Sunday, June 03, 2012

Book Review : Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan 2001)

Is greatness entirely contingent on being the right man in the right place at the right time? If, when Churchill was struck by a car in New York City in 1931, the injuries had proved fatal, then he would be remembered no more than as a colourful actor on the British political stage, whose positive contributions, such as the introduction of Labour Exchanges and Employment insurance in 1909, were more than overwhelmed by his political disasters - such as his advocacy of Gallipoli, the return to the Gold Standard (against his better judgement and on the advice of John Maynard Keynes, no less) and his emerging opposition to the end of British rule in India.

He was a controversial politician, crossing the house twice and apparently disliked on both sides as a result. Yet, like Gladstone and Lloyd George but probably no others, he could speak. Members filled the chamber to hear his meticulously prepared speeches, his rhetoric usually soaring even if they disagreed with his content.

Yet, Churchill's time came in 1940. He had been consistent in opposing Naziism throughout the 1930s, and the fall of Chamberlain and Churchill's ascent to power is meticulously detailed in this fine autobiography. Chamberlain wanted to hand the Premiership over to Halifax, who, as a peer, demurred. Power passed to Churchill. As Halifax favoured peace with Hitler, who knows what the world would look like today if Halifax had not declined the chance of power.

As Premier, Churchill reinvigorated the faltering war effort, brought in some talented ministers from all sides of the House and from Industry, and galvanised the population with his keynote speeches.Yet for long periods he was absent. Amazingly, in the year from 12 January 1943, he was out of the country for 172 days, plus a further 35 days absent from Parliament due to pneumonia contracted whilst travelling. No-one can doubt the importance of his meetings with Roosevelt and Stalin, nor the bravery of travelling huge distances by air and sea at great risk to himself, yet to be away for half the year displays inordinate confidence in his deputy, Attlee.

Yet the War coalition was surprisingly unpopular. Bye-elections were lost with a surprising frequency, which was a foretaste of the upheaval of 1945. But by this time, Churchill's star had stated to decline. He was a poor leader of the opposition, and his second premiership, marred as it was by ill-health, was undistinguished. His much-delayed departure was anxiously awaited by more than just Eden.

Roy Jenkins' biography is exemplary. Based on copious secondary sources rather than original research, it is an admirable and compendious work of synthesis. Jenkins can turn a phrase almost as well as Churchill himself, though with less extravagance, and the result is a compellingly readable account which presents Churchill as gifted, wildly ambitious, egotistical, infuriating but always touched with greatness. In the final analysis he may be too kind to Churchill's final administration which in my opinion led Britain to a damaging period of stasis, yet overall he is admirably balanced throughout. He is respectful and admiring, yet this is no hagiography. And that is how it should be. Churchill was a flawed character in many ways - a drinker, a gambler, an egotist of frequently flawed judgement, yet when Britain faced its darkest hour, he was the one who to whom we turned, and he delivered.

1 comment:

Carole said...

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