Lead book review

Does Boris Johnson really expect us to think he's Churchill?

And if not, what exactly is the point of The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, by Boris Johnson? Apart from a couple of good jokes, that is...

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History Boris Johnson

Hodder, pp.416, £25, ISBN: 9781444783025

As you would expect, it’s impossible to read this book without drawing fairly direct comparisons between its author and its subject. In promotional exchanges, with the well-worn practice of self-deprecation, its author will of course insist that there is no comparison between the great man and the present humble supplicant. The readership will, with tolerant amusement, conclude that there are plenty of points which could be brought to bear on the argument; plenty, indeed, which may have occurred to the author himself, emerging in some striking encomia:

He was eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes — and a thoroughgoing genius… From his very emergence as a young Tory MP he had bashed and satirised his own party… There were too many Tories who thought of him as an unprincipled opportunist… His enemies detected in him a titanic egotism, a desire to find whatever wave or wavelet he could, and surf it long after it had dissolved into spume on the beach… He did behave with a death-defying self-belief, and go farther out on a limb than anyone else might have thought wise.

There are some irresistible points of comparison, of course. Churchill was a famously amusing talker and sparkling writer who made his reputation not as a politician but as a very well-paid journalist. Half-American, he was always considered within his party as a big beast, but often an isolated one; there were many black marks against his name. His dealings with the Tonypandy miners through to his catastrophic relations with Lord Fisher during the first world war, his backing of Mrs Simpson, and even the chaos of his last administration, 1951–55; these were redeemed by the events following 1940. But Churchill was unmistakably the sort of politician who got away with stuff. To that extent, the comparisons between author and subject seem fair enough.

But by the time we are brought to contemplate Churchill’s attitudes to ‘champagne-fuelled university high jinks’ and asked to wonder whether Churchill ever felt the temptation to commit adultery (answer: famously not), a certain wry amusement might be setting in. The Plutarchan parallel life, which runs a wishful self-portrait of the author alongside a portrait of the subject, has been revived as a literary form. In this case it will provide — is intended to provide, I’m sure — hours of entertainment to the literal-minded.

It is not altogether easy to turn from Johnson’s suggestive subject to his declared one. But what is this book for? There are a number of Churchills nowadays. There is the historian’s one, produced by examining the evidence and trying to see the shape of the career, and how it fits into events. There is a truly agonisingly boring politician’s one, wheeled out for the benefit of visiting American dignitaries, in which Churchill’s ideas of Europe, Commonwealth, mid-Atlantic relations, anything at all, can sometimes be traduced or invented, alongside a brief homage to the events of 1940. And there is an entertainer’s Churchill, who has become one of half a dozen national figures from history, like King Alfred, Lady Godiva, Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, who can be relied upon to provide a mental image — with an expression and a couple of props — for comedians, cartoonists and the makers of pop videos. In Churchill’s case, he is depicted as a cross between a baby and a bulldog. He is usually clutching a cigar, though one of the definitive Churchill images, by Karsh of Ottawa, has a scowl that was achieved by the photographer rudely snatching the cigar away.

The historian’s Churchill does not have much of a role here. Some favourite Churchillian anecdotes are debunked, but not enough. To give credence to the one about the American woman who wouldn’t say ‘a chicken’s breast’ merely on the say-so of one of Churchill’s relations seems naïve: the English have been making jokes about genteel Americans offering their guests ‘a slice of the chicken’s bosom’ since the 1840s at least.

Overall, as a contribution to knowledge about important events, this book is negligible, and sometimes brutally omits obvious facts in order to present a consistent case. Here is one example, in defence of Churchill as imperialist:

His language on India sometimes seems unhinged, but you have to bear in mind that he saw the Raj as a restraint on barbarous practices — suttee, bride-price, the shunning of the Untouchables and so on.

Suttee (or sati) was banned in the Raj as early as 1829, and in all the princely states by 1861, so Churchill can hardly have seen it as an urgent justification for empire. More worryingly, to restrict Churchill’s attitudes on empire to some intemperate language, like describing Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’, neglects some areas of real irresponsibility. When there was a danger of serious famine in Bengal in 1943–4, Churchill announced that the Indians ‘must learn to look after themselves as we have done… there is no reason why all parts of the British empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the mother country has done.’ Still more disgracefully, he said in a jocular way that ‘the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks’. This is more than amusingly politically incorrect language: it had real consequences. Three million Bengalis died of starvation. A true historian would not have neglected this in order to suggest that the imperialist was making a stand against ‘barbarous practices’.

But, pleasingly, we do not get a politician’s Churchill either — or not entirely; although what Evelyn Waugh called Churchill’s mastery of ‘sham-Augustan prose’ does infect Johnson’s own style from time to time: ‘Gone was Churchill the anti-American…. So began his relentless advocacy.…’ (in exactly the same way, when politicians start to talk about Churchill, a tendency they have, the verb so grandly at the sentence’s end to place). But this is not the whole of it. The book’s style is often chatty, enthusiastic and as funny as you would expect. It has been written in something of a hurry, to drum up interest and enthusiasm for the values that Churchill espoused, and not to hymn them sonorously.

Most valuable of all, and this is where the book does possess some interest, is the discussion of literary style. It comes to life when explaining what the structures of those famous sentences actually are, with reference to classical rhetoric, and examining some truly great early journalistic dispatches. Here, after all, is where the author can contribute something rather special, because brilliant professional users of language are often failures in the arena of politics — John Stuart Mill made no mark as an MP — and few politicians can write a book that possesses any life.

Whether or not this biographer, after years of being regarded as an intensely likeable but somewhat shambolic person, a gifted writer but not entirely to be trusted, is going to be presented with the great opportunity of disaster to test his mettle in the worst of all moments, we must wait to see. In the meantime — granted this volume’s entertaining as well as mildly preposterous elements — it is true to say that few people in the mid-1930s would have thought it remotely likely that Churchill would ever be regarded as his country’s saviour.

Whether that entirely justifies an index entry reading ‘Habits resembling Bertie Wooster figure, p.122’ (really, Boris? Really?), I can’t honestly say.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • Hegelguy

    “When there was a danger of serious famine in Bengal in 1943–4, Churchill announced that the Indians ‘must learn to look after themselves as we have done… there is no reason why all parts of the British empire should not feel the pinch in the same way as the mother country has done.’ Still more disgracefully, he said in a jocular way that ‘the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks’. This is more than amusingly politically incorrect language: it had real consequences. Three million Bengalis died of starvation. ”

    Churchill, after years of draining India of food, refused aid until it was too late for millions. He forbade the US and Australia to send help either as they had offered to do: so that Australian ships full of grain sailed past a Bengal where the famine dead and dying lined the roadsides and the fields. Masses of the starving thronged the streets of Calcutta where in the Whites Only clubs the British gorged themselves on food and drink as did Churchill at home (Lord Reith, seeing the massive food costs for a Churchill- Roosevelt summit, remarked, “I wonder how much Roosevelt got.”)

    In Calcutta some of the desperate people tried to get into hospitals but were thrown out on the orders of British staff because they were merely starving, not ill. A distinction which would win admiration from Iain Duncan Smith.

    The three million Bengalis estimated to have perished in this famine in 1943 (one of many under British rule, and they ceased to happen after the Union Jack was hauled down in India) were one tenth of all Bengalis. In scale the crime made Churchill worse than Stalin.

    Even members of Churchill’s Cabinet were appalled by his policy in Bengal. His Chief Military Adviser, Alanbrooke, remarked: “Winston seems content to starve India while using it as a military base.” His own Viceroy in India, Lord Wavell, who battled him desperately to get food for India, asked in his published diary ( “A Viceroy’s Memoirs”, 1970) whether the Churchill Cabinet was not the most contemptible one in British history.

    You can read of all this in Patrick French’s well known history of India’s transition to Independence, “Liberty or Death”.

    Churchill stopped India using it own money and ships to obtain food; India was later stopped by the UK from asking for UN aid as this would have harmed British prestige. So Indian contributions to the UN went to feed Europeans while Indians starved.

    A very good book on Churchill’s crime in Bengal is Madhusree Mukerjee’s “Churchill’s Secret War”. It has been highly praised by the leading Churchill historian Max Hastings.

  • Hegelguy

    “Still more disgracefully, he said in a jocular way that ‘the starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks’. ”

    I have no idea why Hensher thinks this remark of Churchill’s was “jocular”. Given his record of refusing famine aid to Bengal when masses of people were starving to death (three million by the end, one tenth of all Bengalis), there is every reason to think he meant the remark seriously.

  • rtj1211

    You only have to look at Boris’ attitude to the Iraq war (no due diligence, meekly going into the war lobbies, then blustering like a buffoon about how he’d been duped) to see that he had and has zero credibility in comparison with Churchill’s sole reason for greatness: a war leader.

    Boris may have the ego to be Prime Minister, but he has neither the humility nor the principles. Of course, such characteristics are useful for powers behind the scenes, who want a blustering impotent figurehead to do their bidding in complete contempt for the concepts of national sovereignty, parliamentary democracy and government of the people, for the people, by the people…….

  • john

    I think Boris has a bet with himself or a chum that no matter how idiotic he sounds and how much of a tit he is, the deferential Tory Party and voters will still present the Prime Ministership to him on a platter.
    My bet is that he will easily prove that if you channel a silly ass upper class Tory image, you can’t fail.

  • Duncan Dunnit

    Re “Does Boris Johnson really expect us to think he’s Churchill?” , what has Boris really done for the people since becoming mayor of London. When becoming Mayor he had an intern (specific intern selected and appointed at his request), after some months he got this intern pregnant, the big question is, did the buffoon only give this girl the opportunity of becoming his intern so as to get inside her knickers?? and would he demand more interns were he to become PM.

  • AJ

    Boris Johnson, is a big man with an even bigger ego. Nigel Farage, now he can be our next Churchill, not BOJO. People all over the country are switching to UKIP, there’s a Canada moment in the air, if you know what I mean.

  • Swanky

    Yes, let’s drain the Great Man any way we can. After all, if he is great though flawed, what does that make us? –Genial though miserably forgettable? Greatness is more difficult for the people of our time to contemplate than evil, or change, or their own death.

  • Roy

    There must be as many bad memories of what Churchill did as those of which he became immensely popular. That isn’t to say he didn’t make a difference when the chips were down, he knew what to say and when to say it when his country was down and out. Boris Johnson does not have to walk in Churchill’s shoes to show leadership, but he does have to speak for the English people, stand by their values, and not sell them out. His test is yet to come.

  • Bob339

    Why not? He is fat, a drunkard, part jewish and a political opportunist. A perfect fit.

  • John Carins

    Although not in the same league, it is interesting to reflect on a history repeating itself moment. Churchill was a lone voice who advocated that Hitler and Nazism would have to be confronted. Chamberlain and Halifax were always looking at ways to appease and cut a deal. Today it’s Cameron et al who what to cut a deal with the EU believing that the EU is amenable to British reform. Farage and some eurosceptic Conservatives are the only ones like Churchill who are reading the runes correctly: a deal is impossible and the EU has to face up to life without Britain as a member.

  • Churchill about Islam :

    ”No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step, and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it (Islam) has vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”

    Meanwhile Boris is actively promoting London-istan social engineering as a ”model” for the rest of hideously White Britain and Pro-ISIS Turks entry into the EU…

    Vote labour/Tory/Libdems get Rotherham ,Bradford-istan and Tower Hamlets………

    The Frankfurt School of subversion of the West and its globalist agenda are ruling our political class. The very systems and institutions that created this nation are slowly being dismantled. There is a discrimination and organized dispossession against Anglo-Saxons in this country.

    In England , the English are less than 30% of London and a minority in Luton,Bradford,Leicester,Dewsbury,Slough,Blackburn,Manchester,Birmingham. Furthermore, Britons are replaced by 500 000/year non western migrants while around 300 000 of the best educated middle class leave the UK for good . Thus the “net migration” of +200 000 …

    ‘Unemployment among ethnic minorities costs the economy almost £8.6 billion a year in benefits and lost revenue from taxes. Half of Muslim men and three quarters of Muslim women are unemployed.’

    You can see why Farage and UKIP are gaining such popularity. They talk the truth and stand for British People.

  • balance_and_reason

    No more than we are expected to assume you are the King of the Badgers.

  • swatnan

    Churchill the opportunist who switched parties 3 times to further his career.
    And then stabbed Chambderlain in the back.

  • RoyWatson

    Churchill became PM in 1951 because constituency boundaries meant the Tories got
    26 more seats than Labour on 200,000 fewer votes. An unsurprising
    inspiration to a man who occupies the mayoralty of London on the
    endorsement of 19% of the electorate.