Churchill’s Shadow: An Astonishing Life and a Dangerous Legacy
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Bodley Head, £25, 545 pages
‘History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past.” So said Winston Churchill in his 1940 parliamentary tribute to his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Geoffrey Wheatcroft quotes the passage to round off his new portrait of Churchill and seldom have the words seemed so apt.
Wheatcroft’s aims are to “look hard” at Churchill’s “reputation during his lifetime, and his influence since he died”. The prologue claims that he did not plan “a hostile account”, but Wheatcroft admits to “a contrary nature” and an admiration for HG Wells’s concept of the ideal biographer as “a conscientious enemy”. So it should come as little surprise to Churchill’s admirers that “harsh words will be found about him in these pages”.
Wheatcroft starts by acknowledging that Churchill “led the British nobly and heroically during one of the great crises of history”, before adding that he has “misled them ever since, sustaining the country with beguiling illusions of greatness”.
He pays tribute to Churchill’s physical courage, to his part in the groundbreaking social legislation of the Liberal government of 1906, to his early grasp of Hitler’s threat in the 1930s and to the willpower, allied to a mastery of language, that Britain’s leader displayed in 1940. But the author’s charge sheet against Churchill extends well beyond the usual suspects of Gallipoli, India and abdication, all of which Churchill’s admirers can explain as the occasional lapses of judgement to be expected in half a century of public service.
Wheatcroft’s catalogue of faults extends into “character flaws”, a category fiercely resisted by Churchill’s fullest fans. A non-exhaustive summary would include habitual arrogance and rudeness, a second-rate mind, an inability to judge others, the embellishing and distortion of history while passing off others’ work as his own, a racism that exceeded the norms of his day, topped off by conscious lies (for example, about the date when the British government first knew that Hitler had embarked on his “final solution” for the Jews).
Recent books and films may have raised Churchill’s pedestal so high that it has become a tempting target for a commentator such as Wheatcroft, possessed of a broad perspective, a dose of courage and a sharp pen. But was he wise to take on this task in lockdown while admitting that Churchill’s Shadow is not “a work of academic scholarship, nor based on archival sources”? Inevitably, without an anchor in archival evidence, Wheatcroft depends on the (sometimes conflicting) accounts of other historians and the (often unreliable) reminiscences of Churchill’s contemporaries.
The claim that Churchill’s racism went well beyond the Victorian assumption that white people had reached a higher level of “civilisation” than others turns out to depend heavily on later recollections by Churchill’s contemporaries of his private asides. If Wheatcroft had seen draft after draft in the archives of galleys for the Second World War rewritten in Churchill’s own hand, would he have pressed so far his claim that so much of it had been written by the “Syndicate”, the group of experts Churchill had hired to marshal his material? Would the many memoranda in the archives that Churchill sent to his Cabinet colleagues have given to the argument that Churchill had a second-rate mind? It is hard to reconcile this, for example, with the incisive action he took behind the scenes in May 1940, to recast the entire machinery of Britain’s war-time governance so that its political, military and civil decision-making became integrated for the first time.
This should not prevent a salute to the value of Wheatcroft’s broader perspective when he links the past to the present – the “dangerous legacy” of the title. He pinpoints the contradictions of the Great War settlement, to which Churchill was a party, concerning national self-determination and shows how they leave their mark in the Middle East and Balkans today. He highlights the moral advantage that Britain gained by waiting until 1939 and avoiding a pre-emptive war, then deplores the lazy misapplication of the “lessons of Munich” in subsequent crises. Tellingly, he contrasts Churchill’s “peripheral” war strategy with the tale that he subsequently wove of Great Britain’s centrality to the Allied victory. From this legend, claims the flickering lamp of Wheatcroft, flows the difficulty that so many Britons face in accepting a reduced role for their country in the modern world.
David Lough is the author of No More Champagne: Churchill and his Money (Head of Zeus) and Darling Winston: Forty Years of Letters between Winston Churchill and his Mother (Apollo)
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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