FOLLOWING its publication in England in February, John Charmley’s biography of Winston Churchill comes to the United States on a gale of argument which is sure to continue. What he has done is to challenge two of the most sacred postwar Anglo-American myths: that the war against Hitler was justified, and that Churchill was a prescient leader in peace, and a magnificent one in war. Mr. Charmley’s verdict is different: the war cost Britain its inheritance, and Churchill, while rhetorically magnificent, was as erratic in war as he had been in peace. The distinct impression is given that Churchill lost Britain the empire it was his life’s ambition to preserve. Triumph and tragedy, indeed.
Before commenting, it is worth considering the standpoint from which this judgment is made. By the late 1970s, when Mr. Charmley started writing history, the myth of Britain’s “finest hour” was tarnished. Britain had fallen from the heights to the near depths. The empire was gone, Britain was in hock to the IMF, trade unions seemed to run the country. By contrast, the defeated enemies, Germany and Japan were prospering mightily. No wonder the fruits of victory seemed bitter.
Mr. Charmley’s book is a classic conservative lament for vanished glory. When, in such a mood, one asks how this fall from grace came to pass, taking pot-shots at the icon becomes irresistible. Churchill’s leadership was inspiring, but barren. He was temperamentally unable to do what was needed to “conserve” Britain’s position. An empire which needed to be managed by foxes was led to destruction by a lion, who often resembled an enraged bull. He cared nothing for Mr. Charmley’s beloved Conservative Party, either, which he led to catastrophic defeat in 1945.
From the ashes of Churchill’s reputation rises a new hero: Neville Chamberlain, architect of appeasement. Chamberlain realized that a major war with Germany would destroy the British empire; therefore he tried to avoid it. By contrast the magnificent rhetorician Churchill thought that Britain could still conjure up the forces that had defeated the ambitions of Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon, and had won it ever expanding fame, trade, and empire. Trapped by his heroic view of the past, Churchill, unlike Chamberlain, took no account of Britain’s shrunken means. Hitler wanted to go east, not west. The implication of Mr. Charmley’s book is that Hitler should have been allowed to get on with it. But Churchill’s presence helped make that impossible. Chamberlain was forced to declare war; Churchill, at the Admiralty, and later as prime minister, made sure that the war would be fought to the death.
Most of this is nonsense. It is not even interesting nonsense. The myth of the lost peace, the peace which might have been won, which would have been won had Churchill not been there, has been peddled by appeasers and pessimists for a long time. It takes two to parley. The impossible and ghastly nature of Hitler’s ambitions, even if they fell well short of world domination, is ignored. But if we forget this particular aspect of Charmley’s book, we are left with something very impressive–the most absorbing study of Churchill’s character ever written, a brilliant picture of the fissures in twentieth-century British Conservatism, and an acute analysis of the dilemmas facing British foreign policy in Britain’s period of decline.
It is easy to understand how, before his apotheosis in 1940, Churchill had the reputation of being a reckless, reckless, brilliant, unsound, unreliable politician. He emerges from Mr. Charmley’s pages as an aristocratic adventurer, convinced that God had created him for noble deeds. The world, declared his lifelong friend and mentor Lord Birkenhead (F. E. Smith) in 1923, “continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords.” Mr. Charmley comments: “The impression thus created, that politics was about winning fame and glory, was a fairly exact definition of part of the credo which both Birkenhead and Churchill shared; they would both have said with Disraeli that ‘we are here for fame,’ and neither disdained the honorable sense of the title of ‘adventurer.'” Birkenhead’s views might have passed muster in 1890. They seemed completely archaic after the First World War had knocked the stuffing out of the British ruling class.
Despite his aristocratic birth, Churchill always seemed an outsider. The aristocracy held power in nineteenth-century England on condition that they looked and behaved like the middle classes. In politics they were expected to be suitably pessimistic, as indeed were Salisbury and Balfour. Churchill would have none of this. Faithful husband though he was, he never fitted into the society of “faithful husbands” which made up the new British ruling class. Lacking the discipline, or suffocation, of formal education, his mind remained as “vehement, high, and daring” as his attitude to life. Even in his youth, he was a hero out of time.
Churchill’s political credo remained that of the times on which, as a young man, he had set out to make his mark. He held fast to an uplifting view of Britain’s imperial mission, long after the problem had become how best to manage Britain’s imperial retreat. In domestic politics, he subscribed to his father’s nebulous creed of “Tory Democracy,” which sought to unite the aristocracy and working class at a time when Britain was becoming steadily more bourgeois. Nor did he disdain adventures of his own on the far-flung frontiers of empire. These postings were in aid of the young Winston’s tireless campaign of self-promotion. He was a child of the new political age, who understood the value of publicity, and the appeal of dramatic characters to the newly enfranchised masses. He usually managed to create the dramas his literary and political ambitions required. Fresh from his famous escape from the Boers, he entered Parliament in 1900 as a military hero. Forty years later another war brought him his apotheosis.
Churchill was never much concerned about party allegiance, but, unlike his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, he loved political office, and proved a powerful, hard-working political executive. Charmley emphasizes three weaknesses that are central to his account of Churchill’s wartime leadership: he was too egotistical to notice what others were saying; he could think of only one big thing at a time; and he always “magnified the chances of gaining what he wanted and minimized the costs.” In combination these failings help explain the genesis and collapse of the Dardanelles expedition in 1915, the fiasco that ended his “first political career’ and from which he took ten years to recover. They also explain why his colleagues so mistrusted his judgment. He reminded Violet Bonham Carter of a chauffeur who seems perfectly sane, and then suddenly drives you over the cliff. So powerful were his obsessions, so vehement his advocacy, that colleagues and officials would allow themselves to be overborne, only to find themselves landed in messes which they then had to dear up. Not surprisingly they often wondered whether the price they had to pay for Churchill’s brilliance and fertility was not too high.
As a politician Churchill was too erratic to gain a secure party following until 1940–and even then only in circumstances that made him a national, before he became a party, leader. He started as a Conservative, spent his middle years (1904-1922) as a Liberal, and ended up as leader of the Conservative Party. But it was not so much his switches of party that deprived him of a stable following, as his gyrations within the parties of his temporary choice. The Liberal credit he built up as Asquith’s social-reforming president of the Board of Trade was thrown away when, as first lord of the Admiralty, he outdid the Conservatives in demands for increased naval spending. Back in the Conservative Party in the 1920s, he once more threw away the credit for soundness he had built up as chancellor of the exchequer by taking up a “diehard” position on India in the 1930s. For most of his political life, Churchill was peculiarly dependent on the favor of the prime ministers he served: Asquith, Lloyd George, and Baldwin. He was generously employed, usually got his own way, gave loyalty in return, but, till 1939, was always expendable. The implication of all this is that by the late 1930s Churchill needed a war if he was going to secure the greatest “glittering prize”–the prime-ministership.
The best thing in Charmley’s book is the way he links up the debates over giving India self-government in the early 1930s to the question of how to deal with Hitler, and both to the “fault line” between appeasement and resistance running through the Conservative Party. The “sound,” “realistic” men such as Halifax and Simon who “advocated compromise over India … went on to apply the same mind-set to Hitler”; those, like Churchill and Lord Lloyd, who wanted to stand up to Hitler, also cried “no surrender” in imperial affairs. Both sides wanted to preserve British power; they disagreed only about the means. The appeasers thought they could do so by making concessions on inessentials while hanging on to the levers of power; the anti-appeasers, by “stopping the rot.” It was the difference between what Mr. Charmley calls “humdrum imperialism” and the “stout hearts and sharp swords” variety. Both approaches had their blindspots. Throwing sops to the Indian nationalists could no more appease them than throwing sops to Hitler could appease him. There was always an irreducible gap between what the appeasers were prepared to offer and what the objects of their appeasement wanted. On the other hand, Churchill grossly overestimated Britain’s power to keep imperial repression going in Asia while confronting Hitler in Europe. Because power was limited, he came to believe that will was a substitute for power, much as, in the end, Hitler did.
Mr. Charmley offers no escape from this dilemma. But he accepts too readily one pro-appeasement argument, much invoked by Neville Chamberlain and his followers: that more rearmament could not be “afforded.” This ignored the fact that the British economy, unlike the German, suffered from heavy unemployment throughout the 1930s. Full employment would have enabled Britain to produce more guns and more exports. This would have given British policymakers better choices in the late 1930s. With a stronger British economy, neither appeasement nor resistance would have seemed so dire. But neither Chamberlain nor Churchill had any inkling of Keynesian economics.
The biographical foundations for Mr. Charmley’s indictment of Churchill’s wartime leadership are well laid; yet in the end it is all foreplay for a climax that never comes. His argnment seems to be that had Britain played its cards differently between, say, 1938 and 1945, it would in some sense have been better off. But this is a suggestio falsi. Between the Munich settlement of 1938 and 1941, the question of how Britain might react hardly entered into Hitler’s calculations. He thought Britain could be discounted. Whether Britain appeased him or resisted him was a matter of indifference.
Therefore, no “peace” Britain could offer him, short of conceding everything he wanted, was of any interest. Appeasement carried to the point of giving Hitler a “free hand” in the East would have led to Britain’s living under the German (and Nazi) shadow. Resistance gave at least a chance of future life under the American umbrella. Either way, Britain was through as a Great Power. There is a further point. Hitler and Stalin were both monsters: would Nazi rule over Eastern Europe really have been preferable to Soviet rule?
In 1941 Hitler himself conjured up the alliance that beat him, by attacking the Soviet Union and gratuitously declaring war on the United States. From that moment onward nothing that Churchill did mattered much. Mr. Charmley is probably right to think that the United States would never have fought Hitler had Hitler not invited it to. But once America had been forced into war, it would never have accepted anything but unconditional surrender. Britain then had to fight the kind of war America wanted. The several hundred pages of sniping Mr. Charmley directs at Churchill’s wartime leadership reveal a wayward warlord, but that is nothing new. The general atmosphere of sour grapes, and of regrets at what might have been, mar the last part of a fine work of history.
Mr. Charmley’s attempt to link Britain’s decline to Churchill’s character fails. It took two great European civil wars, proceeding with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, to make the United States and the Soviet Union, for a time, the arbiters of “old” Europe. All the decisions in 1914 and 1939 were made by men trapped by their countries’ pasts. One can construct any number of pleasing “counterfactuals,” but none of them were even close run things. At least Britain went out with a bang, not a whimper. It “hung on,” as the traditional historiography has it. Churchill invested its last moment of glory with the spirit of Chatham and clothed it with the rhetoric of Macaulay. That is why the Churchill myth will endure.