The Boris Factor
A Review of "The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History" by Boris Johnson
Published by Hodder and Stoughton (2014); pb edition (2015) ISBN 9781444783056; 421 pp.
Amidst the plethora of Churchill biographies and studies which still roll off the presses even more than fifty years after his death Boris Johnson has added his own take on the great man to the ever growing canon. It must be difficult to find anything new to say, unless one has uncovered some hitherto concealed source, but Boris has probably managed it. As one might imagine Boris writes with great verve and élan and the 350 or more pages of text positively fly by. Whilst reading large chunks of the book it is impossible not to visualise Boris himself bumbling and burbling away as he chunters around inspecting Churchill memorabilia. His treatment of Churchill’s life is very much thematic rather than chronological, and he deals in some analytical depth with every possible aspect of his character and career, jumping to and fro across the chasms of time to illustrate his arguments. His style is conversational and irreverent, and his overall take on Churchill is, as one might expect, awestruck but not quite adulatory, which seems fitting.
The thing that comes across most strongly from this volume is the staggering energy of his subject, even into very old age, and the vastness of his output in almost every endeavour to which he turned his hand, especially that of the written word. Apparently he produced more written words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together – a staggering volume of volumes for anyone but even more so for someone who was not exactly idle or uninvolved in public affairs. The range of his accomplishments was extraordinary, being a professional (or perhaps semi-professional) soldier who, in the 1890s, served in various outposts of the empire from the north-west frontier to the Sudan to South Africa (and who took part in the last cavalry charge undertaken by the British army at Omdurman), a prolific journalist reporting from the front line, a politician with a 64 year Parliamentary career and the holder of numerous high offices of state, including that of Prime Minister (twice), the author of countless works, not to mention being an accomplished artist with over 500 paintings to his credit, a keen bricklayer and pig farmer. (“Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you but pigs treat you as equals”.)
In keeping with the racy tone of the book Boris mines his subject’s many witticisms (many probably apocryphal and some probably attributable elsewhere but which have got stuck to Churchill). I particularly like the one, which appears to be genuine, where the Lord Privy Seal calls on him when he is in the lavatory, and Churchill calls out that he cannot see the Lord Privy Seal because he is sealed in the privy, and, for good measure (though the alleged follow up may be apocryphal) cannot deal with more than one shit at a time. The sense of humour, even amidst crisis, is another facet of his character that comes through very forcibly. (Another humorous story, where Lady Astor is alleged to have told him that if he were her husband she would poison him to which he is alleged to have said that if she were his wife he would take the poison, I have heard attributed to Lloyd George and probably a different lady)
We start at a critical juncture of the Second World War shortly after his accession to the premiership in May 1940 when the Inner (War) Cabinet of seven meets in cramped quarters somewhere deep in the bowels of the Houses of Parliament to resolve whether to fight on or to parley with Hitler. Ex PM Chamberlain and foreign secretary Halifax are essentially for negotiation but Churchill is adamant for fighting on, and to break the deadlock in the War Cabinet he rallies the full Cabinet to his side, overriding the objections. From there Boris goes back and forth to recount Churchill's life and career up to that point in time, which was a roller coaster of extraordinary achievement and cataclysmic failure, embracing as it did such catastrophes as the Antwerp escapade of 1914; the Dardanelles disaster of 1915; his preposterous attempted counter-revolution in Russia in 1919; his decision as Chancellor to revert to the Gold Standard; his opposition to Indian self-government in the 1930s and his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication crisis of 1936. By 1940 he was viewed with great suspicion and even intense dislike by much of the Tory establishment, partly because of these and other ghastly misjudgements, and because he had, as he himself put it, ratted and re-ratted, crossing the floor to join the Liberals in 1904, and then switching horses again in the 1920s to rejoin the Tories as the Liberals declined (a very nifty piece of Parliamentary saddle-swapping as Boris puts it).
As Boris sees it (and as have many others) his whole life had been an attempt to seek posthumous vindication in the eyes of his appalling father, Lord Randolph, who had dismissed his son as someone who would never amount to anything, and whose premature death from syphilis in the 1895 had removed him from the scene long before Winston had had the chance to redeem himself. This is brought into sharp focus by the oft-told story of “The Dream”, an essay written by Winston in his seventies in which the ghost of his father appears before him and he recounts to him some of the great events of the twentieth century, but the ghost fades before he is able to tell him of his own pre-eminent role in those events. His extraordinary self-belief and reckless courting of danger seems to have sprung from this aching desire for self-redemption. He had time and again risked life and limb in battle and aircraft and elsewhere, and had as Boris puts it been shot at in four continents (as well as shooting at people in at least three). His recklessness was legendary.
A chapter is devoted to a discussion of his oratory, as befits a fellow politician, and some of Boris’s judgments are surprising, pointing out that Churchill did not always have a very high reputation for speechmaking, and that some felt his speeches were too much striving for effect and lacking in sincerity. Lloyd George said that he was a rhetorician not an orator, and there is, as Boris concedes, some truth in that. Boris draws on his erudition in the classics and amusingly subjects some of Churchill’s great phrases to a technical exposition. "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few" is, we discover, a classic descending tricolon with anaphora, just as "Now this not the end..." re Alamein is a classic ascending tricolon, varied by chiasmus. Now we know!
He explores Churchill’s political beliefs and philosophy, in so far as he had one, and notes that he has been portrayed and is perceived as both a blimpish reactionary imperialist and Anglophone supremacist, and as a great social reformer and there is plenty of evidence for both of those characterisations. He was, with Lloyd George the progenitor of the welfare state, or at any rate some aspects of it, during the Asquith government of 1905-1910, and was the Welshman’s close ally in the battles for the so-called “Peoples Budget” and the war with the House of Lords that ensued. Boris argues that he was both Liberal and Conservative at the same time, both left and right, progressive and reactionary, and that this wasn't an affectation or a case of blowing in the wind but sprang from deep-rooted if somewhat simplistic beliefs about society. He rebuts the almost universally held view that Churchill was a war-monger who glories in slaughter, and that actually though aggressively-minded and determined to fight war to the utmost once embarked upon he never really desired war for its own sake. This is harder to sustain as a proposition given, for example, his massive enthusiasm for war in 1914 and his previously mentioned abortive White Revolution of 1919 (incredibly almost mirrored after 1945 by the appropriately designated “Operation Unthinkable”). Another facet of his career was his penchant for technological innovation, most famously his work in conceiving and developing the tank, a project that he drove through against scepticism and bureaucratic opposition, to be a decisive factor in the winning of WWI.
“Playing Roulette with History” is a fascinating chapter, when, as Boris says all politicians are gamblers with events and they try to anticipate history. In 1902 he quotes Churchill to the effect that a politician needs "the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability to explain afterward why it didn't happen." A more cynical reviewer than I might almost suppose that Boris is writing his own manifesto hereabouts. Boris is not slow to make parallels with contemporary or more recent events. Churchill, he argues, was goaded into going back onto the Gold Standard against his better judgement just as Margaret Thatcher was likewise "bamboozled" into the ERM by Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe in 1989.
Given the identity of the writer and the events subsequent to the first publication of this book (2014) a most intriguing and highly pertinent chapter is “Churchill the European” in which Boris analyses the case for and against regarding Churchill as a proto-European integrationist (I dislike the commonly used word federalist which is misleading in this context). He has been claimed by both sides in the Brexit debate, but especially by the Remainers who have cited, inter alia, his Zurich speech in 1946 calling for a “United States of Europe” and his attack on the Attlee government in June 1950 for shunning the Schuman plan for a Franco-German coal and steel community with a supra-national “High Authority” as evidence of his support for some form of European Union. Boris argues fairly persuasively that this is far from clear, and that notwithstanding his many expressions of support for some form of European integration, going back to at least 1930, his words are capable of more than one interpretation, and he often seemed to be saying that Britain should sponsor a union but nor be part of it. And, as Boris points out, if Churchill was really so concerned about Britain joining the nascent Coal and Steel Community he could surely have submitted an application after returning to power in 1951 - which he never did. Is Boris seeking succour for his own burgeoning if ambivalent euroscepticism?
Boris summarises by dealing with the onslaughts against Churchill’s reputation from both left and right in recent decades, in which he is branded as a racist, sexist, imperialist etc by elements of the left, and, by elements of the far right, as a man who conspired, during the 1930s, to bring about an unnecessary and disastrous war disdaining countless reasonable peace offers. Boris is equally dismissive of these, as one might expect, and the Churchill that emerges from this fascinating volume is of a perhaps slightly misunderstood political genius.
 My spellchecker amusingly says “possible word choice error” and suggests “shot” instead, but no I am not relenting!