Master of His Own Destiny

By Crane, David | The Spectator, May 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Master of His Own Destiny


Crane, David, The Spectator


Young Titan by Michael Shelden Simon & Schuster, £25, pp. 383, ISBN 9781471113222 Churchill's First War by Con Coughlin Macmillan, £25, pp. 298, ISBN 9780230758513 One evening in 1906, shortly after the election that brought Campbell-Bannerman's Liberals into power, an understandably nervous Eddie Marsh, a middle-ranking civil servant in the Colonial Office, paid a social call on the Dowager Countess of Lytton.

The previous day Marsh had gone through a tricky first meeting with the new number two in the department, and it had been a surprise to him on going into the office that morning to hear that he was wanted as his private secretary. 'Desperate, Marsh begged the dowager countess for guidance, ' writes Michael Shelden in his Young Titan:

She had known Winston and Jennie for many years. . . She had also been acquainted with Lord Randolph. So she understood Marsh's concerns, but she gave him some good advice while they sat and discussed his future. 'The first time you meet Winston, you see all his faults, ' she said, 'and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.'

The dowager countess was right. 'Pray for me, ' Marsh wrote that evening before beginning a rich, 24-year stint at Churchill's side - and Marsh's story is in miniature the story of Britain's relationship with its greatest wartime leader. There were always those who saw the greatness in Churchill before there was much in the way of hard evidence for it, but if you had stopped the clock at any point in his early political career - at, say, the moment he crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberals or in the wake of the Dardanelles fiasco in 1915 - you would not have found many takers for the proposition.

There is nothing new in this picture of his long, controversial career, but at the core of Shelden's Young Titan is the belief that it is the Churchill of these early years and not the Churchill of the Blitz and the wartime speeches who is in some way the 'real' Churchill. He is prepared to concede that the older man had acquired a toughness of character that served the country well, but if one is looking for political imagination and daring, for originality, energy and application then, Shelden argues, one needs to look to the Churchill who 'died' with the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and his humiliating dismissal from the Admiralty, and not to the ageing Titan of national mythology.

It is a difficult line to carry off - there are not many people who could get on the wrong side of both Lord Charles Beresford and Fisher, or who could outrage both duchess and Gaiety Girl, colleague and opponent, Liberal and Tory, patrician and miner, general and admiral, king and commoner in quite the way that Churchill did. But what Shelden as well as Con Coughlin, in Churchill's First War, both vividly capture is Churchill's absolute single-mindedness. For those who had to live and work with him, the political U-turns were the stuff of betrayal, but if you start, as Churchill did, from the premise that you are made for greatness, then regiment or party or department become simply the vehicles for a sense of destiny for which the word ambition is wholly inadequate. …

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