Andrew Roberts Takes the Measure of the “Populist” Aristocrat, Churchill

The obvious questions to be asked by the prospective reader of Andrew Roberts’ 1,105-page biography of Winston Churchill: Why another one? Could there be anything that has not yet been said or written about Churchill? If so, could there be enough to fill such an imposing volume?  

These questions are certainly pertinent and ought to be asked. But they ought not to prevent the reader from critically looking at this book. If one does so—and this reviewer frankly began it with a skeptical eye—one can hardly be disappointed. Churchill: Walking with Destiny is a page-turner, and it is full of new material that has not been previously available to Churchill scholars.

As Roberts acknowledges at the outset, he was the first historian to have “the gracious permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II . . . to have unfettered access to the whole of her father King George VI’s wartime diaries.” These of course include King George VI’s notes about his weekly lunches with Churchill during World War II. Roberts makes good use of these highly instructive notes and quotes them throughout the narrative.

Another source not previously used by biographers of Churchill is the recently published diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the Court of St. James, Ivan Maisky. It is indeed surprising the amount of relevant information that Roberts manages to extract from Maisky’s account. There are several other sources that the author was allowed to consult, including the visitors’ book at Chartwell (Churchill’s country house) and the minutes of the Other Club, which was founded by Churchill around 1911.

On top of all this, Roberts manages to mobilize these tremendous sources (and many others, including the diaries of Mary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter, which are now at the Churchill Archives at Cambridge) into a well-paced narrative that is full of exciting passages—which matches  perfectly the venturesome spirit of Winston Churchill.

To Walk with Destiny Is Not to Be Infallible 

This biography, moreover, does justice to its subtitle: “Walking with destiny.” We are reminded early on that Churchill, born in 1874, “had believed in his own destiny since at least the age of sixteen when he told a friend that he would save Britain from a foreign invasion.” In the Gathering Storm (1948), the first volume of his war memoirs, he wrote that upon his appointment as prime minister, he “felt as if I was walking with destiny.” Then Roberts lays out his intention in this work: to explore “the extraordinary degree to which in 1940 Churchill’s past life had indeed been a preparation for his leadership in the Second World War.”

This is no hagiography, since Roberts means to show that much of Churchill’s preparation came in the form of making mistakes. The biographer provides a long list of mistakes throughout the whole book and, just in case the reader has missed any, there is a full page summary of them on page 966. It includes “his opposition to votes for women, continuing the Gallipoli operation after March 1915, rejoining the Gold Standard, supporting Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis, mismanaging the Norway Campaign,  browbeating Stanislaw Mikolajczyk to accept the Curzon Line as Poland’s post-war frontier, making the ‘Gestapo’ speech during the 1945 general election campaign, remaining as prime minister after his stroke in 1953, and more besides.”

Doing things wrong is what somehow allowed Churchill to be right about “all three of the mortal threats posed to Western civilisation, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War.”

Be it noted that the idea of “walking with destiny” could be misleading if it were dissociated from the reasons—moral, political, philosophical—that led Churchill to fight the crucial battles he fought. Some of his contemporaries described him as an opportunist and as one who craved fame. Roberts quotes many of these critical, sometimes very critical, appraisals of Winston from his school days to the very end of his life. Roberts acknowledges the self-regarding adventurer in Churchill; but that spirit of adventure was rooted in something else that gave it substance. This moral anchor, as it were, is described by Roberts as being twofold: Churchill’s defense of the specificity of the political traditions of the British Empire and of the English-speaking peoples; and his aristocratic background.

Roberts argues persuasively that Churchill’s aristocratic background gave him a sense of independence and self-confidence. That background, he says, “sits uncomfortably today with his image as the saviour of democracy, but had it not been for the unconquerable self-confidence of his caste background he might well have tailored his message to his political circumstances during the 1930s, rather than treating such an idea with disdain.”

Churchill, he adds, “never suffered from middle-class deference or social anxiety, for the simple reason that he was not middle-class, and what the respectable middle classes thought was not important to the child born at Blenheim [Palace].”

This immediately reminded me of my first visit to that splendid site (which Queen Anne had ordered built for Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, as a reward for his military feats in 1705) in the early 1990s. I was struck by the magnificence of the place. And my first thought, which I still vividly remember, was that someone born at Blenheim Palace could not easily do as he was told—especially if the orders came from “that man,” the despicable corporal Hitler (or from Comrade Stalin, for that matter).

In other words, I think Churchill’s British (as contrasted with Continental European) aristocratic background gave him a sense of rebellion against arbitrary commands from centralized powers—though not necessarily against the opinions of the common people. In fact, as Roberts rightly emphasizes, Churchill always recommended that one should “trust the people.” Describing the political philosophy of his father, the statesman Randolph Churchill, Winston wrote:

He saw no reason why the old glories of Church and State, of King and Country, should not be reconciled with modern democracy; or why the masses of working people should not become the chief defenders of those ancient institutions by which their liberties and progress had been achieved.

According to Roberts, Churchill’s aristocratic background gave him also, or perhaps mainly, a sense of duty towards the people and the nation. Writes the biographer:

His political opinions essentially stemmed from Disraeli’s Young England movement of the 1840s, whose sense of noblesse oblige assumed eternal superiority but also instinctively appreciated the duties of the privileged towards the less well off. The interpretation Churchill gave to the obligations of aristocracy was that he and his class had a profound responsibility towards his country, which had the right to expect his lifelong service to it.

“Like a true aristocrat, [he] was no snob,” Roberts sagely points out. Recalling that Churchill’s closest friends were taken from a wide social circle, the biographer draws our attention to the remarkable episode retold in Churchill’s My Early Life (1930) of the visit Winston received at boarding school from his beloved nanny, Mrs. Everest, in 1892. The lad walked with her arm-in-arm throughout the school down to the railway station and “even had the courage to kiss her,” completely ignoring and defying his snobbish contemporaries.

This aristocratic dimension of Churchill was associated with some crucial political and moral ideas that he thought were worth fighting, and even dying, for. Preeminent among these was the man’s belief in a common “history of the English-speaking peoples,” and of course this became the title of his last book, published in four volumes in 1955, but in fact started in 1932. Churchill (whose mother was American, one should bear in mind) defined this common heritage at many occasions that Roberts duly acknowledges.

The Honor that Comes of Serving a Great Cause

Perhaps one of the most telling definitions was offered in the course of an address Churchill made at Harvard University in 1943, when he was awarded an honorary degree:

Law, language, literature—these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all the love of personal freedom. . . . If we are together, nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail. I therefore preach continually the doctrine of the fraternal association of our two peoples . . . for the sake of service to mankind and for the honour that comes to those who faithfully serve great causes.

A remarkable example of this common Anglo-American commitment to liberty and duty (as Edmund Burke put it) can be found in one seemingly small detail in this massive biography. It comes by way of a  personal letter that Churchill’s wife, Clementine, wrote to him in 1940, in which she said:

It seems that your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like schoolboys and ‘take what is coming to them’ and then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders . . . I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner, and you are not so kind as you used to be. It is for you to give the orders and if they are bungled—except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker—you can sack anyone and everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. You used to quote ‘On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme’. I cannot bear that those who serve the country and yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you.

Roberts marvels, and leads us to marvel, that in a moment of great peril for the nation, and all free nations, “the British Prime Minister could be upbraided by his wife for being short tempered.” He adds that it was hardly likely anyone “was saying this to Churchill’s opposite number in the Reich Chancellery.” British ways, at their best, include an accountability that spares no one, however exalted.