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Walking With Destiny

by andrew roberts
viking, 1152 pages, $40

Speaking to his friend Frederick Lindemann in the 1920s, Winston Churchill remarked, “Far too much has been and is being written about me.” Among Churchill’s many chroniclers, even at that early date, was Churchill himself: a true history-writing history-maker, who wrote not only to make money and burnish his contemporary reputation but also to control the historical ledger. The challenge for any historian of Churchill is thus twofold: to justify his particular contribution to an already voluminous library, and to contend with his subject’s own overwhelming personality, his forceful construal of events, his eloquent arguments to posterity.

Andrew Roberts, in his new bio­graphy Churchill: Walking With Destiny, undertakes this task with respect, even reverence, but not with complacency. He is unafraid to correct the Churchillian narrative or to point out errors in the statesman’s words and actions. He also understands the greater danger. The problem, today, is not so much that Churchill’s own narrative stands uncorrected, but rather that caricatures, sound bites, and popular films substitute for serious study of the man. Most politicians are beholden more to special interests than to anything like deeper principles. Churchill provides an extraordinary counterpoint. His story, with its many complexities and contradictions, does, in fact, deserve to be retold. 

Roberts, a prolific historian and journalist, brings new source ­material to light, including, for the first time, the entirety of King George VI’s wartime diaries. He has, in the process, produced a thousand-page curatorial effort. It is the sort of thing one might expect from high-level academic endeavor, were the modern academy still interested in telling the stories of great individuals. For all his scholarly abilities, Roberts is also a public writer who will happily take to The Telegraph, advising Boris Johnson in an open letter to seize his own “Churchill moment” as prime minister. (Johnson, Roberts declared, should fearlessly prorogue Parliament to achieve a no-deal Brexit from the European Union.) Likewise, Roberts’s biography unapologetically embraces the notion of bold, personal leadership and treats individuality and disregard for consensus opinion as hallmarks of political strength and personal character. Roberts proclaims Churchill’s greatness on these terms:

Churchill was one of the greatest individualists of modern times, because he approached everything in life completely as an individual rather than as part of a group . . . . He despised school, never attended university or worked in trade or the Civil Service or the colonies, served in six regiments (so never became slavishly attached to any of them), was blackballed from one club and forced to resign from another, left both the Conservative and Liberal parties and was not in any meaningful sense a Christian. Despite being the son of a chancellor of the Exchequer and the grandson of a duke, he was a contrarian and an outsider. He even refused to subscribe to the clubland anti-Semitism that was a social glue for much of the Respectable Tendency, but instead was an active Zionist. The reason his contemporaries saw him as profoundly perverse is because he truly was.

In studying Churchill, we see what it means to stand against consensus thinking—how hard it is, how vital it is, and how rarely one finds a political leader with the resolve and strength equal to the task. By Roberts’s view of history—which cuts against both the modern trends of academic historio­graphy and the collectivist trends of British politics since 1945—hope for the future rests neither with vague social forces working their inevitable will nor with organized political movements. It hinges, instead, upon outstanding individuals who resist the siren calls of popularity and social acceptability, defy easy consensus, and stand, if necessary, alone. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, whom ­Roberts quotes, “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Such a view may be overbroad or lack ­nuance. But there are certain moments in ­history—as Churchill’s life proves—where it is also undoubtedly correct.

From an early age, and perhaps in part because of the detached and even neglectful manner of his upbringing—Churchill’s parents had little time for him or his plaintive letters when he was away at boarding school—Churchill charted an individualist’s course. His individuality was no mere rebellion, though. ­Roberts accurately captures Churchill’s loyalty to his “harsh, distant” father, Lord ­Randolph Churchill, the one-time Chancellor of the Exchequer. “It might have been understandable if [Winston] had rebelled,” writes ­Roberts, “but part of his greatness of character is that instead he regarded his life’s work as promoting his father’s Disraelian and Tory Democrat ideas.” The rather nebulous concept of “Tory Democracy,” whatever it really meant to the opportunistic ­Randolph in the context of late-­Victorian politics, meant something real for ­Winston. Tory Democracy, as ­Winston construed it, was a politics both populist and traditionalist, patriotic and progressive. As he would write of his father, “[Randolph] saw no reason why the old glories of Church and State, of King and Country, should not be reconciled with modern democracy; or why the masses of working people should not become the chief defenders of those ancient institutions by which their liberties and progress had been achieved.” In ­practice, for Winston, the concept of Tory Democracy set the template for his own ­quasi-populist politics, through which he meant to extend his father’s legacy.

As Roberts’s narrative shows, Churchill’s loyalty to his father was one of the motivating forces of his life and career. Driven by love and intense emotion (usually unrequited), Churchill could be, at times, excitable, irascible, a human wrecking ball. Aggrieved on his father’s behalf, he took after the establishment he blamed for Randolph’s downfall—members of his own social caste and circle. ­Roberts concludes that “Winston wanted, if possible, to wreak a terrible revenge on what he regarded as the Tory Establishment cabal whom he blamed for bringing his father down.” (In reality, ­Randolph’s political demise, after a short tenure as chancellor, had more to do with his own impetuous actions than with unfair treatment by party leadership.)

Winston, as a young parliamentarian, transgressed social and political conventions: He slung invective at the sitting prime minister of his own party, switched parties when the Conservatives abandoned free-trade principles, and gleefully courted the contempt of his social peers. He even helped lead the charge against the Peerage, pushing a measure to curtail the veto power of the House of Lords. 

In explaining how these acts evinced good character, Roberts dissents from the cool, detached mindset of, say, the modern Eurocrat, which seeks always to relegate family and blood ties, along with religious and nationalist ones, to the pre-modern, unenlightened, ­unmourned past. Churchill’s sense of identity, as Roberts understands it, was neither formed by, nor contingent upon, contemporary opinion. It emerged from deeper ties: “In the courageous and often lonely stands he was to take against the twin totalitarian threats of Fascism and Communism, he cared far more for what he imagined would have been the good opinion of his fallen comrades of the Great War than for what was said by his living colleagues on the benches of the House of Commons.” In this way, Churchill’s sensibilities—his connections to family and nation, his self-judgment by the bar of blood and tradition—were more aligned with working-class understandings of ­society than with middle-­class, ­bourgeois opinion.

Churchill felt this connection himself, and it was surely key to the aristocrat’s common political appeal, not only when he was a young social reformer but also later when he became a wartime ­leader. As Churchill put it in 1954, in an homage to the ordinary people whose cause he represented in World War II:

Their will was resolute and remorseless and, as it proved, unconquerable. It fell to me to express it, and if I found the right words you must remember that I have always earned my living by my pen and by my tongue. It was a nation and race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.

Roberts argues that these statements were “unduly modest,” noting the pacifist, communist, and fascist resistance in Britain to fighting ­Hitler—and the fact that Parliament would have voted for a peace treaty in 1940, had a different prime minister sought this course. Churchill, individually, really did make the difference. But Roberts also states that Churchill “taught the British people to rediscover the latent lion­heartedness in themselves.” By the late 1930s, the financial elite, the ­appeasers—consumed by their self-interest, blind to geopolitical realities—had failed. Churchill, the antiestablishment nobleman, would show the British public—in his literary mastery, in the grandeur of his vision—the best version of itself. When the red light came on, Churchill articulated the profoundest feelings of the people. He gave them, and delivered to the world, their own voice. He could lead them because he embodied what they already believed and knew.

Yet Churchill, Roberts tells us, “was emphatically not representative of the coming Age of the Common Man.” And this is undeniably true. He was an aristocrat born during the reign of Queen Victoria. What is also true: The coming Age of the Common Man never actually came. Yes, the old aristocrats would lose their grip on British (and European) ­society after two world wars; but even by the interwar period, a new elite had already asserted itself. This was the elite of the academy, the media, and, of course, business—in Roberts’s words, “the Respectable Tendency of sober, conscientious, usually middle-class businessmen-politicians of all parties.” This elite may appropriate the mantle of the common man or use what it supposes to be his language. In reality, it rejects his true values: his patriotism, his fidelity to family, community, and tradition, “the old glories of Church and State, of King and Country.” Churchill stood and fought for these things. He stood with the people as the new elites, for all their pretense, would never do. Roberts’s book is welcome because Churchill’s story is welcome, and his example necessary. Today’s elite, with their own easy, self-serving consensus, must also be confronted. Once more, we must look out and search, not only in the pages of our shared history, but with hope among the ranks of the living, for the unreasonable man.

Augustus Howard is a research associate at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

Photo by LibraryArchives via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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