How Winston Churchill used his storytelling skills to shape his country’s history

Fake news, disinformation, propaganda – call it what you will – the dissemination of untruths and half-truths is part of the job of a wartime leader.

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Inspecting a battleship in 1940, Winston Churchill stopped to talk to a group of young sailors. “Is everything you tell us true?” asked one of them. “Young man,” he said. “I have told many lies for my country, and I will tell many more.”

Churchill knew the value of facts. Throughout the 1930s, when he was Westminster’s Cassandra, telling an unheeding parliament over and over again that Germany was rearming, and that Britain should be doing so too, he bludgeoned the Commons with statistics. He could be precise, even pernickety. But he also knew the value of fiction.

In 1940 he had a revealing exchange with Captain Talbot, director of the anti-submarine division. Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, had announced “half the U-boats with which Germany began the war have been sunk”. Talbot pointed out that the true figure was nine out of 57. The disparity didn’t bother Churchill. “There are two people who sink U-boats in this war, Talbot,” he retorted. “You sink them in the Atlantic and I sink them in the House of Commons. The trouble is that you are sinking them at exactly half the rate I am.”

Truth was a volatile substance to be handed out parsimoniously. In 1940, alone with a general whom he trusted, Churchill gave him “a look” and said “you and I will be dead in three months”. That was the likelihood, as he saw it then, with a German invasion expected imminently, but it was not for anyone else to know. That same week he was assuring the French premier that Britain would surely hold on, and “win it all back for you”.

Fake news, disinformation, propaganda – call it what you will – the dissemination of untruths and half-truths is part of the job of a wartime leader, and Churchill was brilliant at it. It is fitting that it was for literature that he was awarded the Nobel Prize. It is not only that he wrote fine (if nowadays unfashionable) books. He also brought to his work outside the library, in the world of blood, toil, tears and sweat, the shaping art of a storyteller.

His oratory is the most obvious product of that art. It is one of the many pleasures afforded by Andrew Roberts’s compendious biography that he gives us detailed analyses of how Churchill composed his speeches. He had his salient points typed psalm-style, in pithy paragraphs around which he could embroider. He favoured short sentences, monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon nouns and alliterative clusters of adjectives. His speeches are so perfectly crafted that however alien the content may now seem – however one may wince at the bombast and hyperbole, however one may deplore the almost total absence of references to the female half of humanity, however strange in retrospect it may appear that Churchill imagined that, in the event of a British defeat, the subjected peoples of the British empire would wish to recreate another superpower just like it – it is still impossible to read them without being moved.

Churchill wept readily and often: “I blub an awful lot, you know,” he told his last private secretary, “You’ll have to get used to it.” He knew how to make others weep, and how useful it was to do so. “Several Labour members cried,” noted Chips Channon after one of Churchill’s speeches, at a time when securing Labour’s loyalty was imperative.

His talent for fiction was not limited to honing paragraphs. He elaborated a vision of the British empire and the British people that was vastly gratifying to the latter. Its materials included the stuff available to any late-Victorian public-school boy – Shakespeare, Plutarch, the King James Bible, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

Beside these literary antecedents Churchill, born in Blenheim Palace as the direct descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough, invoked an aristocratic, chivalric code of valour, self-sacrifice and the duty-bound service of right with might. His rhetoric was archaic. (No one except Winston, remarked Harold Nicolson, was still using the word “foe” in 1940). It was preposterously grandiose. “In the theatre of his mind,” wrote a contemporary critic, “it is always the hour of fate and the crack of doom.” But his word-world, full of moral grandeur and majestic gestures, was inspiring, and consolingly mismatched with the squalid business of modern warfare.

He offered the British an attractive picture of themselves. “I know the British people,” he said, “Their endless capacity for enduring and persisting and fighting back.” “This island race,” he said, is “the toughest of the tough.” He told them that they had been “bred to value freedom far above their lives”. There was “a fire in British hearts”, he said, which “will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe”. The British people (more accustomed to being seen as a phlegmatic nation of shop-keepers) may have been surprised to hear it, but they were pleased, and perhaps encouraged to try to make the words true.

This book arrives with a press release announcing that there are now more than a thousand biographies of Churchill, something about which the publicist might have been wiser to keep silent. But whether or not we really needed another one, this is a compelling account of an extraordinary life. Wisely, Roberts lets Churchill, whom he quotes copiously, provide the verbal razzle-dazzle. His own prose is neat and serviceable, a foil to his subject’s. His research has been exhaustive and wide-ranging. He looks at Hansard and public archives but he is also good on gossip.

Churchillian biographers are lucky in the diarists on whom they can draw: Chips Channon, Harold Nicolson, and Churchill’s private secretary Jock Colville are respectively funny, waspish and frank. Roberts also makes good use of the women to whom Churchill talked less guardedly. Quoting Margot Asquith, Diana Cooper, Violet Asquith and the teenaged Mary Churchill, Roberts is able to record dinner party conversation in which the great man showed his eccentricity and his wit.

The story is long – Churchill was 90 when he died – and awkwardly shaped. Roberts keeps a steady pace and sticks to the chronological path. In an account of most other lives that would lead to a tedious tailing off during the last quarter, but in this case the main action only begins once the protagonist is past retirement age. Not that the first 65 years are mere build-up. Churchill, for all he liked to think otherwise, was a politician, not a warrior. The story of his rise to power, as told here, is rather more compelling than that of his war – perhaps because Roberts, having already written two books on the Second World War, comes fresher to it.

Roberts is well aware Churchill made mistakes, but he wants to correct those who have, in his opinion, misrepresented his hero. A concordance of this book would show that the word “detractors” recurs almost as frequently as “cigar”. Churchill spoke and wrote many sentences that can be taken to demonstrate that he was a warmonger, a white supremacist, a sexist and a snob. Roberts defends him, not by trying to deny that he was a man of his class and his time, but by giving those remarks their context. Yes, Churchill said he found war “delicious”, but he also asked “Is it not horrible to be built like that?”

Churchill would have been grateful. Posterity’s verdict mattered to him. He was not only an actor in events likely to make the history books, he was an historian. Roberts records that even in wartime he would work, late at night, on his enormous A History of the English Speaking Peoples. He wanted, very much indeed, to play an honoured part in that history. He told young men that Nelson was looking down at them from his column. He hoped future generations would be looking up for inspiration at some such image of himself.

His parliamentary critics scoffed that his more orotund speeches were simply the early drafts of his next book. It was true. His experiences went directly into print. Churchill wrote for money. He commanded huge advances. As a young soldier and war correspondent during the Boer War he was already consciously working to make himself into a marketable commodity, and he did. After a lucrative lecture tour of America he remarked: “I am very proud of the fact that there is not one person in a million who at my age [he was 26] could have earned £10,000 without any capital in less than two years.” And the money was only a necessary adjunct to his far greater ambitions.

When he was 30 he fell into conversation with a 43-year-old. What did he expect would be his position when he reached the same age? asked the other man. “PM”, Churchill replied. But even more than he wanted power, he wanted eternal glory. In the early months of the First World War he told Margot Asquith he was no longer interested in being viceroy of India (a job he’d previously thought would pass the time nicely until he was old enough to become prime minster). The war was enough for him. “This is living History. . . It will be read by a thousand generations – think of that!!”

He believed in greatness, and he didn’t doubt that he had it. At 16 he told a schoolfellow: “This country shall be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion… it will fall to me to save the capital and save the empire.” A few years later, during his Boer War adventures, he was angling for a Distinguished Service Order. “It would look so nice on the robes of a chancellor of the exchequer,” he told a fellow officer. He had yet to run for his first parliamentary seat but he had the robes ready. They had belonged to his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and his mother had put them carefully by, just in case her boy needed them one day.

Andrew Roberts believes in greatness too. His last book was about Napoleon, of whom Churchill kept a bust on his desk. This biography is written, not uncritically, but with unwavering respect. It is, though, curiously anodyne. For the biography of a man at the centre of two devastating wars, it is markedly clean of the mud and the gore, the sorrow and the pity, of conflict. Like Churchill, Roberts maintains morale by omitting distressing truths.

All the same, his storytelling is skilful. He is careful to preserve Churchill’s honour, but is happy to trust his dignity to take care of itself. The heroic narrative is lightened by glimpses of the great man telling a war story at the dinner table: “making barking noises in imitation of gunfire, and blowing cigar smoke across the battle scene”, or receiving chiefs of staff in his bedroom dressed only in a silk vest. Roberts knows how to balance the panoramic vistas of world-wide war with telling detail. It is piquant to learn that in 1939, after decades of rivalry and distrust between the two men, Churchill still addressed Lloyd George as “my dear”.

When he finally became premier, 22 years later and older than he had hoped, Churchill said he felt not elation but “relief”. Others did too. Ian Jacob, secretary to the War Cabinet, described how, before he assumed power, Churchill was like a “dynamo threshing around… dislocating and disrupting”, but that, “Once the prime minister had been more or less harnessed to the machinery, things began to hum, and they hummed until the end of the war.” That dynamo powers this book. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial)

Churchill: Walking with Destiny
Andrew Roberts
Allen Lane, 1,105pp, £35

This article appears in the 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis