More Than the Sum of His Parts: The Enigma of Winston Churchill

Article excerpt

"THE FIRST TIME YOU MEET WINSTON," Winston Churchill's friend Lady Lytton once remarked, "you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues." It was a perspicacious comment, and goes some way toward explaining the paradox of a man who was overweeningly ambitious, bumptious, slapdash, reckless, and a monster of egotism, yet who has been generally judged as the greatest British statesman of the twentieth century, possibly of all the nation's history. Can it be that these qualities, though accounted to be character flaws in ordinary times, turn into strengths at moments of extreme crisis? Can only a natural high-wire artist have guided Britain through a situation as perilous as the one it faced in 1940?

A senior civil servant who had to cope with the obstreperous young Churchill as a junior minister during the first years of the century expressed the unease he widely inspired. "He is most tiresome to deal with and will I fear give trouble-as his father did-in any position to which he may be called. The restless energy, uncontrollable desire for notoriety and the lack of moral perception make him an anxiety indeed." Churchill did not, as it would turn out, lack moral perception, but the first two shots definitely hit home. The unedifying memory of Lord Randolph Churchill lingered on throughout his son's youth and left its taint: on the surface, father and son were not dissimilar, and it would take many years for the son's more substantial talents and character to make themselves evident. He was long suspected, and not without reason, of latent Bonapartism, and, later in his career, of hoping to become an English Mussolini. But that turned out to be a misjudgment: as Simon Schama has stated, Churchill had a sense of the ridiculous and, most importantly, a "fundamental decency" that precluded monomania. This is true, and it is the key to the man's consummately strange career.1

As Roy Jenkins has commented in his fascinating new biography of Churchill,2

There are lines of attack to which some politicians, whether or not they are "guilty as charged," are peculiarly vulnerable because they seem to fit in with their general character and behaviour. Thus a charge of trickiness in Lloyd George or indolence in Baldwin or indiscretion in Hugh Dalton clung to them like a spot of grease on a pale suit. And there was always sufficient of the "galloping major" about Churchill to make it easy to assume that he was acting with over-boisterous irresponsibility, power having gone to his head.

The biographer of Asquith, Baldwin, Attlee and, most recently and notably, of Gladstone, Jenkins is a self-professed Asquithian liberal with politics somewhat to the left of Churchill's. He was urged to write his newest book by Andrew Adonis, who told him that "After Gladstone, there is one direction, and only one direction to go which will not be an anti-climax, and that is Churchill." At the time, Jenkins believed Gladstone to be the greater man, but in the course of writing the biography he changed his mind: "I now put Churchill," he sums up, "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."

Roy Jenkins possesses qualifications for the task that are nearly unique. His father was parliamentary private secretary to Attlee during the Second World War and then a junior minister in Churchill's coalition government. Jenkins himself entered the House of Commons as a Labour member in 1948, and remained there for some forty years, an impressive span, although not as impressive as Churchill's own run of nearly sixty-four. Like Churchill, he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary. He knew Churchill only very slightly (although, as he points out, whether or not this has any bearing on the potential quality of a biography is uncertain) but, as he says, "throughout the war and its aftermath he was an imminent presence in my life, and in that of my contemporaries. …