Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Really Good Churchill bio

Tackling Andrew Roberts's massive new biography of Winston Churchill--Churchill: Walking With Destiny--is a major undertaking: it runs a good 1000 pages plus notes. Although I've not read many of the existing huge pile of previous biographical enterprises devoted to Churchill, I found this one very rewarding. 

Usually, I find that when I tend to agree with the theme of the biography, it strikes me as a good job. Roberts's book is definitely well-written, which always excuses many shortcomings, of which there are only a few in this volume. My view, as it happens, of Churchill is that he was absolutely the right person for the job in 1940, and that he accomplished what he was there to do: in essence, preserve the free world from the Axis at a time when every other significant political figure in Britain had been an appeaser and when no one else anywhere was willing to take on what surely looked to be a fight against the odds.

Churchill realized that he would only prove successful eventually if the United States joined Britain in the war. His principal task was to maintain Britain while it was under attack without American help for more than two years. Toward the end of that time, he managed to work with Franklin Roosevelt to secure Lend-Lease, without which Britain would have been both broke and defenseless while under steady German attack.

Churchill did have an incredibly long career--running from his presence at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan when Kitchener led the British forces in their last cavalry charge to avenge the death of "Chinese" Gordon and being imprisoned by the Boers in South Africa during the turn-of-the-century Boer War to being the British equivalent of Secretary of the Navy in World War I and previously Home Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in the '20s. 

He did acquire the skills from managing munitions in World War I and he did learn from his mistakes: he was the principal proponent of the disastrous attack on the Turks at Gallipoli and had been prominent in the savage treatment of labor at Tonypandy, among other major errors. But he learned a great deal from his experiences, both good and bad: in World War II, he relied on the excellent strategic abilities of the Army Chief of Staff, Alan Brooke, later Viscount Alanbrooke, and wisely delegated all labor issues during the war to Ernest Bevin, formerly head of Britain's largest union, the TGWU, and later Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government.

So the five years during which Churchill was in charge were critical and he managed to come out of it with deserved praise for persevering when few others might have or could have. The years before the war, when he was in "the Wilderness" since all those in the government were appeasers, also give him credit. 

It also is illuminating to see how his political outlook was generally unchanging over those many years: he was a Tory Democrat, which meant he really did stand in the middle in that he favored measures to improve the lot of the workers and the poor. He never really accepted the reactionary attitude of the Tories, even though he had switched to them when he could no longer abide the declining Liberals.

He also included the major  Labour figures--Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, and Dalton, who were all prominent in Attlee's government that had won the 1945 election right after the war ended--in his wartime Coalition government, and was likely better served by them than by many of his Tory ministers and even his eventual and long-delayed successor, Anthony Eden, who managed to self-destruct in the mid-50s after a mere year as Prime Minister.

So Churchill remains a worthy historic figure, despite his imperialism, which he never would have denied, and racism, which he would have but which was totally characteristic of his times. He also was almost alone among British political figures in the 30s and 40s in his support of the establishment of Israel, in addition to Balfour whose 1917 declaration was generally disregarded by everyone else but Churchill who followed Balfour into office.

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