The magnitude of Winston Churchill's political career, with its numerous twists and turns, continues to baffle the efforts of biographers. The official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, buried him under a long and detailed chronology. Geoffrey Best turned him into a Boy's Own Paper hero. The most satisfactory of the single-volume biographies is that by Roy Jenkins, but it tails off after 1945, and deals in only a perfunctory manner with Churchill's peacetime premiership.
Jenkins followed Oliver Cromwell's advice to paint a portrait "warts and all". Yet he concluded that Churchill was the greatest man ever to have occupied 10 Downing Street. Nigel Knight, by contrast, has painted a portrait that contains nothing but warts. His book, a case for the prosecution, is written mainly from secondary sources, some of which are themselves works of popularisation rather than historical scholarship; and his bibliography includes works such as The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill and Quotations for our Time, from which he takes some of his quotations.
Despite the iconoclastic subtitle, Churchill contains little that is new. It begins in 1914 and this enables Knight to dismiss Churchill's remarkable career at the Board of Trade, a period well covered in Jenkins' biography, during which Churchill presided over the introduction of the world's first scheme of unemployment insurance. Instead, Knight has managed to resurrect nearly every disreputable story about Churchill, many of which have already been consumer tested for many years. Do you want to know what Churchill said at the gentleman's urinal in the House of Commons in the early 1950s? You can learn the answer here. Do you want to be reminded of how Churchill failed at Gallipoli - an idea brilliant in conception but faulty in execution? That too is provided. It is with a polite if weary smile of recognition that we welcome back all these old friends.
Oddly enough, Knight has missed a trick in his discussion of the abdication. He ignores the evidence that indicates that in 1936 Churchill was motivated not by a quixotic love affair with the monarchy, but by a desire to overthrow the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. There are two letters written by the Marquess of Zetland, Secretary of State for India in Baldwin's Government, to the Viceroy of India, one of which is published in Zetland's autobiography, Essayez, and the other of which is in the India Office library, suggesting that Churchill would have been willing to form a government of King's Friends had Baldwin been forced to resign. Churchill told Edward VIII that his Government did not really represent the true wishes of the people. As a result, so Zetland believed, the country was "faced with a problem compared with which even the international issues, grave as they assuredly are, pale into comparative insignificance". This is an important episode, since the distrust Churchill aroused contributed to the difficulties he faced in securing an audience for his fight against appeasement.
Knight cites examples of Churchill's conflicts with Alanbrooke, another well-worn topic better covered in Andrew Roberts' recent book, Masters and Commanders - a book that pays full tribute to Churchill's strategic sense and his ability to learn from mistakes. But Knight does not cite Alanbrooke's encomium that Churchill was "one of the most wonderful national leaders of our history", and one of the "human beings who stand out head and shoulders above all others".
The idea of a critical biography of Churchill is not new, and was better done by Robert Rhodes James in his book, Churchill: A Study in Failure, published nearly 40 years ago, yet absent from Knight's bibliography. Rhodes James, however, ended his book in 1939. In 1940, Churchill achieved his greatest triumph when he saved his country by ensuring that Britain remained unconquered when, objectively, the situation was hopeless. Many years ago, as a lecturer at Worcester College, Oxford, I discussed the war with the Provost, Lord Franks, who had been a junior official in the Ministry of Supply in 1940. "No one who wasn't there in 1940", he told me, "will ever be able to understand the impact of Churchill. I knew better than anyone how desperate our position was, since, although we had got the men out of Dunkirk, the military equipment had all been left behind. Britain was nearly defenceless. Yet, when I heard Churchill, I had no doubt that we would win the war. I cannot, even now, explain it."
Anyone can draw up a hostile balance sheet on Churchill's political career, but what is the point? Churchill was often wrong and frequently infuriating. But he was right on the one occasion when it really mattered.
Churchill: The Greatest Briton Unmasked
By Nigel Knight
David and Charles 400pp, £14.99
ISBN 9780715328552 Published 26 September 2008