Almost 20 years ago David Reynolds wrote a clever and interesting book about Winston Churchill – In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War – in which he looked at Churchill’s historical method in writing his six-volume war memoirs, and the way he used his team of researchers. This was the man who allegedly said ‘history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’ One of the most fascinating aspects of that book was the comparison of an earlier draft of the memoirs with the final result: how Churchill censored himself in order not to offend certain others on whose goodwill he counted, or in order to appear magnanimous.
Reynolds made the important point that Churchill’s history of the war was incomplete and selective, for these and other reasons. Yet such was his stature, and such was the unequivocal deference accorded him by his readers – including many who should have known better – that, by the time Reynolds wrote, Churchill’s account of the war and its prelude had had, for over half a century, an undue influence on the interpretation of those events. Historiography is not a subject that excites a mass readership: but that book was perhaps one of the most important ever written about the person described by Reynolds in this new work as being, in the eyes of many around the world, ‘the Greatest Briton of all time’.
Now Reynolds has approached Churchill again, this time – according to the sub-title of his book – in the context of ‘the leaders who shaped him’. The sub-title is somewhat contentious. The book is essentially a series of biographical essays either about Churchill (as in the one about his father, Lord Randolph, and how the son shook off the once-suffocating disdain and disapproval of his father) or people who shared the world stage with him. How much original insight is contained in these essays will be for individual readers to judge. There have been so many hundreds of books on Churchill, and indeed on the others featured in this book, that most of the ground Reynolds covers is familiar. He has a full bibliography and has been through original sources, so his scholarship cannot be questioned: but it is a book that reassures the reader about things he or she probably knew already (unless a complete novice to Churchill studies, or the study of international relations in the mid-20th century) rather than turning on new shafts of light about its purported subject.
One is, therefore, forced to ask the now obligatory question of ‘why another book on Churchill?’ To judge from Reynolds’s earlier work, not just on the war memoirs but on a range of British, American and international history, one might conclude that if anyone can find something new and original to say about Churchill, Reynolds can. And a method used in his book on the memoirs is sometimes deployed here: looking at the difference between Churchill’s manuscripts and his published works, and asking what prompted the changes. However, in his introduction Reynolds suggests he is preparing to go over ground he traversed two decades ago: ‘The book also explores how posterity’s estimate of Churchill has been shaped, as he intended, by his estimate of himself.’ Reynolds continues: ‘This was a man who made history and also wrote himself into history, to a degree unique in modern times.’
The author’s reason for doing this is, he says, because Churchill is about to be 150 – well, he will be in November next year – and because at this remove The Greatest Briton of All Time ‘now polarizes opinion’. He does so for reasons that are now depressingly familiar because of the climate in which British history is now increasingly taught. The man who was ‘a war leader against Nazism’ also committed the increasingly unpardonable sin of ‘perpetuating imperial rule and colonial attitudes’. The more anyone focuses on Churchill’s alleged racism – and to be fair to Reynolds, he does not in any great depth – the more the man who played a highly significant part in stopping Great Britain being overrun by the people who brought you Auschwitz and Treblinka will have that achievement forcibly eclipsed.
Indeed, it is not correct, or good enough, to say that when Churchill was doing apparently unpardonable imperialist things, no one batted an eyelid and millions of his fellow countrymen felt exactly as he did. One does not require hindsight to find Churchill deficient in his appreciation of, say, Indians. In 1930 many in his party found his reactionary views about India’s capacity for self-rule so unacceptable that he felt forced to resign from the shadow cabinet and begin the martyrdom of his ‘wilderness years’. He polarised opinion then just as he had polarised it in 1904 when he had crossed the floor of the House of Commons; or in 1915 after the Dardanelles; or as he would in 1936 when he chose the wrong side in the Abdication crisis. He always polarised opinion, as the aggressively pushy and the self-publicists always do. Now it is colonialism and imperialism; in another 20 years it will be something else altogether.
Reynolds points out that Churchill was ‘obsessed by greatness’ and was determined himself to become great, apparently because of his lack of belief in an afterlife. And, in his opening chapter on the influence of Lord Randolph Churchill on his son, Reynolds reminds us that for all his start in life – grandson of a Duke, son of a Tory MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer – Churchill had to work ferociously hard to make his mark as early as he did, both in battle as a soldier and in print as a journalist and author. Perhaps in one way in particular Churchill was a very typical Victorian: if he had not read his Carlyle, he had read people who had. The Sage’s pronouncement that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’ appears to have been engraved on his consciousness.
Reynolds, too, deals in great men – and one great woman, Clementine Churchill. The verb ‘shaped’ in this book’s subtitle is one that requires a certain amount of interpretation. One’s initial thought is that Churchill based his modus operandi as a leader on those who influenced him as a young man: his father, or Lloyd George, Churchill’s spaniel-like devotion to whom can at least be excused on the grounds of youthful naivete. But most of the people in the book shaped Churchill only by interacting with him when he was already an experienced politician. They – Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, Stalin, Gandhi, Neville Chamberlain and others – interacted with him rather than influenced him. As he encountered new players he was, like any successful sportsman, forced to adapt his game. Since Mrs Churchill was not a ‘leader’, one presumes her inclusion is either conscious or unconscious compliance with the woke, box-ticking world of modern publishing, where books just about men are now unthinkable.
One also wonders what Churchill himself would have thought of Gandhi’s being included in a list of ‘the leaders who shaped him’. Reynolds struggles to convince the reader that Gandhi shaped Churchill in any fashion, other than to make him angry. When the Mahatma wrote to him in 1944 he simply refused to acknowledge the letter, ordering Wavell, the Viceroy, to do so instead. One can only speculate what Churchill himself (who branded Gandhi a ‘malignant subversive fanatic’ and as Reynolds reminds us ‘a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace’) would have said or thought about the notion that he owed anything at all to Gandhi. Reynolds is right to say that Churchill could feel the injustice of certain imperialist horrors – the Amritsar massacre, notably – and that he believed that British ‘paternalistic’ rule could bring benefits to the King-Emperor’s subjects by shielding them from local oppression. He is also right to say that Churchill believed Britain was an imperial power or it was nothing. He never convinces us, however, that Gandhi was any more than a fellow traveller on the road of history, or that he had any effect on Churchill’s style as a leader.
Indeed, in that sense, the Gandhi essay is typical of many in the book: it is another attempt at Great Contemporaries or, perhaps it would better to call it Great Encounters, though Churchill and Gandhi met only once, when the Middle Temple lawyer went to see the junior minister at the colonial office in 1906 about the treatment of his fellow Indians in South Africa. What Reynolds essentially describes is how other characters roughened, rather than smoothed, the path to what Churchill considered his richly merited greatness. Chamberlain, being more progressive about India, good at detail and free from rash flights of language, beat him to the premiership. Hitler’s wickedness brought out the best in Churchill – the ‘Finest Hour’ articulation of a nation’s determination to prevail. Having to be the ‘junior party’ to Roosevelt and Stalin was, Reynold’s says, Churchill’s ‘tragedy’: but ‘how he dealt with it was his triumph’.
When forced to interact with figures such as those, Churchill was forced to adapt his leadership style in a way he was not with someone he chose to ignore, such as Gandhi. By the end he should have seen that Roosevelt (and then Truman) and Stalin were carving up the future between them, with Britain side-lined. Churchill had, according to his secretary, a ‘remarkable blind spot in judging Stalin’, which perhaps was another means of being unable to say he was wrong. Reynolds has written a thoughtful and intelligent book of essays about the nation’s favourite – despite everything – great man. But whether the book teaches us anything new beyond allowing us to share this distinguished historian’s reflections is a different matter.