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Churchill: A Biography (2001)
First the sad part; I am part of that generation of Americans whose devotion to Winston Churchill was by and large created by William Manchester. Enter the home of any reasonably well-educated male between the ages of say 30 and 60 and if he has a bookshelf you'll find the first two volumes of what was supposed to be Manchester's three part biography on the shelf. What's more, unlike so many other weighty tomes--say, Don DeLillo's Underworld or Harold Bloom's Western Canon, to choose two notoriously unread intellectual bestsellers at random--he'll have actually read both, likely more than once. But it's been a dozen years now since that second volume appeared and while most of us probably harbored nagging doubts about whether Mr. Manchester was ever going to finish that promised third volume, it still came as a shock when he formally announced what we'd all feared earlier this year, that he's simply too ill to complete the task. Though saddened by this news, I'm certain we all wish Mr. Manchester well and thank him for the series of excellent books he penned over the years. Meanwhile, there's no shortage of books about Churchill, and there are even plenty by him, so we fans have had plenty to keep us busy. But surely I'm not alone in having resisted the full scale biographies--like Martin Gilbert's, which is supposed to be authoritative--in hopes that Mr. Manchester would come through.
Comes now a mammoth new biography by Roy Jenkins--like Churchill, a longtime member of the British Parliament, a Cabinet Minister, and ultimately a Lord; a party switcher; and an acclaimed writer--which will likely be gobbled up by the disappointed but still curious legions of Churchill/Manchester fans. Mr. Jenkins book is eminently worth reading, and, as a fellow politician, he offers a unique perspective on Churchill's career, but I suspect most Churchillophiles (a group which appears to consist almost exclusively of Americans) will be somewhat, or very, disappointed in many of Mr. Jenkins judgments of that career.
This is due in part to Mr. Jenkins's tendency to judge all of Churchill's decisions and positions from the political angle, which is to say, by how much they benefited his attempts to rise to and hold on to power within his party and in the Parliament, to climb what Disraeli called the greased pole. Thus, he questions Churchill's post-WWI opposition to the Soviet Union, as Secretary of War--"one of the least creditable periods of Churchill's career"-- because it was out of step with the weariness of the British people and annoyed his own Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Mr. Jenkins offers the following bizarre assessment :
The dominant theme of Churchill's War Secretaryship
was not...his deft if precipitate handling of demobilization, his fostering
of the early
Does Mr. Jenkins seriously think that Churchill was wrong? If not, and it is either impossible or delusional for anyone who lived through the 20th Century to regard Bolshevism as a healthy and benign development, then doesn't Churchill deserves great credit for being one of the few statesmen with the vision to perceive the reality of Leninism? Doesn't this episode add to Churchill's reputation rather than diminish it? And if the reason that Mr. Jenkins views it negatively is solely because it was a domestic political blunder, then isn't his view too narrow?
Mind you, Mr. Jenkins is not some raving radical Leftist--when he switched parties he actually abandoned the Labour Party to found the Social Democrats--and his pronouncements are probably non-controversial in Britain, but they'll strike Americans, particularly conservatives, as truly strange. The U.S.S.R. seems to be a particular blind spot, as Mr. Jenkins is again dismissive of Churchill's warnings in regard to the Soviets at the end of WWII. Here Mr. Jenkins argues that no one in the West was willing to prolong the War for the time and effort that would have been required to defeat Russia too, so he suggests that Churchill should have just clammed up rather than seem crankish. It may well be true that Truman and the American people would have been unwilling to finish the job, but that would not excuse Churchill had he not at least made some effort to see it through.
Mr. Jenkins's own political bent also makes him far too charitable about the significant errors that Churchill made during his career, his embrace of the Welfare State and his late support for a European Union of some kind. I was not aware that Churchill had been such a Europeanist after the Second World War, and since Mr. Jenkins is the former President of the European Commission, it may be that he's overstating the case, but one reels at the notion that Winston Churchill, having played a leading role in fighting the Germans in two World Wars, would today be supportive of placing England under the heel of German and French bureaucrats. On the other hand, as Mr. Jenkin's thoroughly covers, he did play a leading role in the bloating of British social programs, switching parties from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904 and taking the same paternalistic view towards the poor that such American patricians as the Roosevelts and Nelson Rockefeller adopted, helping to pass minimum wage laws, health insurance, unemployment insurance, etc..., measures which he himself referred to as "Bismarckism". Though he did return to the Conservative Party in the twenties, as Labour replaced the Liberals, and became an opponent of the worst forms of socialism that they advocated, we still need to question the lack of judgment he demonstrated in setting his country on a path toward the kind of big government that had nearly destroyed the nation by the time of Margaret Thatcher's election and which continues to debilitate Britain and the British.
It is this mixed record--strongly opposed to Nazism and Communism, but generally in favor of activist government--that I believe tends to make Churchill (like Teddy Roosevelt, the American President he most resembles) more successful as a literary figure than as a political one. In his writings, particularly the "History of the English-Speaking Peoples", and in his speeches, especially the wartime ones, Churchill produced a rhetoric of freedom, and a vision of the Anglo-Saxon race as the unique champions and defenders of that freedom, that has helped to define his times and ours. But, perhaps because he governed so much differently than he spoke, his message seems to have been taken to heart in the United States but to have been largely ignored, even by most Tories, in Britain. With the incredibly rare exception of Ms Thatcher, who was elected only at a time of genuine desperation on the part of the British and soon jettisoned, Britain no longer has a tradition of what we would recognize as conservatism, even in the last election the Tories did not run against National Health or squarely against the European Union. This is inexplicable to an American--try to imagine the prospect of a Republican Party that supported the Clinton Health Care Plan and ceding national sovereignty to the UN. It's unimaginable. You can't even really imagine the Democrats doing both. To an outsider then, it appears that Churchill's political legacy is one of acceptance of big government by even the putative "Right". In a strange way, this great Conservative Prime Minister may well have been responsible for killing conservatism in Britain, the brief flare-up of the 1980s notwithstanding.
Yet, especially here in America, Churchill remains a towering figure. We, of course, have virtually no political memory of him as anything but the Conservative leader of the Nazi-threatened British, who fought hand-in-hand with FDR (Stalin is usually conveniently omitted from memory) to defeat Hitler, and one of the first Cold Warriors, originator of the term Iron Curtain. We, knowing less of him, understand him only to be the inflexible, unconquerable, bulldog of a man, who is our personification of wartime Britain, whose speeches frame our understanding of World Wars Two and Three, and whose books chart the inexorable progress of freedom and democracy to an inevitable and entirely desirable global hegemony. If we were to think of the 20th Century as a grand opera--the story of a fight between freedom and the state, with statism rising through the first act, battle being waged throughout the second, and freedom triumphing in the third--he' could practically be the librettist of at least its first couple acts and the conductor for a fair bit. And, I'd argue, that is precisely how Americans view the last century, with the fall of the Berlin Wall representing the Twilight of the State. No wonder we tend to mythologize him.
There is much rich soil to be tilled here : how Churchill could become one of the century's leading advocates of freedom internationally (rivaled only by Ronald Reagan), despite playing a significant part in the rise of state power domestically; why his reputation should be so much more elevated abroad than at home (it seems likely this item is directly related to the last); how a Conservative and an imperialist could leave beyond him neither the Empire nor the conservatism he inherited; and so forth. But this ground remains largely unplowed. Mr. Jenkins has instead given us a prosaic and parochial look at Churchill the parliamentary politician. He writes so well, and even this narrow perspective on Churchill's life is so interesting, that the book is still compelling, but it is also unsatisfying. Though I do recommend the book, it is unlikely to slake the long thirst of the legions of Manchesterians and Churchillophiles.
Churchill once said that, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." Unfortunately, the memoirs he left behind mostly deal just with the episodes and the conflicts in which he was involved. To the best of my knowledge, he did not ever sum up his entire career, nor seek to explain the paradoxes above; as indeed, despite his bravado, he could not have anticipated how we would view him today. But I suspect it will take an author with his panoramic view of history, his Whig faith in the progression of liberty, and even his grandiloquent style to capture him fully in just one volume. Maybe someone like the great Tory historian Paul Johnson could do him justice. Mr. Jenkins book may well be the best we'll ever have on the strictly political aspects of Churchill's career, but in the end, that is not enough.
-TRIBUTE: Politics is the poorer for Roy's passing: pub landlords will be, too (Robert Harris. 01/06/2003, Daily Telegraph)
-TRIBUTE: Roy Jenkins made me: Frank Johnson on his debt to one of the dominant politicians of the age (The Spectator, 1/11/03)
-TRIBUTE: A Biographer as Large as His Subject: Churchill's greatest biographer was his political antithesis. (MARTIN SIEFF, January 14, 2003, Wall Street Journal)
-ARTICLE: Lord Jenkins dies at 82 (George Jones, 01/06/2003, Daily Telegraph)
-OBIT: Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, OM (Daily Telegraph, 01/06/2003)
-TRIBUTE: The crusader for moderation who listened: Prof Ben Pimlott looks at the life of a brilliant writer and reforming politician (Daily Telegraph, 01/06/2003)
-TRIBUTE: A great Whig (Daily Telegraph, 01/06/2003)
-OBIT: Statesman Jenkins dies at 82 (Michael White and Lucy Ward, January 6, 2003, The Guardian)
-TRIBUTE: A major progressive: Roy Jenkins charted the path of reform (Leader, January 6, 2003, The Guardian)
-TRIBUTE: Gang leader who paved way for Blair: The social reformer and political writer who never became PM is seen by some as the grandfather of New Labour (Michael White, January 6, 2003, The Guardian)
-OBIT: Roy Jenkins, 82, Dies; Helped Start Centrist British Party (PAUL LEWIS, 1/06/03, NY Times)
-OBIT: Roy Jenkins dies (BBC, 1/05/03)
Book-related and General Links:
-BOOK SITE : Churchill : A Biography by Roy Jenkins (FSB Associates)
-EXCERPT : First Chapter of Churchill by Roy Jenkins
-EXCERPT : from Churchill by Roy Jenkins : 'Our aim: Victory in spite of all terror'
-EXCERPT : from Churchill by Roy Jenkins : 'Depart, in the name of God, go'
-EXCERPT : from Churchill by Roy Jenkins : 'What fun to get there ahead of Monty'
-ESSAY : A vote for reform : Roy Jenkins urges the government not to bury the recommendations of the commission he chaired and they appointed (July 14, 1999, The Guardian)
-ESSAY : Why we mourn Jacqueline Kennedy (Roy Jenkins, The Times of London, May 21, 1994)
-REVIEW : of Wellington by Christopher Hibbert (Roy Jenkins)
-SPEECH : Roy Jenkins: The exuberant humanity of Winston Churchill : From a lecture by the former Cabinet minister and biographer of Winston Churchill, given at the Guildhall, London (16 November 2001, Independent)
-SPEECH : Roy Jenkins: Why I am opposed to the anti-terrorism Bill (House of Lords, 29 November 2001)
-THE BIG IDEA Dealing with devaluation (Roy Jenkins: March 19 1968)
-INTERVIEW : Life of a Grand Old Man : At the age of 80, Roy Jenkins was drawn to write Churchill's biography by a shared sense of public duty and self-indulgence. But a close shave with death almost denied him the chance to see it through (Anthony Howard, SEPTEMBER 24 2001, Times of London)
-A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union : Jenkins, Roy (1920-)
-PROFILE : Split personality : The historical works and historic arguments of Roy Jenkins (Times of London, SEPTEMBER 25 2001)
-PROFILE : Introduction to Lord Jenkins (Professor Ged Martin, Director of Canadian Studies, University of Edinburgh)
-Political History of Westminster Constituencies: Glasgow Hillhead
-ESSAY : Lib-Lab "Full Monty" That Couldn't Take Off : Mark Seddon says Labour has lost interest in a Centre-Left merger and the Liberal Democrats may yet face meltdown at the next General Election ("The Scotsman", 24th January 2000)
-ESSAY : UK Confidential : Wilson's economic gamble : Harold Wilson: Did he play politics with the economy? The Labour government started 1970 ahead in the polls. But as polling drew nearer, documents disclosed for the first time appear to show that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was considering some unexpected economic tactics... ( 1 January, 2001, BBC)
-ARCHIVES : "roy jenkins" (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (HAROLD EVANS, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Larry P. Arnn, Claremont Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Gertrude Himmelfarb, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Ken Bode, Boston Globe)
-REVIEW : of Churchill (John Lukacs, The Spectator)
-REVIEW : of Churchill (Andrew Roberts, booksonline)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Richard Gott, New Statesman)
-REVIEW : of Churchill (John Charmley, The Guardian)
-REVIEW : of Churchill (Robert McCrum, The Observer)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (John Campbell, Independent)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Matthew Price, Salon)
-REVIEW : of Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Geoffrey Best, This is London)
-REVIEW : of 'Churchill: A Biography' by Roy Jenkins (Stanley Weintraub, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of CHURCHILL: A Biography by Roy Jenkins (Rob Cline, Book Reporter)
-REVIEW : of Gladstone : A Biography (Norman Stone, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Gladstone (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Atlantic Monthly)
-REVIEW : of Gladstone (George F. Will, National Review)
-REVIEW : of Gladstone (Jonathan Parry, History Today)
-REVIEW : of Gladstone (Ian Buruma, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW : of The Chancellors by Roy Jenkins (Robert Pearce, History Today)
-AWARD : Whitbread Prize : Biography : 1995 : Gladstone by Roy Jenkins
WILLIAM MANCHESTER :
I enjoyed reading your comments on this book, and think you got it mostly right. You criticise Jenkins’ indulgence of Churchill’s welfare state-ism. I would add a mild criticism of Jenkins’ indulgence of Churchill’s total self absorption. He must have been a dreadful fellow to have over for dinner – unless you just assumed a suitably supplicant awe-struck pose and listened attentively. In wishing for a more forensic dissection of Churchill’s big government orientation I think you have overlooked two things:
1. Churchill was an aristocrat by birth and by orientation; he believed it was the job of those with power and influence in society to do what must be done. He could no more leave decisions to the market than a conscientious mother could leave good milk to sour on the doorstep.
2. He was an organiser and a fixer and above all an egotist. Confronted by the dysfunction plainly at view in British industry at the time, his natural response was to nationalise it and run it himself.
The difference in view between America and Britain is relevant here (as an Aussie I can see both sides clearly of course). The rise of British industry was funded by very private sources of capital. Money for new ventures (railways, coal mining) came from the only source of money around – the landed aristocracy. It was a very tight little money-go-round with no investment from an entrepreneurial middle class. Thus industrial decision-making was governed by the self-interest, but more importantly the non-competitive, limited world-view of a few hereditarily wealthy old fogeys. The decision-making was therefore dreadfully bad, resulting in poor viability as well as terrible working conditions.
This is in direct contrast to the US where, while you could draw a strictly moral comparison with your robber-baron 19th century capitalist, in practise things were always more open and more competitive, and where poor decision-making was torn down more quickly by the market.
Churchill was always a free trader. He knew then what many people are still struggling with: tariffs and farm subsidies hurt the consumer more than they help the producer. It’s just that in an environment like 1920s Britain he didn’t need to be a communist to believe that industry needed some supervision from on high. Best regards, particularly to your farm lobby, who should read a few more good books.
- Gordon Wakelin-King
- Oct-18-2002, 22:43