Is there any need for yet another book on Churchill? The old mythology surrounding Churchill, that Britons, inspired by their heroic prime minister, succeeded in transforming defeat into victory at Dunkirk and standing alone against Hitler’s armies, is being conjured by Conservative and populist politicians whose Churchill is virtually an isolationist with a mission to defend British exceptionalism against the hostile powers of Europe. Thus, Boris Johnson, in his breathless paean, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History,1 likens himself to his subject and makes claim to the same vein of eccentricity as Churchill—another supposed hallmark of ‘the British character’—Nigel Farage calls for Churchill’s bust to be returned to the White House Oval Office and Michael Gove complains that Churchill is insufficiently studied at school. Meanwhile, a ceaseless flow of films on Churchill during the Second World War appears, each one conveying a romanticized version of his role. This surge in nostalgia for a mythical past cries out for narratives solidly based on archival research and scholarly analysis, and targeted at a general readership. This is precisely the aim of Richard Toye’s new book, Winston Churchill: Politics, Strategy and Statecraft, which seeks to understand Churchill’s place in British history beyond hero worship and canonization. This edited volume consists of fourteen brief chapters, which offer ‘a short, accessible and analytical introduction to the key themes in Churchill’s life’ (p. 2). As Toye makes clear in his Introduction, dispelling myths about Churchill does not imply undermining his reputation. It does, however, confirm that Churchill knew Britain could not stand alone against Hitler, but needed the USA to join the struggle and to stand together with the Resistance in Europe. He understood that Dunkirk was, in his own words, a ‘colossal military disaster’ and that even the help of hundreds of very brave civilians could not turn it into a victory: it would always be a retreat with thousands of casualties. He knew it was precisely the lack of solidarity among Britain, France and other European countries that had contributed to Hitler’s swift conquest of the Continent. As Toye observes, ‘[f]acts that are well known to historians and which were vitally important to Churchill’s personal and political development fail to penetrate popular awareness’ (p. 1). Rather than focussing solely on ‘the finest hour’, Britain’s stubborn defensive stand in 1940, and harking back to earlier heroes such as Drake, Marlborough and Wellington, who allegedly also stood alone against the threat of tyranny from the Continent, Toye’s contributors examine the whole of Churchill’s record, from his beginnings as a Liberal politician (David Thackeray) to his long-postponed retirement in 1955 (Kevin Ruane), giving the reader a much more complex and nuanced assessment of his achievements. Toye, who reminds readers that Churchill largely shaped his own image through his prolific writings, addresses the question of sources with the e-book version of the volume, which enables readers to check the original documents from the Churchill Archive on line and thereby grasp the process of interpretation and the place of critical analysis. The importance of challenging national legends is at the root of the selection of topics addressed in the individual chapters. As a public figure not only during the Second World War but for more than half a century, consideration is given to, among other things, his crucial contribution to Britain’s incipient welfare state in the Edwardian period as well as the apparent paradox of his reluctance to support the 1942 Beveridge Report, as discussed in David Thackeray’s chapter. Martin Thornton places Churchill’s reputation as a war hero in perspective by reviewing his controversial tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911 to 1915 when he was responsible for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. Peter Catterall considers his record as Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1924 and 1929, which included his controversial decision to return to the gold standard. Chris Wrigley counterpoises his aggressive anti-socialism and hostility to militant trade unionism against his acceptance of moderate trade unionism as part of democracy and freedom. Stuart Ball shows that Churchill was usually closer to mainstream Conservative opinion than is generally assumed, making him less an eccentric and more a man of his time, or put simply an anti-socialist imperialist. Paul Addison examines his opposition to female suffrage and ambivalent attitude towards women in his personal and political life. Toye himself examines his imperialism and its connections with issues of racism and power. This included his long campaign against the India Bill in 1935, his ‘vitriolic attacks’ on Gandhi and his hostility to ‘coloured’ immigration after 1945, which shed a different light on the themes of imperialism and the unity of the ‘English-speaking peoples’ (p. 110–11). Warren Dockter describes Churchill’s attempts to shape the modern Middle East and the Islamic world, with consequences evident even now. In a similar vein Richard Overy discusses the ambiguous legacy of Churchill’s endorsement of airpower without examining its ethical implications. Jeremy Black examines Churchill’s mixed record as a strategist during the Second World War, and David B. Woolner reassesses the so-called ‘Special Relationship’ with the USA, for which Churchill is widely credited as a result of his carefully nurtured wartime relationship with Franklin Roosevelt. Two final chapters by Kevin Ruane on Churchill as Cold Warrior and his strategy with regard to nuclear weapons close a stimulating and enjoyable volume. This collective work is an excellent introduction to, in Toye’s words, ‘Churchill’s statecraft—that is to say, the way in which he sought power and tried to use it for personal, party and strategic ends’ (p. 11). In dispelling myths and presenting a nuanced past, solidly grounded in evidence and available to a wide readership, it reaffirms the importance of history in fostering critical awareness of present issues. The current practice of instrumentalizing Churchill’s life to assuage Britain’s insecurities about its world position and foster a narrow understanding of its identity is effectively challenged by this pluralist approach to history, which highlights the complexity of Churchill’s record and its problematic value for Brexiteers such as Johnson, Farage and Gove. Footnotes 1 Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, New York, Riverhead Books, 2014. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 7, 2017
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