The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (Book Review)

It has often been remarked that any statement said in the affirmative of Churchill can be said with equal conviction in a contrary spirit. Churchill was a drunk, Churchill could handle his alcohol. Churchill was a warmonger, Churchill sought only peace. Churchill hated the working class, Churchill was a radical supporter of the poor. In the multiverse of Churchill personalities, Boris Johnson has sought to define some of the key (positive) factors that made Churchill into the political legend that he is today. This book is not a critical examination of Churchill–Boris is an acknowledged apologist–but it is a fair one. Winston’s flaws are not swept under the carpet but instead are framed as caveats in the broader context of his magnificence: a small weight on the opposite scales of being the savior of Western Civilization.

Historic personalities that are lionized have a tendency to be de-contextualized. Lincoln, MLK, Cromwell, Churchill, etc. A reader of history is often reminded that the views we attribute to these persons tend to be different than the ones they specifically held, or at a minimum the reasons they had for holding them. In Lincoln’s case, for example, his concern for slavery was almost certainly less righteous than we think of it today, and most (Americans) would probably be surprised to learn that the Union forces included the slave state of Maryland.[1] What context has been lost in regards to Churchill? While we mainly remember Churchill standing up to the Nazis, we often forget that his most significant obstacles were domestic and from his own party! Consider this emblematic view of WC held by the wife of a Tory MP:

WC they regard with complete distrust, as you know, and they hate his boasting broadcasts. WC really is the counterpart of Goering in England, full of the desire for blood, Blitzkreig, and bloated with ego and over-feeding, the same treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot air. I can’t tell you how depressed I feel about it.

Here in lies the first Churchill factor: he was always a rogue elephant. While the Tories would rather sell their mother than give up the Churchill brand associated with their party, this association is more philosophical rather than factual. Winston changed political parties on multiple occasions and once said “choosing a political party is like choosing a horse: you just go for the nag that will take you farthest and fastest.” His perceived party disloyalty was not helped by his unorthodox family composition. His mother, Jennie, was an American (warning sign no. 1) and a caricature of what I imagined Freud’s archetype of the Oedipal complex would be.

Jennie had (allegedly) a small dragon tattooed on her wrist… [and] [s]he is credited with the invention of the Manhattan cocktail, and was so admired for her wit and her dark and ‘pantherine’ good looks that she attracted scores of lovers, including the Prince of Wales. She eventually had three husbands, some of whom were younger than her son.

His father was distant and cold and just generally a bad role model (he asked Winston to stick with ‘father’ rather than ‘papa’ in his letters). Despite his emotional neglect, Winston worshiped his father and would continue to defend his political career and legacy (which was a flop) throughout his life. This first Churchill factor means that while Winston may be happy to define the Tory brand, he would not let the Tory brand define him.[2] For example Churchill in part returned to the Conservative party in the 1920s when they embraced a free-trade policy.[3]

The span of Churchill’s life and his career almost defies belief. He was born near the height of Victorian imperial prestige and he lived to see the Cuban missile crisis and schmooze with Hollywood starlets on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht. Regardless of which stage of life Winston found himself, he was always prepared to undertake acts of extraordinary courage, especially if it would get good publicity. At the age of 22, Winston was attached to a British regiment fighting off Pathan rebels in the North-West Frontier in 1896.

He later reported, ‘I fired forty rounds with some effect at close quarters. I cannot be certain, but I think I hit four men. At any rate, they fell… I rode my grey pony all along the skirmish line when everyone else was lying down in cover. Foolish perhaps, but I play for high stakes and given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble

Two years later, Churchill had joined Kitchener’s expedition as journalist attaché to destroy the Mahdi army and avenge General Gordon’s death after the Battle of Khartoum. He participated in a cavalry charge that would form part of the larger Battle of Omdurman where British forces killed, captured, and wounded more than 25,000 Mahdist rebels at the cost of less than 500 casualties.[4] When it came to the preservation of the Empire, Winston was happy to be on the side of the colonial enforcers. Unlike the much parodied neoconservative chickenhawks no one can accuse Churchill of failing to physically carry out his own geopolitical convictions.

As a young man, and indeed throughout his life, Churchill showed the courage of a lion. How many bullets and other missiles were fired in his general direction? A thousand? How many men did he kill, with his own hand? A dozen? Maybe more. No Prime Minister since Wellington had seen so much active service, or been so personally homicidal to any inhabitants of the developing world who offered him violence, and to some, no doubt, who did not. He has the unique distinction, as a Prime Minister, of having been shot at on four continents.

Churchill was madly brave but he was also vain. Nevertheless bravery in any form and from whatever fount is refreshing to read about in any political leader. It is sadly a quality that has been under-emphasized in contemporary society due to its martial associations. To imagine David Cameron or Tony Blair firing from the hip at Al-Qaeda forces near Tora Bora requires one to suspend disbelief. We almost chuckle at the thought that it used to be all right for our world leaders to be able to engage in such blood lust. Should we feel guilty about this?

It is fair to say that one uncontroversial Churchill factor held in high esteem today is his mobilization of the English language. Listening to re-enactment of his various speeches throughout the Battle of Britain can bring tears to a contemporary audience’s eyes. How can this be? Churchill was a master of resonance; finding the words whose concatenations of vowels echoed deeply in our English-speaking souls.

‘Audiences prefer short and homely words of common usage. The short words of a language are usually the most ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal with greater force to simple understanding than words recently introduced from the Latin and the Greek.’

Take Churchill’s famous line about the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”. Boris brilliantly deconstructs the force of this statement. It begins with six words of prolixity: “never in the field of conflict” standing in for what could have otherwise been stated as “during war”. Then the Anglo-Saxon zingers start to fall into place. “So much”: all of Merrie England, village cricket, democracy, public libraries and the suburbs–the British way.[5] “So many”: all of Britain of course, but Christian civilization, the empire, and the old and famous states that have been occupied by the Nazi war machine. “So few”: in the literal sense the RAF pilots operating on a few hours of sleep and fighting endless air battles, but here Winston appeals to something deeper in human nature by associating Britain with the underdog like the Spartans at Thermopylae or Henry the V’s band of brothers. This famous quip turns out to be a “descending tricolon with anaphora, or repetitions of key words, each leg or colon is shorter than the last”:

Never in the field of conflict has

So much been owed by

So many to

So few

Or consider another famous ascending tricolon from Churchill after the victory at El Alamein:

Now this is not the end.

It is not even the beginning of the end.

But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

The last line having the added benefit of chiasmus.[6] Perhaps it is no surprise that “end” and “beginning” are etymologically Old English (ende and beginnan, respectively). Despite references to Christian civilization throughout his speeches as Prime Minister, Churchill himself was not religious.

Churchill was not a practicing Christian. He never believed in the more challenging metaphysics of the New Testament… His ethic was really pre-Christian, even Homeric. His abiding interest was in glory and prestige–both for himself and for the ‘British Empire’. But he had a deep sense of what it was right and fitting for him to do.

When a prelate hailed him as being a ‘pillar of the Church’ he responded that he was more of a ‘flying buttress’. But regardless of where his morality was derived, he was an empathic man. In all the ways he was unlike his father Randolph, this was perhaps the most important. Churchill was known to tear up and cry in public (no doubt attributable to his American heritage). He was an emotional rather than an analytical thinker. The grand Churchillian narratives about the fate of nations and their people tell us more about the human heart of Winston rather than his parroting Victorian pseudo-racial tropes. Like the artist, Churchill could not think in statistics but instead used the subjective gage of the individual human experience as his method of analysis.

Churchill was a renaissance man with an enormous intellectual appetite and an 100-horsepower mental engine. He wrote more published words that Shakespeare and Dickens combined and won the Nobel Prize in Literature to boot. Some biographers think he read more than 5000 books in his life,[7] and he knew whole sections of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome by heart. It is always heart-warming to hear that poetic knowledge can occasionally pay dividends in international diplomacy.

Then Roosevelt quotes some famous line from the patriotic American poem ‘Barbara Frietchie’ by John Greenleaf Whittier… Churchill stunned the presidential couple by giving them the whole darn thing–astonishing, since it is a conspicuously American poem, and hardly the kind of poem he would have learned at Harrow… The Aga Khan had the same sort of floaty feeling when Churchill began quoting huge chunks of Omar Khayyam. Had this man learned it to impress him? No, he just happened to have it in his head. He kept and stored these literary delicacies for years, perfectly pickled in the alcohol-washed runnels of his brain. He could pull them out at any moment: the Lays of Ancient Rome for the cabinet, Shakespeare for his children. Even in his eighties he was able suddenly to summon obscure lines of Aristophanes for Sir John Colville.

Had not Churchill been so successful in the Second World War, it’s almost certain that contemporary biographers would see him as a political and military bungler, albeit a colourful and eccentric one. Let us assemble a highlight reel of Churchill catastrophes.

  1. The Antwerp Blunder: As First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill decided to launch a quixotic defense of Antwerp from invading German forces in 1914. The city surrendered shortly after and many British troops were killed or captured.
  2. The Gallipoli Catastrophe: The attempt to open a new front during the First World War by capturing Istanbul. The landings on the shores of Gallipoli turned into a blood bath with more than 300K casualties. Churchill had a fondness for finding “soft underbellies” that would change the course of a war. He would try a similar approach in Italy with equally ineffective results.[8] The Turkish victory would also prove critical for cementing Ataturk’s reputation and power and concomitantly and lead to the creation of a hostile and autocratic Turkish government after the war. The high death tole suffered disproportionately by Australian, New Zealander, and Canadian forces also seriously undermined solidarity amongst the Commonwealth.
  3. The Russian Bungle: In this endeavour Churchill can at least find many willing accomplices that were trying to crush the Bolshevik revolutionaries (Americans, French, Japanese, Czechs, Serbs, Greeks, and Italians too). However the Reds eventually won and the Soviet Union began its relationship with the West on terms of hostility due to their backing of the White Russian counter-revolutionaries.
  4. The Chanak Cock-Up: Once again Churchill managed to alienate the Commonwealth countries and once again it involved Turkey. In 1922, Kemal Ataturk was threatening certain Allied garrisons on the Turkish peninsula and WC unilaterally declared that military action would be undertaken with the support of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand–a fact that was unknown to these countries. While no fighting did take place, the fiasco was in part responsible for bringing down Lloyd George’s government.[9]
  5. Going Back on Gold: Despite his own personal misgivings, Churchill followed the advice of his Treasury officials and re-pegged the pound to gold in 1925 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The peg was massively overvalued and British exports collapsed and led to serious economic dislocations.
  6. Misjudgment Over India: Winston’s views on Indian independence are well captured by his description of Gandhi as a “semi-naked fakir”. While he was happy to deal with Britain’s newly won territories after WWI like pieces on a chessboard when he was Secretary of State for the Colonies, “he put himself at the head of a movement of irreconcilable imperialist romantics–die hard defenders of the Raj and of the God-given right of every pink-jowled Englishmen to sit on his veranda and sip his chota peg and glory in the possession of India”. When coupled with his negligence in the Bengal famine of 1943, Churchill’s policies towards the Indian subcontinent are fairly ghastly.
  7. The Abdication Crisis: At least in this situation, it was Churchill’s heart and his more relaxed attitude to divorce (no doubt attributable to his American heritage[10]) that led him to back the King in his marrying the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. In an uncommon alliance between his romantic and ultra-monarchist instincts, Churchill at least comes out on the side of contemporary opinion, even if he was excoriated by his Tory colleagues at the time.

While Churchill’s political fortunes would oscillate throughout his life, one question is why he ever reached more than one apex when a single nadir would have left other politicians as spent forces permanently?

What do you notice about the classic Churchillian debacle, the key thing that distinguishes it from the fiascos that finish the careers of lesser men? Never did anyone draw the conclusion–as Churchill crawled from the smoking ruins of his detonated position–that he had been in any way personally corrupt. Never was there the faintest whiff of scandal. None of his disasters came close to touching his integrity.

In the field of genetics, the word “mutation” has fallen out of favour for that of “variant”. This is not just a case of political correctness, it is rather an admission that what is mutant in environment may be the reference in another. In other words, the fitness of a variant will vary by context. Perhaps it was with Churchill too. What were seen as deleterious features turned out to the essential ingredients for leading Britain in her hour of darkness.

There is a sense in which the eccentricity and humour helped to express what Britain was fighting for–what it was all about. With his ludicrous hats and rompers and cigars and excess alcohol, he contrived physically to represent the central idea of his own political philosophy: the inalienable right of British people to live their lives in freedom, to do their own thing. You only had to look at Churchill, and see the vital difference between his way of life and the ghastly seriousness and uniformity and pomposity of the Nazis. Never forget: Hitler was a teetotaler, a deformity that counts for much misery. In his personal individualism and bullish eccentricity Churchill helped define the fight.

  1. Just to point out that the political situation at the time is always more complex and morally ambiguous than present viewers see it. 

  2. Contrast this sentiment to Reagan’s: “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the Democratic Party left me.” 

  3. Which was considered a cause of the Left at the time as it meant cheaper food prices for the poor. 

  4. The British having the machine gun helped in this case. 

  5. Recall the line from his Finest Hour speech: “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.” 

  6. Here is another great Churchill quip with chiasmus: “Tell the Lord Privy Seal that I am sealed in the privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time”. 

  7. For me, a target of one book a week is reasonable and admirable goal. Yet even at this optimistic pace of reading from the ages of sixteen to seventy-six I would only hit half that number, and I do not plan of being Prime Minister during any of the years which would cut into my spare reading time I presume. 

  8. It’s probably the case that “soft underbellies” do not really exist against professional armies that have solid terrain advantages. 

  9. This event has two other fun historical facts associated with it. First, it led the now famous quip by Andrew Bonar Law that “Britain could not be the policemen of the world”. Second it gave birth to the 1922 Committee which allows the parliamentary Tory party members to have an internal vote of no confidence. This Committee has become important during the Brexit withdrawal shenanigans. 

  10. Whatever fondness Winston had for America, it ended at the doorstep of Prohibition. In response to an American temperance campaigner who told him that “strong drink rageth and stingeth like a serpent” he replied that he “had been looking for a drink like that all my life”. 

Written on January 25, 2019