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They once met Winston. Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews two of the latest books on Churchill

Blog | Feb 06, 2024


Meeting Churchill: A Life in 90 Encounters

By Sinclair McKay. Viking £16.99

Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him

By David Reynolds. Collins £25

We had better start bracing ourselves: November sees Winston Churchill’s sesquicentenary. He was born on 30th November 1874, and his centenary in 1974 was somewhat muted, not surprisingly as it was less than ten years since his long-drawn-out death and unforgettable funeral in January 1965.

This year will doubtless make up for it, with endless documentaries and articles and, of course, books.

Even if Churchill doesn’t have quite as many books devoted to him as Jesus or Napoleon, his bibliography has been increasing inexorably, sometimes with a loud sound of pots being boiled and barrels being scraped.

In the increasingly frantic search for some new angle, one answer is to link Churchill with something or someone else: the Bodleian catalogue now contains more than 60 books with titles beginning Churchill and… You can take your pick from Empire, America, Ireland, Zionism, the Bengal Famine, Lloyd George, Roosevelt, Attlee, Orwell, His Money, His Horses or his cook.

And I ought to add a mea culpa for having added recently to the great corpus of Churchilliana.

Two new additions to the groaning list take similar approaches – Churchill and other people. Sinclair McKay has published several well-received books on wartime subjects, Bletchley Park and the bombing of Dresden, and the excellent Berlin: Life and Loss in the City That Shaped the Century.

His new book Meeting Churchill: A Life in 90 Encounters is a sprightly trot through the great man’s life by way of people he knew or merely met. They run from Mrs Everest, his nanny, whom he called Woom (Freudians please note) – and who was the person closest to him in his childhood, certainly closer than either of his frightful parents – to his daughter Diana. Along with another two of the Churchills’ four children (Mary Soames being the shining exception), Diana led an unhappy life of amorous and alcoholic turmoil, ending in her suicide in 1963. It was 15 months before Churchill’s own death and, frail in mind as he was, he might just have taken in this miserable news.

Other personal snapshots include John Maynard Keynes, whom Churchill consulted when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, although his decision to return to the gold standard at the pre-war rate provoked The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill, Keynes’s most sparkling pasquinade.

Others beside took a mixed view of the great man. After the debacle at Gallipoli, the Prince of Wales said that Churchill was ‘nothing short of a national danger’, but they later got on more friendly terms (or ‘They exchanged words over cigars’, as McKay rather bathetically puts it) – with disastrous consequences for Churchill.

At the time of the abdication crisis in December 1936, he foolishly championed the cause of King Edward VIII, as the prince by then was, to retain his throne as well as Mrs Simpson, and was shouted down in the House of Commons.

Even worse examples of Churchill’s judgement were seen in his choice of friends and advisers, notably Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken. They were what Evelyn Waugh had in mind with his brisk phrase just after Churchill’s death, ‘always in the wrong, always surrounded by crooks’.

Bracken was a man of most unlikely origin who attached himself to Churchill and made himself very useful as his financial factotum, a role he performed even while holding government office. And Beaverbrook was bully, a liar and altogether a scoundrel, to whom Churchill was strangely addicted even when ‘Max’ was betraying him.

He might have appeared in Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him by David Reynolds. Now a retired Cambridge history professor, Reynolds is a prolific writer, whose works include In Command of History, one of the very best books about Churchill of the past 30 years, which describes how he wrote – or supervised the writing of – the vast six-volume The Second World War.

This highly personal, and highly misleading, account would have been better called War Memoirs, like Lloyd George’s valuable and much neglected account of the Great War as he saw it, but Churchill’s work nevertheless long dominated the historiography of the second war.

In his new book, Reynolds chooses some of the same people as McKay, in a mixed bag, with some essays better than others, quite apart from the fact that the chronological arrangement lures the author into one more biography of Churchill by any other name.

There are one or two stylistic tics that in my grumpy way I find irritating, such as the Americanised form ‘As historian Michael Howard observed …’ with no article before the name, which seems to be creeping in here. And Reynolds, a serious and indeed outstanding historian, should really not have adopted the deplorable practice of referring to Churchill throughout as ‘Winston’. He also for some reason refers to Graham Stewart, the author of Burying Caesar: The Churchill-Chamberlain Rivalry, as ‘Smith’.

Enough of such quibbles. Let me turn to the book’s virtues, or at any rate the chapters that are most stimulating.

Before the Great War, Lloyd George and Churchill became unlikely allies or even friends, although Churchill throughout his life had very few really close friends, as opposed to many friendly acquaintances and working alliances. Their co-operation as radical reformers in the Asquith government prompted the clubland jibe that ‘Lloyd George was born a cad and never forgot it. Winston Churchill was born a gentleman and never remembered it.’

In August 1914, Lloyd George was dismayed by Churchill’s sheer zeal for war. With characteristic disloyalty, he allowed him to carry the can for the following year’s Gallipoli debacle, which was indeed largely Churchill’s responsibility, but not entirely. To the very limited extent that Lloyd George ever felt guilt, that memory might have encouraged him to bring Churchill back into the government in 1917, despite the bitter opposition of many Tory MPs.

When the coalition government collapsed in October 1922, the two – both still technically Liberals – parted for ever. Lloyd George never held office again, while Churchill, having adroitly switched sides back to the Tories, reached his apotheosis in 1940. He thought of bringing Lloyd George back into the government then, but Lloyd George said, ‘I shall wait until Winston is bust.’

‘Between 1886 and 1940,’ as Reynolds writes, ‘two Churchills and three Chamberlains yearned to become prime minister of the United Kingdom, and two of them eventually managed to do so. During that time four served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and three were leaders of the Conservative Party.’ The four Chancellors were the father and son, Lord Randolph and Winston Churchill, and the half-brothers Austen and Neville Chamberlain.

At the end of his chapter on Neville Chamberlain, Reynolds quotes Churchill’s magnificent elegy for Chamberlain after his death in November 1940, but he might also have quoted his elegy for Lloyd George in March 1945, with its paean to state welfare.

In 1924, Chamberlain told his sisters that he was likely to be no more ‘than a second-rate Chancellor’ but ought to be ‘a great Minister of Health’, and so he was.

Working perforce with Churchill, who was indeed a second-rate Chancellor, Chamberlain in less than five years did more than any other man to form the basis of public welfare and social security in this country, arguably more than the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee, who is the subject of another chapter.

Both these books are enjoyable, and I learned from Reynolds in particular. And yet… To join such treasures on the bookshelves as The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill, with a preface by Richard M Nixon, a friend recently gave me a copy of Winston Churchill CEO: 25 Lessons for Bold Business Leaders by Alan Axelrod. Quite apart from Churchill’s hair-raising personal financial life and his disastrous record gambling on the stock market, his public career might provide many remarkably bad examples for any businessperson to follow.

We shall have to take the sesquicentenary as it comes. But is it too much to hope that, after the event, we might see if not the beginning of the end of books of about Churchill, then at least the end of the beginning?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is author of Churchill’s Shadow: An Astonishing Life and a Dangerous Legacy