Churchill “was no party-pooper” according to Boris Johnson, whose self-serving biography of the wartime leader was derided by the historian RJ Evans in this review published in the New Statesman in 2014. The irony is palpable: faced with Tory defection and a rebellious media, it seems as if Johnson’s own efforts to live up to his hero’s reputation as a reveler – attending parties in No 10 while the population endured grinding lockdowns – have backfired with potentially terminal effect.
Boris Johnson, as the subtitle of this book proclaims, is a firm believer in the “great man” theory of history. Not for him the subtleties of the complex interplay of historical forces and individual personalities. Subtlety is not Boris’s strong point. Winston Churchill alone, he writes, “saved our civilisation”. He “invented the RAF and the tank”. He founded the welfare state (although Boris gives David Lloyd George a bit of credit for this, as well). All of this, he argues, confounds what he sees as the fashion of the past few decades to write off “so-called great men and women” as “meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history”. The story of Winston Churchill “is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference.”
Marxists, he writes, go eat your words. Except that it’s not just Marxists who have argued for the impact of wider economic, social, cultural and even ideological forces on history. Anyone who has the time or energy to press a couple of keys on a computer to look up “tank”, “RAF”, “welfare state” or even “the Second World War” on Wikipedia will see Boris’s sweeping claims vanish in a cloud of inconvenient facts. Churchill did not, as Boris claims, invent the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the barrier between Soviet-dominated Europe and western Europe. It was first used by the Nazis – above all, by their propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Nor did he invent the term “Middle East”: it was coined by the American naval thinker Alfred T Mahan in 1902.
At many junctures in the book, the ability to think historically deserts its author. He describes men such as Hitler as “short” when their height (5ft 8in in his case) exactly matched the average height of European men at the time; and he describes Churchill as a “Victorian Whig”, though the Whigs’ attitude to the state in legislation such as the 1834 Poor Law was entirely different to Churchill’s. The contemporary references to television shows such as Downton Abbey are among the many factors that will ensure this book has a very brief shelf life. Boris writes disapprovingly of the extramarital affairs of Edith Aylesford, a society lady of the late-Victorian era. “That was how they carried on in those days, you see,” he comments. Not just in those days, Boris.
Johnson doesn’t weigh up policies and ideas with any care or penetration. If he doesn’t like them, he dismisses them as “rot”, “tripe”, “loopy”, “bonkers”, “barmy” or “nuts”; their advocates and practitioners as “loonies”, “plodders”, “Stilton-eating surrender monkeys”, and so on.
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There are some truly cringe-making metaphors and wordplay in the book. Churchill, we learn, was “mustard keen on gas” as a weapon in the First World War. He was “the large protruding nail on which destiny snagged her coat”. Young Tories “think of him as the people of Parma think of the formaggio Parmigiano. He is their biggest cheese.” And Chamberlain’s “refusal to stand up to Hitler” was “spaghetti-like” (clearly Boris is rather fond of Italian food).
The book reads as if it was dictated, not written. All the way through we hear Boris’s voice; it’s like being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued for hours by Bertie Wooster. The gung-ho style inhibits thought instead of stimulating it. There’s huge condescension here. The Churchill Factor advertises itself as an attempt to educate “young people” who think that Churchill is a bulldog in a television advertisement rather than Britain’s greatest statesman but talking down to them is no way to achieve this aim.
In a book that involves a good deal of modern European history, Boris the Eurosceptic clearly doesn’t find it necessary to master the details. Croatia, he tells us casually, was ruled by “some Ustasha creep or other” in the interwar years (it was not), while in the same period there was a plague of “communist uprisings in eastern Europe” (there was not). The Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, he writes in his offhand way, was “originally intended for some minor offshoot of the Hohenzollern dynasty” (it was not – it was built for the crown prince, heir to the German throne). He thinks that German industrial relations before 1914 were characterised by “co-operation between bosses and workers” (they were not). Hitler did not plan to kill the disabled, as he claims: most of the disabled in Germany in the 1930s were war veterans. The Germans did not capture Stalingrad, though this book claims they did.
Boris ties himself up in knots trying to distance Churchill from the idea of European unity, salvaging a mildly sceptical quote from the apogee of his imperialist enthusiasm in the 1930s to undermine his hero’s advocacy of European unity in the 1950s.
Present-day politics obtrude in other ways, too. Anyone who wonders why Boris has written this book need look no further than the general election that is due in a few months’ time. If the Conservatives lose, the leadership of the party will be up for grabs and Boris will be a candidate. Writing a book about Churchill might help people take him seriously. After all, Churchill, he writes, “spoke in short Anglo-Saxon zingers”. He was a “rogue elephant” in the Tory party. He made a career as a highly paid journalist. He was definitely not a “lefty-liberal Milquetoast”. “He was no party-pooper.” He was “incorrigibly cheerful” and his verbal style was both “demotic and verbally inventive”. He “incarnated something essential about the British character – and that was his continual and unselfconscious eccentricity”. Now, who is this meant to remind you of?
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Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
Hodder & Stoughton, 408pp, £25