual person”, and later on remarks, while discussing how he “seized” the premiership in May 1940, that Churchill throughout his career had been

“thrusting in a way that was considered almost unBritish, and was deeply at odds with the cult of the inspired amateur that had been inculcated into so many of his contemporaries by which the prizes of life were meant to drop into one’s lap unbidden.”

In February 1940, when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Crawford, who had held such a low opinion of him, and had spread “every vicious rumour” about him, wrote in his diary:

“People say Churchill is tactless, that his judgments are erratic, that he flies off at a tangent, that he has a burning desire to trespass upon the domain of the naval strategist – all this may be more or less true but he remains the only figure in the Cabinet with the virtue of constant uncompromising aggressive quest of victory. He delivers the massive killing blow, encourages the country, inspires the fleet – the more I see and hear of him the more confident I am that he represents the party of complete…victory!”

So attitudes to Churchill were starting to change, though Conservative MPs were still, for the most part, loyal to Neville Chamberlain. And above all, the needs of the country changed, and were seen to change, when Hitler invaded Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium on the morning of Friday 10th May 1940. As Roberts says,

“Hitler’s attack turned Churchill’s perceived weaknesses into priceless assets almost overnight. His obvious interest in warfare was no longer warmongering, it was invaluable. His oratorical style, which many had derided as ham-acting, was sublime now that the situation matched his rhetoric. His obsession with the Empire would help to bind its peoples together as it came under unimaginable stress, and his chauvinism left him certain that, if they could get through the present crisis, they would prevail over the Germans. Even his inability to fit into any political party was invaluable in the leader of a government of national unity.”

One of Churchill’s many remarkable characteristics was his informality. No one was ever less inclined to follow a rule just because it was the rule. And his language too – though we think of him as a stately orator – could be wonderfully informal. In the passage in his memoirs where he says, having become Prime Minister on the evening of 10th May 1940, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and for this trial”, he goes on, a few lines later, “I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail”.

Roberts quotes those words in his introduction, and again on pages 514 and 517, and essentially he agrees with them. Churchill had expected since an early age that he would one day be called on save his country, and by now he knew “a good deal about it all”. Nor are most of the accusations made against him by ignorant and malevolent people confirmed by the historical record – a point which Roberts takes the trouble to make on Twitter as well as in these pages.

He finds, for example, only one occasion, in July 1944, during the 2,194 days of the Second World War, when Churchill abused his colleagues while actually drunk, during a “really ghastly Defence Committee meeting”, as Anthony Eden called it. “The unimaginable pressures of his job had clearly got to Churchill,” Roberts remarks.

But generally speaking, the greater the pressures, the more in his element Churchill was, the more inclined to be magnanimous to those who in his opinion had fallen below the level of events, and the more inclined to relieve the tension for himself and his colleagues by cracking jokes. Roberts ought not, however, to have written that Churchill “persistently deflected serious criticism by eliciting the laughter of the Commons, on both sides of the aisle.” We are not in Washington.

There was a liberality about this Liberal statesman, as he was for 20 years, and in some ways remained until the end of his life, for the Conservative Party was by no means dear to him, and it is odd to hear so many modern Conservatives holding him up as the greatest Conservative, when one considers that he was not really a party man at all.

The 78 illustrations in this book are admirably chosen, avoiding as they do those which have grown stale from overuse. The maps too are excellent, and remind one of Churchill’s amazingly energetic and perilous journeyings during the Second World War. The paper, however, is too thin, or at least too transparent, no doubt in an attempt to keep the volume within manageable proportions.

But Roberts could not have done this account better. His bumptiousness makes him appreciative of Churchill’s bumptiousness, and without getting maudlin or unhistorical, he realises, indeed feels, how appallingly neglected by his parents, Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, the young Winston felt.

After his father’s death, Churchill became closer to his mother, who did much to launch his career, which included an ardent desire, regardless of previous commitments, to head at a moment’s notice for the latest war and put himself in harm’s way: “In my interest she left no wire unpulled, no stone unturned, no cutlet uncooked.” The same might be said of Roberts. He too has left no stone unturned.

My one major reservation about this book has nothing to do with Roberts. Some of the reviewers who have praised it have implied that it is the only book about Churchill which one needs to get. That would be ridiculous. It would rule out his own works, including Great Contemporaries, a wonderful series of short essays on the statesmen he himself had known, and My Early Life: A Roving Commission, one of the most enjoyable autobiographies in the English language.

It would also exclude Winston Churchill as I knew him, by Violet Bonham Carter, of which Roberts makes good use, and Sebastian Haffner’s brilliantly penetrating and admirably brief biography, Churchill, for which Roberts has no time. Churchill was protean, he cannot be contained within the bounds of one book, however good, and our thinking about him will continue to develop.

One of the regrettable things about Churchill is that he takes so much of the light which should shine on other great figures in our history such as Pitt the Elder. Nor can one pretend that any final view has been, or perhaps ever will be, reached about the British Empire, which meant so much to Churchill, and over the liquidation of which he did not intend to preside. He proceeded to make a fight of it, but he failed. That story too could be written, and is contained within these pages.

It would be possible to argue that as well as being “profoundly unusual”, Churchill had the kind of magnified ordinariness which as Bagehot observed in his essay on Sir Robert Peel, a constitutional statesman requires. Churchill wept more easily than most Englishmen are inclined to do, but his tears were shed at the same things as the man in the street, which was why, in 1940, the grand seigneur could also become the democratic everyman.