There have been many attempts to demolish the Churchill Myth. John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory is one of the most thorough, and most devastating. Of course, as Charmley admits, once a myth establishes itself no amount of rational argument has any effect.
Charmley describes his book as a political biography and that is what it is. Churchill’s private life is only touched on insofar as it is relevant to his political career. Churchill’s personality on the other hand is very relevant indeed and Charmley has much to say on that subject.
Throughout his career Churchill was dogged by suspicions of disloyalty and treachery. He did after all change parties twice and he was never trusted by his parliamentary colleagues. Charmley however makes it clear that such accusations are unjust. Winston Churchill was a man whose views on most subjects were formed very early in his life and he was remarkably consistent in adhering to his views. When the Conservative Party abandoned free trade (something in which Churchill believed passionately) Churchill abandoned the Party rather than change his views. His abandonment of the Liberals in 1924 can hardly be seen as treachery – the Liberal Party had simply ceased to exist as a viable force in British politics. It was not really a matter of deserting a sinking ship – the ship had already sunk.
Churchill in fact was never truly either a Conservative or a Liberal. He had a distaste for party politics and he never even pretended to be a loyal party man. He was happiest when serving in coalition governments. He was, if such a thing could exist, a liberal conservative. His belief in social reform was perfectly sincere. In this he was motivated partly by a conviction that the only way of saving the traditional Britain in which he grew up was by giving those at the bottom of the heap a much better deal. He was also, to do him justice, genuinely shocked by the condition of the poor in late Victorian Britain. It might in fact be more accurate to describe Churchill as a liberal reactionary.
Churchill also believed just as strongly that Britain could and should continue to play the part of a Great Power and that the Empire could and should be preserved.
The difficulty, as Charmley makes clear, was that by the twentieth century Britain simply could not afford to remain a Great Power and maintain the Empire and embark on ambitious social reform. It was doubtful if the country could afford to do even two of these things; doing all three was out of the question. This was something that Churchill was never able to understand or accept.
Churchill’s greatest flaw was unquestionably his belief in his own military genius. Having been a humble Second Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars and having participated in a minor colonial campaign on the Northwest Frontier in 1895 had convinced him that he knew more about military strategy than any general. Having been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty he assumed that this was enough to transform him into an expert on naval strategy as well.
His unshakeable belief in his genius led him, and the nation, into one disaster after another. Lord Nelson had famously expressed the very firm view that ships cannot fight forts but after all what did Lord Nelson know about naval tactics? Winston Churchill knew better and the catastrophic attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915 was the result. This ill-judged operation was typical of all of Churchill’s forays into the realm of strategy. He would come up with a hare-brained scheme and then convince himself that success was certain and that enormous advantages would be gained. Wiser heads would point out the folly of the operation and Churchill would ignore them and then use his considerable powers of persuasion to get the plan approved. And, invariably, the plan would end in utter disaster. Norway in 1940 was another superb example although ironically it was not Churchill’s career that was ended as a result but Neville Chamberlain’s. The British intervention in the Greek campaign in 1941 was yet another prime example.
Churchill’s ineptitude as a strategist was bad enough but even worse was his inability to foresee inevitable consequences at the level of grand strategy. Charmley makes it clear that Churchill’s reputation as the man of the hour in 1940 was deserved but sees his conduct of the war thereafter as disastrous as he had no actual war aims. Wars are fought to achieve political objectives. Without clear and achievable political objectives war is merely a futile waste of lives. Churchill thought that defeating Hitler was a sufficient objective and had no clear idea whatsoever of what should happen next. Unfortunately both Stalin and Roosevelt had very clear and very definite ideas about what should happen next and neither had the slightest concern if their aims happened to be very disadvantageous indeed for Britain. Britain ended up fighting a war that served the interests of other nations without in any way serving Britain’s interests.
By February 1945 Churchill had realised his mistake and had recognised the danger posed by the soviet Union. Unfortunately after three-and-a-half years of appeasing Stalin this sudden volte-face was too little too late.
Churchill was a monstrous egotist with immense ambition but he was by no means a bad or malicious man. He was in his own way an idealist and no-one has ever desired more ardently to serve his country. Sadly the verdict that so many of his contemporaries had delivered upon him, that he was a man of vast talent and extraordinarily poor judgment, proved to be all too accurate.
Charmley does not set out to execute a mere hatchet job. He finds much to admire in Churchill. Churchill’s strengths and his weaknesses were both on an epic scale. The tragedy is that the weaknesses led to his ultimate failure and led to precisely the consequences that he was so anxious to avoid – the loss of the Empire, the reduction of Britain to the status of a third-rate power, the growth of class bitterness and resentment and the loss of the nation’s belief in itself.
Whether you agree or disagree with Charmley’s conclusions Churchill: The End of Glory is essential reading. Highly recommended.