From London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, the New York Times–bestselling story of how Churchill’s eccentric genius shaped not only his world but our own.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson celebrates the singular brilliance of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. Taking on the myths and misconceptions along with the outsized reality, he portrays—with characteristic wit and passion—a man of contagious bravery, breathtaking eloquence, matchless strategizing, and deep humanity.
Fearless on the battlefield, Churchill had to be ordered by the king to stay out of action on D-day; he pioneered aerial bombing and few could match his experience in organizing violence on a colossal scale, yet he hated war and scorned politicians who had not experienced its horrors. He was the most famous journalist of his time and perhaps the greatest orator of all time, despite a lisp and the chronic depression he kept at bay by painting. His maneuvering positioned America for entry into World War II, even as it ushered in England’s postwar decline. His open-mindedness made him a trailblazer in health care, education, and social welfare, though he remained incorrigibly politically incorrect. Most of all, he was a rebuttal to the idea that history is the story of vast and impersonal forces; he is proof that one person—intrepid, ingenious, determined—can make all the difference.
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Boris Johnson is the very popular and internationally known mayor of London. Educated at Oxford, he began his career as a journalist, writing for The Times and The Telegraph (for whom he still contributes a regular column), and working his way up to editor of The Spectator. He is also the author of Johnson’s Life of London. He was elected to the House of Commons in 2001 and served there until he was elected mayor in 2008. He lives in London with his wife and four children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A DOG CALLED CHURCHILL
When I was growing up, there was no doubt about it. Churchill was quite the greatest statesman that Britain had ever produced. From a very early age I had a pretty clear idea of what he had done: he had led my country to victory against all the odds and against one of the most disgusting tyrannies the world has seen.
I knew the essentials of his story. My brother Leo and I used to pore over Martin Gilbert’s biographical Life in Pictures, to the point where we had memorised the captions.
I knew that he had a mastery of the art of speech-making, and my father (like many of our fathers) would recite some of his most famous lines; and I knew, even then, that this art was dying out. I knew that he was funny, and irreverent, and that even by the standards of his time he was politically incorrect.
At suppertime we were told the apocryphal stories: the one where Churchill is on the lavatory, and informed that the Lord Privy Seal wants to see him, and he says that he is sealed in the privy, etc. We knew the one where Socialist MP Bessie Braddock allegedly told him that he was drunk, and he replied, with astonishing rudeness, that she was ugly and he would be sober in the morning.
I think we also dimly knew the one about the Tory minister and the guardsman . . . You probably know it, but never mind. I had the canonical version the other day from Sir Nicholas Soames, his grandson, over lunch at the Savoy.
Even allowing for Soames’s brilliance in storytelling, it has the ring of truth—and tells us something about a key theme of this book: the greatness of Churchill’s heart.
‘One of his Conservative ministers was a bugger, if you see what I mean . . .’ (said Soames, loudly enough for most of the Grill Room to hear) ‘. . . though he was also a great friend of my grandfather. He was always getting caught, but of course in those days the press weren’t everywhere, and nobody said anything. One day he pushed his luck because he was caught rogering a Guardsman on a bench in Hyde Park at three in the morning—and it was February, by the way.
‘This was immediately reported to the Chief Whip, who rang Jock Colville, my grandfather’s Private Secretary.
‘“Jock,” said the Chief Whip, “I am afraid I have some very bad news about so-and-so. It’s the usual thing, but the press have got it and it’s bound to come out.”
‘“Oh dear,” said Colville.
‘“I really think I should come down and tell the Prime Minister in person.”
‘“Yes, I suppose you should.”
‘So the Chief Whip came down to Chartwell [Churchill’s home in Kent], and he walked into my grandfather’s study, where he was working at his upright desk. “Yes, Chief Whip,” he said, half turning round, “how can I help you?”
‘The Chief Whip explained the unhappy situation. “He’ll have to go,” he concluded.
‘There was a long pause, while Churchill puffed his cigar. Then he said: “Did I hear you correctly in saying that so-and-so has been caught with a Guardsman?”
‘“Yes, Prime Minister.”
‘“In Hyde Park?”
‘“Yes, Prime Minister.”
‘“On a park bench?”
‘“That’s right, Prime Minister.”
‘“At three o’clock in the morning?”
‘“That’s correct, Prime Minister.”
‘“In this weather! Good God, man, it makes you proud to be British!”’
I KNEW THAT he had been amazingly brave as a young man, and that he had killed men with his own hand, and been fired at on four continents, and that he was one of the first men to go up in an aeroplane. I knew that he had been a bit of a runt at Harrow, and that he was only about 5 feet 7 and with a 31-inch chest, and that he had overcome his stammer and his depression and his appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman.
I gathered that there was something holy and magical about him, because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died, at the age of ninety. I was pleased to have been born a year before: the more I read about him, the more proud I was to have been alive when he was alive. So it seems all the more sad and strange that today—nearly fifty years after he died—he is in danger of being forgotten, or at least imperfectly remembered.
The other day I was buying a cigar at an airport in a Middle Eastern country that had probably been designed by Churchill. I noticed that the cigar was called a San Antonio Churchill, and I asked the vendor at the Duty-Free whether he knew who Churchill was. He read the name carefully and I pronounced it for him.
‘Shursheel?’ he said, looking blank.
‘In the war,’ I said, ‘the Second World War.’
Then he looked as though the dimmest, faintest bell was clanking at the back of his memory.
‘An old leader?’ he asked. ‘Yes, maybe, I think. I don’t know.’ He shrugged.
Well, he is doing no worse than many kids today. Those who pay attention in class are under the impression that he was the guy who fought Hitler to rescue the Jews. But most young people—according to a recent survey—think that Churchill is the dog in a British insurance advertisement.
That strikes me as a shame, because he is so obviously a character that should appeal to young people today. He was eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes—and a thoroughgoing genius.
I want to try to convey some of that genius to those who might not be fully conscious of it, or who have forgotten it—and I am of course aware that this is a bit of a cheek.
I am not a professional historian, and as a politician I am not worthy to loose the latchet of his shoes, or even the shoes of Roy Jenkins, who did a superb one-volume biography; and as a student of Churchill I sit at the feet of Martin Gilbert, Andrew Roberts, Max Hastings, Richard Toye and many others.
I am conscious that there are a hundred books a year on our hero—and yet I am sure it is time for a new assessment, because we cannot take his reputation for granted. The soldiers of the Second World War are gradually fading away. We are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice, and I worry that we are in danger—through sheer vagueness—of forgetting the scale of what he did.
These days we dimly believe that the Second World War was won with Russian blood and American money; and though that is in some ways true, it is also true that, without Churchill, Hitler would almost certainly have won.
What I mean is that Nazi gains in Europe might well have been irreversible. We rightly moan today about the deficiencies of the European Union—and yet we have forgotten about the sheer horror of that all too possible of possible worlds.
We need to remember it today, and we need to remember the ways in which this British Prime Minister helped to make the world we still live in. Across the globe—from Europe to Russia to Africa to the Middle East—we see traces of his shaping mind.
Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could have done it.
He is the resounding human rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. The point of the Churchill Factor is that one man can make all the difference.
Time and again in his seven decades in public life we can see the impact of his personality on the world, and on events—far more of them than are now widely remembered.
He was crucial to the beginning of the welfare state in the early 1900s. He helped give British workers job centres and the tea break and unemployment insurance. He invented the RAF and the tank and he was absolutely critical to the action—and Britain’s eventual victory—in the First World War. He was indispensable to the foundation of Israel (and other countries), not to mention the campaign for a united Europe.
At several moments he was the beaver who dammed the flow of events; and never did he affect the course of history more profoundly than in 1940.
Character is destiny, said the Greeks, and I agree. If that is so, then the deeper and more fascinating question is what makes up the character.
What were the elements that made him capable of filling that gigantic role? In what smithies did they forge that razor mind and iron will?
What the hammer, what the chain, in what furnace was his brain? as William Blake almost puts it. That’s the question.
But first let’s try and agree on what he did.
THE OFFER FROM HITLER
If you are looking for one of the decisive moments in the last world war, and a turning-point in the history of the world, then come with me. Let us go to a dingy room in the House of Commons—up some steps, through a creaky old door, down a dimly lit corridor; and here it is.
You won’t find it on the maps of the Palace of Westminster, for obvious security reasons; and you can’t normally get the guides to show you. In fact the precise room I am talking about doesn’t really exist any more, since it was blown up in the Blitz; but the replacement is faithful enough to the original.
It is one of the rooms used by the Prime Minister when he or she wants to meet colleagues in the Commons, and you don’t need to know much about the decor, because it is predictable.
Think of loads of green leather, and brass studs, and heavy coarse-grained oak panelling and Pugin wallpaper and a few prints, slightly squiffily hung. And think smoke—because we are talking about the afternoon of 28 May 1940, and in those days many politicians—including our subject—were indefatigable consumers of tobacco.
It is safe to assume there wasn’t much daylight getting through the mullioned windows, but most members of the public would easily have been able to recognise the main characters. There were seven of them in all, and they were the War Cabinet of Britain.
It is a measure of the depth of their crisis that they had been meeting almost solidly for three days. This was their ninth meeting since 26 May, and they had yet to come up with an answer to the existential question that faced them and the world.
In the chair was the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. On one side was Neville Chamberlain, the high-collared, stiff-necked and toothbrush-moustached ex–Prime Minister, and the man Churchill had unceremoniously replaced. Rightly or wrongly, Chamberlain was blamed for fatally underestimating the Hitler menace, and for the failure of appeasement. When the Nazis had bundled Britain out of Norway earlier that month, it was Chamberlain who took the rap.
Then there was Lord Halifax, the tall, cadaverous Foreign Secretary who had been born with a withered left hand that he concealed in a black glove. There was Archibald Sinclair, the leader of the Liberal Party that Churchill had dumped. There were Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood—representatives of the Labour Party against which he had directed some of his most hysterical invective. There was the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, taking notes.
The question before the meeting was very simple, and one they had been chewing over for the last few days, as the news got blacker and blacker. No one exactly spelled it out, but everyone could see what it was. Should Britain fight? Was it reasonable for young British troops to die in a war that showed every sign of being lost? Or should the British do some kind of deal that might well save hundreds of thousands of lives?
And if a deal had been done then, and the war had effectively ended with the British exit, might it have been a deal to save the lives of millions around the world?
I don’t think many people of my generation—let alone my children’s generation—are fully conscious of how close we came to it; how Britain could have discreetly, and rationally, called it quits in 1940. There were serious and influential voices who wanted to begin ‘negotiations’.
It is not hard to see why they thought as they did. The news from France was not just bad: it was unbelievably bad, and there did not seem the slightest hope that it would improve. German forces were lunging towards Paris, buffeting aside the French defences with such contemptuous ease that it really looked as if they belonged to some new military master race, pumped with superior zeal and efficiency. Hitler’s panzers had surged not just through the Low Countries but through the supposedly impenetrable ravines of the Ardennes; the ludicrous Maginot Line had been bypassed.
The French generals cut pathetic figures—white-haired dodderers in their Clouseau-like kepis. Every time they fell back to some new line of defence, they found that the Germans were somehow already there; and then the Stuka dive-bombers would come down like banshees and the tanks would drive on again.
The British Expeditionary Force had been cut off in a pocket around the Channel ports. They had tried briefly to counter-attack; they had been repulsed, and now they were waiting to be evacuated at Dunkirk. If Hitler had listened to his generals, he could have smashed us then: sent the ace general Guderian and his tanks into the shrinking and virtually defenceless patch of ground. He could have killed or captured the bulk of Britain’s fighting forces, and deprived this country of the physical ability to resist.
As it was, his Luftwaffe was strafing the beaches; British troops were floating in the water face down; they were firing their Lee Enfields hopelessly at the sky; they were being chopped to bits by the dive-bombers. At that moment, on 28 May, it seemed very possible—to generals and politicians, if not to the wider public—that the bulk of the troops could be lost.
The War Cabinet was staring at the biggest humiliation for British armed forces since the loss of the American colonies, and there seemed no way back. It chills the marrow to look at the map of Europe as it must have appeared to that War Cabinet.
Austria had been engulfed two years earlier; Czechoslovakia was no more; Poland had been crushed; and in the last few weeks Hitler had added a shudder-making list to his portfolio of conquest. He had taken Norway—effortlessly outwitting the British, Churchill included, who had spent months elaborating a doomed plan to pre-empt him. He had captured Denmark in little more than four hours.
Holland had surrendered; the Belgian King had pusillanimously run up the white flag at midnight the previous evening; and with every hour that went by more French forces surrendered—sometimes after resistance of insane bravery; sometimes with a despairing and fatalistic ease.
The most important geostrategic consideration of May 1940 was that Britain—the British Empire—was alone. There was no realistic prospect of help, or certainly no imminent prospect. The Italians were against us. The fascist leader Mussolini had entered into a ‘Pact of Steel’ with Hitler, and—when it looked as though Hitler couldn’t lose—would shortly join the war on his side.
The Russians had signed the nauseating Molotov–Ribbentrop pact, by which they had agreed to carve up Poland with the Nazis. The Americans were allergic to any more European wars, understandably: they had lost more than 56,000 men in the First World War, and more than 100,000 if you include the toll from influenza. They were offering not...
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