Winston Churchill is the Elvis Presley of contemporary British history. Both men had a liking for artificial stimulants and specially made suits that resembled Babygros. More significantly, both dominated their respective arenas for a long time but actually had quite short periods of real originality: Elvis died when he went into the army (as John Lennon said), and Churchill will forever be associated with the summer of 1940. But most important of all, both men were even more successful in death than in life. The tide of new books, television programmes and films on Churchill is matched by the unending repackaging of Elvis' back catalogue. On the other hand, Churchill, unlike Elvis, has suffered from severe revisionism: a frequent and prolonged assault on both his reputation and his version of events.
So substantial has the Churchill industry become that there is now a clear division among historians of contemporary Britain: between those who have written a book about Churchill and the rest. Indeed the former will soon outnumber the latter. There are broadly three classes of writers about Churchill. Those such as Paul Addison simply want to understand and analyse the phenomena. Those such as John Charmley are interested only in denigration. Finally, those led by Martin Gilbert set out to analyse as they celebrate.
Much of the earlier energy in the Churchill industry can be explained by British decline. In a country seemingly going to the dogs there was a need for both scapegoats and heroes. For some, Churchill fitted the scapegoat bill perfectly, for many others he was almost the epitome of the intellectual as hero and warrior. But when the decline ended and the discourse of decline began to disappear in the Blair-Brown governments after 1997, so the meaning of Churchill, and indeed of the second world war, altered. Although nostalgia for the moment of national greatness and its personification remains - channel Five's documentary output even seems to have expanded it - the nostalgia is now firmly divorced from, rather than a commentary on, life as we live it today. In post-decline Britain, the Churchill industry is primarily about entertainment and enlightenment rather than contemporary politics.
Though I belong to the small band who hold out against writing a book on Churchill, had I written one, I would have placed myself left of centre in the denigration camp. I would have stressed the speed with which Churchill would dispatch troops against strikers; I would have lamented the extent to which the foreign intervention against Russia in 1917 pushed the Bolsheviks down the road to mass murder; I would have emphasised the military mistakes and the support for war crimes such as the continuation of blanket bombing of Germany into 1945; and I would have attacked the vanity of the man for not bowing out when the British electorate decisively rejected him in 1945 but instead hanging on for the bloated "Las Vegas" years at No. 10 in the 1950s. Thus smugly knowing where I stood, I picked up the diaries of Lord Alanbrooke for confirmation and the biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins with a slight unease.
Unease, because I am a great admirer of Jenkins as a biographer and do not like to change my mind; it always makes for more work. Jenkins' writing has had a late flowering that dates back to his memoirs, A Life at the Centre (1991). His biographies that preceded this, on figures such as Herbert Asquith and Harry S. Truman, were always interesting, insightful and well written but lacked emotional energy or a "witness quality". Jenkins generally writes from secondary sources or published collections of documents and brings his huge experience of politics to his subjects. At times his voice was absent from the prose in these earlier works. But in A Life at the Centre his voice began to come through much more clearly: a voice of basic liberal decency and honesty tinged with an acquired and sometimes surreal epicurean elitist smugness, reflecting the contradictions and complexities of the author. Then, in his biography of William Gladstone, insight and analysis came together with the autobiographical lightness of style perfected in A Life at the Centre . His problem became what to do next.
In plumping for Churchill, Jenkins went for a bigger subject. The same logic took Ben Pimlott from Hugh Dalton to Harold Wilson to a career cul-de-sac with the Queen. It took John Campbell from F. E. Smith through Nye Bevan to Edward Heath and then Margaret Thatcher. But for Jenkins there was an extra dimension, to see who would come out on top: Gladstone or Churchill.
Jenkins comes down, in the end, for Churchill as the "greatest human being to have occupied No. 10". While I cannot go the whole way with him in this, his book has certainly changed my mind. In a way, reading Alanbrooke contributed to this. As chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alanbrooke constantly attacked Churchill and the politicians in his diaries: "If this is the best democracy can do it is high time we moved forward to some other form of government!" (July 10 1941). Though reinforcing the well-established critique of Churchill as a military strategist (that is, he was useless), the diaries provide an immense amount of unintentional support for Churchill's much wider vision of the political and human nature of the conflict in which he and Alanbrooke were fighting. Read back to back with Jenkins' book, Alanbrooke's diary suggests a world view that is narrow and limited compared with Churchill's. This is especially obvious in the earlier period of the war.
In the crucial period of 1940 that has always rightly been at the top of the pile of Churchill's contributions to his country, Jenkins captures what was at stake and the power of words, both in the UK and in the US, in keeping the country going. He has a couple of short asides about his own experience as a 19-year-old in what he calls the "terrible beauty" of the summer of 1940. In his view, only Churchill had the eloquence to win this war of words.
Churchill was indispensable in seeing off the residual Quisling tendency in the cabinet, in the person of Lord Halifax, and in massaging Neville Chamberlain's ego to ensure that he came across to the war camp and rejected the option of a separate peace. But there were surely others who could have galvanised the nation to fight that summer. Imagine Nye Bevan with words supplied by the young Michael Foot hurling speeches as missiles against fascism, or Ernest Bevin in No. 10. There was no shortage of talent on the left that summer, even if the right looked much less impressive. So there was an alternative. As Churchill put the point to Lloyd George in the 1920s (as quoted by Jenkins): "Most men sink into insignificance when they quit office. Very insignificant men acquire weight when they obtain itI The delusion that an alternative government cannot be formed is perennial."
The physical collapse of Churchill and many others at the top of government as the war proceeded is brought out better by Alanbrooke than by Jenkins. But by then Britain mattered much less than the Soviet Union and the US in defeating Nazi Germany. The logic of Churchill's demand that Germany be utterly defeated was stuck to, but Churchill was not in a position to have forced a peace settlement on Stalin. Anyway, he did not want one. He wanted the defeat and destruction of Germany by whatever means were available, including saturation bombing. Was the endgame of the second world war and its bloody aftermath for the civilian population of Germany a price worth paying for staying in the fight in May 1940? Was it the logical consequence and the human cost of the rhetoric of that 1940 summer? Implicit in Jenkins' book and Alanbrooke's diary is the view of a generation: the Germans deserved it. But Jenkins skips the moral questions raised by the bombing of Germany: "The policy was no more reprehensible than the use of the second atomic bomb by Truman six months later."
With victory came the Indian summer and the slow decline. Jenkins makes a spirited attempt to rescue the last period, 1950-53, at No. 10. He more or less succeeds in making a case for Churchill being motivated by a sense of duty more than by vanity in his attempt to cash in the chips of his personal prestige on behalf of both Britain's position in the world and the safety of the planet. Klaus Larres, whose interesting book is a detailed defence of Churchill's personal diplomacy in this period, based on an exhaustive reading of the documents but little feeling for people, comes down on the same side as Jenkins. Larres' analysis of the first half of the 1950s is especially compelling and by some measure the strongest part of a book that will be mined by specialists in the cold war, Churchill and diplomacy for years to come.
Jenkins's biography has shifted me towards an admittedly grudging acceptance of Churchill's greatness in political affairs. But this is not the heart of the book or its greatest virtue. Its real strength, influenced by Jenkins' experience so well expressed in A Life at the Centre , is in its portrayal of Churchill as a person in politics, including the houses in which he ate his meals and the personality of his wife, Clementine, a successful and important adviser. Jenkins succeeds in providing a rounded and convincing picture of this bizarre, defining and unique man, who may have been the greatest human being to hold office in No. 10, but is not, I think, Britain's greatest prime minister. That accolade I still offer to Churchill's successor in 1945.
Brian Brivati is professor of contemporary history, Kingston University.
War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke
Editor - Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman
ISBN - 0 297 60731 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £25.00
Pages - 763