In 1965 when I was 10 at school on London’s Isle of Dogs, our headmistress Miss Delamare came into our classroom one afternoon and declared that Winston Churchill was dead. This was a hugely sad day for the country she said and writing ‘Winston Spencer Churchill’ on the blackboard announced that from henceforth the school’s three Houses would be called by one of his names.
Even at this young age, I already knew that Churchill was a ‘Great Man’. Born just ten years after World War 2 ended, I had heard much about this old gent in a black hat, with his two fingers stuck up in the air and smoking a cigar who saved the world from Nazi Germany in the war that my Dad took part in. Churchill the leader, Churchill the hero, Churchill standing alone and through his sheer will power leading Great Britain and the free world to the sunlit uplands we now lived in.
And since those times I have never doubted that Churchill was a Great Man. Through my lifetime, I have since learned a great deal about the war, politics, history and the ways of the world and I still believe Churchill was a Great Briton, worthy of deep respect and gratitude for his leadership in some of the darkest days of the 20th century.
But over the years I have also discovered that Churchill was in many ways, like all of us, deeply flawed and that for all his sterling qualities he had much less worthy aspects to his character. Churchill, like all of us, made a huge number of mistakes and was wrong on many things. Unlike most of us, however, being a Great Man with such sway over the country and the world (at a time of Empire when a lot of the world map was British pink), when he made mistakes and was wrong a lot of people ended up in deep trouble or dead.
Since Miss Delamare renamed our Houses over 50 years ago, the world has changed beyond what Churchill could have ever imagined. And during this period, of progress and the lack of it, so much has been analysed about the war, Churchill himself and world affairs. Great social issues have been debated and fought over from race and sexual relations to communism, Islam, the Middle East, and from world poverty to disease and the greatest threat to the globe today, climate change.
Right now, one of these burning issues is particularly at the forefront of national and international debate - race. The killing of George Floyd in the USA has catapulted the world into a new wave of global protest and introspection about racism and what should be done to stop it.
This could be the most significant crossroads racism has reached in my lifetime and a chance for many things to change into the future. Books on racism are being bought by the bucket load, the old and social media is full of debate (and, sadly, hatred) and the US Presidential election in 2020 – Trump v Biden – was fought in part on its battlegrounds. And all of it in the face of the greatest health challenge the world has experienced in 100 years – COVID - and its monumental effects on normal life and economies.
As across the world, the UK has seen demonstrations against racism and the Black Lives Matter campaign has reached into many corners of private and public life. The issue has widened into debate about many related aspects – like what should we do with statues of people from history when it’s questionable if they should be held in such great esteem today, based on our rights and values now.
Demonstrators in Bristol tore down a statue to Edward Colston who had been involved in the slave trade and tossed it into the Harbour - the culmination of a long running campaign to rid the town of an image many believed was a continuing, unacceptable reminder of Colston’s affairs. A campaign that had so far fallen on deaf local council ears.
At the same time as Colston was being struck down and dumped, thousands were protesting in London, some daubing Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square with ‘was a racist’ and sparking a bitter row across the media, UK politics and up and down the land.
Winston was a Great Man, he saved the country and led us to freedom… how could he have been a racist? How dare Churchill’s name be tarnished in this way.
For a few days the debate was red hot. Was Churchill really a racist and even if he was, should it diminish what he did for the country and the world? Surely there are some icons of history, Churchill especially, who are above these issues and should shine above us all like beacons, unblemished from the cut and thrust of current debate.
So, as a way of working through what I feel about the Churchill issue and realising I needed to learn more about the man before I could reach a balanced view, I decided to read what’s has been lauded as a very fine biography of the Great Man – Churchill: Walking With Destiny by Andrew Roberts, first published in 2018, with the paperback coming out in 2019. I read the Kindle edition.
There have been so many biographies of Churchill I could have picked any one of them. But Roberts’ is the latest and was widely promoted because the book benefits from access to papers not seen by previous authors, including the private war time diaries of King George V1, our current Queen Elizabeth’s father.
I was also interested in Roberts main line of approach. Churchill, it is understood, always believed from a very young age that he was destined to save the country from a future disaster and the book looks at his life in two linked phases. From birth to 1945 as ‘The Preparation’, and from 1945 to his death (in 1965) as ‘The Trial’ – the two sides of ‘Walking With Destiny’, which is Robert’s title for his conclusion.
Unfortunately, the book’s crucial failing became obvious instantly. Roberts loves Churchill and nothing would be getting in the way of his aim of making sure at the end you the reader loved Churchill too.
With unceasing regularity Roberts defends Churchill on any difficult or controversial issue until your pips squeak. The fawning never stops despite every twist of the Great Man’s record, good or bad. A positive is turned into an even greater positive and almost every notable negative is moulded into at least a positive or something even better.
Within a short while, the question had to be asked. What is the point of a biography, or yet another one, however detailed, that simply seeks to canonise its subject?
If, like me after the ‘was a racist’ daubing, you wanted to discover more about who Churchill really was, more of his true self, then Roberts isn’t going to give it to you here. If you want the whitewashed version of Churchill’s life, the ‘yes but, no, but’ defence of the accepted Churchill norm – Winston was a Great Man – then Roberts is the man for you.
Time and time again Churchill from a young age is seen and judged through his actions, his words and by others to be a chancer, economical with the truth and a free-loader. But, somehow, all this is schmoozed away. He was young, he was fearless, he was making his way, he was treated terribly as a child, he had no money (really?)…
The list of Churchill’s achievements in the conclusion is, of course, legion. And, certainly, the Great Man utterly deserves to be credited with many of these, some being obvious. He made many mistakes in World War 2, many have written about them, but overall Churchill merits his unique status as an icon for his leadership in the war. Try asking those still alive who fought in the conflict. Many, like my late father, would attest to Churchill’s stellar role.
Yet Roberts goes further than the obvious. Churchill is credited with almost anything he came into contact with. He was a builder of walls (he laid bricks at his home at Chartwell), he was the ‘father of the tank’ (not just a great supporter of it, the ‘father’ no less) and even rated with paving the way for the Welfare State.
By this time, I was asking myself how was it possible that Churchill had not also won an Olympic gold medal, or the World Cup? How had he not swum the Channel, been the first up Everest, developed quantum theory or written secret treaties making the case for the world wide web?
A worthwhile biography, one interested in exploring the real, fully rounded person, not mere PR pap however long and detailed (Roberts runs into hundreds of pages) needs to look beyond the plaudits and the easy wins. Roberts covers many of Churchill’s darker issues but continually dismisses what lurks there in case it might taint the Great Man.
The big failings of Churchill’s public and political life – not least his opposition to women’s suffrage, appearing at the Sidney Street siege, Antwerp, Gallipoli, the Indian famine, Norway, the failure to adequately assess Japan - are discussed but at each turn there is something to diminish the impact or responsibility on the Great Man. Well, that’s what everyone thought at the time, someone else was to blame too, Churchill really wanted to do something else of course, it was with a heavy heart…
Even when these failings are listed in the conclusion there is a throwaway line perfectly in keeping with the book’s approach. Roberts makes a point of Churchill’s note to his wife Clemmie while in the trenches in the First World War when he says he should have made nothing if he didn’t make mistakes. Well that was alright then wasn’t it.
On race, Churchill has a very dubious record and Roberts outlines it. But he also tries ever so hard to make allowances, defuse the heat of ill-spoken and written words, deflect the argument, soften the blow, keep the home fires of the Churchill myth burning.
The upshot is Churchill did indeed have many views and ideas that we would classify today as ‘racist’ and deeply so – his own words and actions demonstrate this. These aspects required detailed analysis not throwaway lines such as well, that’s what everybody thought in those days. A truly serious, modern, biography of Churchill would take deep dives into these aspects of the Great Man’s life and character. Instead, at one point we had screeds of how Churchill wanted some ships to be named. What price the lives blighted and downtrodden by racism and sexism when it comes to choosing between HMS The Great Man or Boaty McBoat Face.
Clearly, the issues of racism and sexism were very different in those days and would be seen through different lenses. But Roberts is far too concerned with maintaining the Great Man’s status, even raising it a few notches, than analysing this and giving us a truer Churchill - a more-rounded Churchill, a Churchill people need today to fully understand how to perceive his statue when they are next staring up at it in Parliament Square.
Indeed, a Churchill that can help people who might be tempted to daub ’was a racist’ on it to stop, turn to their co-demonstrator and say ‘But he was a Great Man too.’
Churchill - Walking With Destiny is published by Allen Lane and is a Penguin paperback