Churchill and his biographer
An imperialist to the core ... Churchill.
IT is possible, I have recently discovered, to admire a biographer even when one dislikes the subject of an admiring biography. Having met and spoken with Roy Jenkins, the octogenarian parliamentarian best known in India for splitting the British Labour Party in the 1970s in the name of social democracy, I feel doubly admiring of his massive, 1002-page biography of that flatulent imperialist, Winston Churchill.
Jenkins, still an active Liberal Democratic peer in the House of Lords, is unusually well qualified to write a biography of Winston Churchill. Both are politicians whose convictions triumphed over party loyalty; both dedicated their remarkable intellects to a combination of politics and literature; both earned superb reputations as parliamentarians, leavened by a well-advertised fondness for the good life (burgundy is to Jenkins what champagne and brandy were for Churchill); and both served the Crown as home secretary and as chancellor of the exchequer.
That Churchill was on the right of British politics and Jenkins on the left does not seem to have impeded the biographer's enthusiasm, though Jenkins takes care to construct a case that Churchill was no mere aristocratic conservative: he "was far too many-faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth. His devotion to his career (was) ... far stronger than any class or tribal loyalty".
Both also, it must be said, have a remarkable gift for words, and the biographer's style is fully worthy of his famous subject. Jenkins first, since we have all heard much more of Churchill: on Churchill's father, Randolph, he writes, "He had the gift of insolence, which can be defined as the ability to think up memorably amusing phrases and the nerve to deliver them without fear." Jenkins is not much kinder to Winston's other parent, his notoriously promiscuous American mother, Jennie: "George Moore, the Anglo-Irish novelist, said she had 200 lovers, but apart from anything else the number is suspiciously round."
This tone of learned but irreverent wit is undoubtedly in keeping with his subject, for few historical figures have been as defined by their use of language as Winston Churchill. Churchill's reputation as what Harold Evans has called "the British Lionheart on the ramparts of civilisation" rests almost entirely on his stirring rhetoric during World War II. Churchill had nothing to offer but "blood, toil, tears and sweat". And, of course, an exceptional talent for a fine phrase. "We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end ... We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets ... We shall never surrender." (The revisionist British historian John Charmley dismissed this as "sublime nonsense".) Churchill never flinched from bombast: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, `This was their finest hour'." Such extravagant oratory helped steel the British at a time of great adversity, but their effect was only of the moment. Yet Churchill believed that "Words are the only things which last forever." The hagiology from which he has benefited in the last 50 years suggests that he may well have been right.
And what words they were! "You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us ... You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival." That victory, as Charmley has pointed out, resulted in the dissolution of the British Empire, and more immediately, in Churchill's own defenestration by the war-weary British electorate in the elections of 1945. But Churchill cheerfully said that history would judge him kindly because he intended to write it himself. (The vaingloriously self-serving but elegant volumes he authored on the war led the Nobel Committee, unable in all conscience to give him an award for peace, to give him, astonishingly enough, the Nobel Prize for Literature an unwitting tribute to the fictional qualities inherent in Churchill's self-justifying embellishments.)
To be fair to Jenkins, his authoritatively researched, marvellously written tome goes well beyond the words to paint an inspired portrait of the man who straddled the great events of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Here is Churchill the cavalryman of the Boer War and the Sudan campaign, Churchill the defiant bulldog who kept the British in World War II when so many of the establishment wanted peace, and Churchill the parliamentarian of rapier wit who dominated its politics at a time when Britain was the epicentre of a worldwide empire. At the end of his research, Jenkins, a highly-regarded biographer of Asquith and Gladstone, concludes: "When I started writing this book I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."
I do think that Jenkins makes the best case that can be made for this conclusion, but he conceded, when I asked him directly, that Churchill's greatness was deeply flawed by two major failings. One was his disastrous judgment on military matters, going back to the horrendous defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, a plan he hatched when first lord of the Admiralty, and reflected again in Norway in 1940, as well as in his decision to delay the planned 1943 invasion of Europe in favour of a pointless diversionary campaign in North Africa in 1942 (which in turn led inevitably to the great Allied losses in Italy, where the topography overwhelmingly favoured the defenders). Jenkins addresses these errors unsparingly.
The second major failing, which Jenkins does not adequately address in his book, was that Churchill's notions of freedom and democracy, his defence of which led Time magazine to hail him as the "Man of the Century", faltered at the frontiers of empire. My blood still boils when I hear teary-eyed British friends describe him as a great fighter for freedom, when I know him principally as a blinkered imperialist untroubled by the oppression of non-White peoples, a man who fought to deny us freedom. When I asked Jenkins about this his answer was honest: Churchill, he admitted bluntly, "was a racialist". It is, alas, a judgement that does not figure in the book, but Lord Jenkins' candour and willingness to qualify his own admiration of his subject is testimony to his intellectual integrity. In his egotistical, arrogant and unsympathetic inability to rise above the crippling prejudices of the worst of his race, Churchill was a lesser man than his biographer.
Shashi Tharoor is the author, most recently, of the new novel Riot. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com
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