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The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s new biography of Winston Churchill could be read to an intelligent child before bedtime or by a curious teenager who remembered that George Bush borrowed a bronze bust of Churchill for his presidency. Most independent readers will find it easy going because the message is clear: Churchill was great; but more than that, he wasn’t quite the way he is depicted nowadays, even by his supporters.

The Churchill that emerges from these pages is a prodigious writer and reader, soldier, politician (obviously), journalist, husband, father, wit, ambitious and pragmatic operator as well as ridiculously prolific producer of memos, policy documents, commentary on any manner of issues, the inventor of the tank (they’re called tanks because the military tried to keep their precise purpose secret by describing them as water tanks for troops) and…you get the idea.

Johnson sets out to take in turn every conceivable criticism of WSC and turn it upside down as you would a dustbin full of blasphemous printed scorn and, after pimping it to resemble a lever-arch folder, refill it with corrections, more accurate accounts and maybe excuses too, not to mention sentimental anecdotes and in fairness the odd admission. There’s little doubt the great one had his faults to which he himself admitted. He was narcissistic and self-assured, reckless and rude, exploitative and contemptuous of party politics. Ironically, this last accusation is an asset in politicians now. Much of what he said would not fly nowadays, especially in uber PC Britain. But the thing about Churchill was that he had enormous personality and, if Johnson is right, compassion and vision to boot. He had it all, kind of – a bit of family dysfunction and depression colours a historical figure, though the book claims his black dog was more bark than bite.

Churchill was certainly that – a “historical figure,” and he possessed two of the best qualities of a great politician: a capability with language and memory. He was one of the finest speech-makers of his day, of any day. Under pressure to deal with Hitler during the Battle of Britain he said, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” The force of the image is unmistakable: We British won’t lie down for anyone! He didn’t have to gamble when he presumed that Brits were up for a fight if it meant protecting their empire.

Johnson devotes a whole chapter to how Churchill contributed to the English language. He invented neologisms like “summit;” he worked very hard at devising speeches with effective use of tropes like chiasmus. His famous “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” is cited as an example of a descending tricolon with anaphora. How many present-day politicians would know or care?

Churchill’s memory was prodigious enough to allow him to memorise thousands of lines of poetry from the most unlikely sources. On a visit to the White House, he recited in full a poem of which Roosevelt knew just a couple of lines. Never underestimate the power of a timely rendition of a beautiful poem your interlocutor knows only vaguely; it makes you a wonderful raconteur and lends authority to everything else you might say.

However, Johnson goes to great lengths to explain away Churchill’s blunders. He is very much of the WWWWW school of Churchillian history: “We Were Where We Were.”  The Gallipoli campaign cost 180,000 Allied lives with no gains to show for it but Johnson argues that it was at least an attempt to break the stalemate. Moreover, others were to blame too, such as Lord Fisher.

But the real point is surely that it is miraculous that Churchill survived in politics. Even before his espousal of Edward VIII’s cause over Wallis Simpson (which was not popular) he looked like he had made just one too many cock-ups with his rabid opposition to Indian Independence. But survive he did and it is fair to say that he had as many cock-ups as he did because he was involved in so much. Others can sit in their armchairs and judge.

Equally miraculous, though it may seem inevitable now, was how Churchill managed to drag America into the European war…or rather didn’t have to; Hitler declared war and gave the US little choice. From then on the Americans and the Russians were taking the war to Hitler; Churchill’s constant travelling to public appearances, summits and conferences created the illusion that Britain’s contribution was indispensable: “He was trying to insert himself into the military narrative.” He was, in a way, more involved in the fighting than even the soldiers who just wanted it to end. Churchill just wanted new ways to legitimise the British Empire in an ever-increasingly competitive world. And when the war was over, despite his contribution to victory, Churchill was intimately associated with the bloodshed; Clement Attlee was the man of the hour. The Conservatives were routed in the General Election.

Still he didn’t quit; there was a new war to fight, a Cold one.