Churchill at Sunset

Article excerpt


Winston Churchill's last decade of active life, from age 70 to age 80, has been generally ignored or passed over - supposedly tactfully, by his many admirers. The conventional wisdom is that the Grand Old Man stayed in the political arena far too long, indulged in Victorian-era, grandiose daydreams and that he was far out of touch with the realities of a new nuclear world, where Britain was dwarfed by the competing superpowers.

Barbara Leaming fully acknowledges the elements of truth behind this prevalent view. But in her very welcome new book she also draws attention to the remarkable surge of achievements of Churchill's later years. Far from weeping crocodile tears at his determination to hang onto political power and stay active in the gladiatorial arena till the last possible moment, we should be deeply thankful that he did.

Churchill, could easily, as Ms. Leaming vividly portrays, have retired full of years and honor at the end of World War II. A dukedom was quite literally his for the taking. His visit to Hitler's bunker, where his great archrival, the scourge of mankind, had finally taken his own life and then been immolated would have been a fitting conclusion to the greatest national and wartime leader Britain has ever known in its long history.

But Winston Churchill was a man of flesh and blood as well as a legend of history, and the fray of democratic, parliamentary politics was in his blood. He led his Conservative Party into the 1945 general election and was devastated when it was swept out of office in the greatest popular landslide in history. Cheer up, it may be a blessing in disguise, Churchill's magnificent, indomitable wife, Clementine, told him. If so, it is most effectively disguised, he replied.

But Clemmie was right: As Paul Johnson, another sympathetic recent biographer, has pointed out, returning to office in 1945 would have probably finished off the exhausted Churchill in a couple of years. Instead he was able to recuperate at leisure: A lifelong Francophile, he adored the French Riviera and gambling at its casinos.

With a huge team of researchers and even ghostwriters, he wrote his magisterial - though incontrovertibly biased - six-volume History of the Second World War. The first and greatest volume of that history, The Gathering Storm, incorporated his great 1930s speeches about the dangers of appeasing Nazi Germany. It has rightly been called the greatest philippic in the history of the English language. …