The Magazine

Not So Special

Why the author doesn’t like Churchill’s ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples.’

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Not long ago I was in Boston browsing the stacks of that legendary emporium, the Brattle Book Shop, when I chanced upon Winston Spencer Churchill: Servant of Crown and Commonwealth, a collection of tributes to the parliamentarian, war leader, historian, and wit, which his longstanding English publisher Cassell brought out in 1954 to celebrate the great man’s 80th birthday. 

Included among the contributors were some notably diverse figures—Duff Cooper, who resigned his post in the cabinet after Munich; Viscount Cecil, whose abounding faith in the League of Nations proved such a pitiable illusion; Aga Khan, the sybaritic imam who shared Churchill’s passion for the turf; Bernard Baruch, who helped put Churchill back on his feet after the 1929 crash; Clement Attlee, who in his many years in the House of Commons prized Churchill not only as a worthy colleague but as an even worthier opponent—all of whom had lively things to say about the august honoree. 

Yet the one whose tribute captured the essence of Churchill best was Violet Bonham Carter, H. H. Asquith’s daughter. Describing meeting young Churchill at a dinner party when she was 19 and he was 33, she recalled, “With his dramatic South African exploits behind him, and a political career in the making, [he] was already on the high road to fame”—though his critics were quick to dismiss it as mere self-seeking “notoriety.” Still, Violet was shrewd enough to see it as something more.

His unabashed confidence, unsquashable resilience, his push and dash and flair for taking short cuts through life, his contempt for humdrum conformity have always challenged stuffy, stolid, stick-in-the-mud opinion here and elsewhere.

For Violet, no one knew better “how to perform the public service known as ‘putting the cat among the pigeons,’ ” and readers of her memoir, Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1965), will also recall that it was at this same dinner that Churchill turned to his young companion and quipped, “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”

In Mr. Churchill’s Profession, Peter Clarke attempts to dim the luster of Violet’s friend by disparaging not only the writings of the man but the man himself. The author of a recent study of John Maynard Keynes and a survey of the end of empire for the Penguin History of Britain, Clarke might seem peculiarly suited for such a task, though whether he succeeds is another matter.  

Rather than studying Churchill’s literary work as a whole, Clarke limits himself to a sustained attack on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-58), which Churchill wrote from 1932, when his political career seemed finished, to the later 1950s, when he finally handed the baton off to Anthony Eden. Clarke does take up aspects of Churchill’s four-volume life of the Duke of Marlborough (1933-38), but there is very little about his life of Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), his history of the Great War, The World Crisis (1923-1929), his auto­biography My Early Life (1930), his history of the Second World War (1948-54), or his charming collection of pen portraits, Great Contemporaries (1936). 

Clarke also spends a good deal of the book discussing the assistance Churchill obtained for his History of the English-Speaking Peoples from a number of talented editors, most of whom were good historians in their own right: Keith Feiling, the biographer of Neville Chamberlain; G. M. Young, the author of that wonderful study of the Victorians, Portrait of an Age (1936); Alan Bullock and William Deakin, who would go on to edit the Oxford History of Modern Europe series; Denis Brogan, the Cambridge don who wrote a number of books on American politics; Alan Hodge, Robert Graves’s collaborator in the interwar social history, The Long Week-End (1941); and J. H. Plumb, the epicurean biographer of Sir Robert Walpole, who spent the Second World War at Bletchley Park deciphering the German naval code.

With such a cast of characters, Clarke might have put together a fascinating account of how these different historians viewed the Anglo history that Churchill proposed to cover. But in his hands such marvelous material never comes to life. 
Clarke only deviates from his niggling account of the History for brief digressions. For example, he notes that Frontiers and Wars (1962), an omnibus edition of Churchill’s early imperial histories, “is still readable today for its lucid and bold exposition,” though the real reason he commends “its mordant asides” is that they underscore “the intractable nature of the resistance to Western dominance in Afghanistan.” 

Similarly, Clarke is initially full of praise for Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, who confided in his journal how “the country believes that Winston is the man of action who is winning the war and little realise how ineffective, and indeed harmful, much of his energy is proving itself to be.” But when Colville has a change of heart and sees the morale-boosting point of Churchill’s modus operandi, Clarke quickly turns against him. In response to Colville’s remarking how “refreshing” it is “to work with somebody who refuses to be depressed, even by the most formidable danger that has ever threatened the country,” Clarke writes that “the lack of executive substance here now seems to be no problem for Colville.” 

For Clarke, most of Churchill’s admirers are unaccountable dupes. The sound men are those who “went on pining for [Neville] Chamberlain’s terse efficiency and administrative grip.”   

The gist of Clarke’s dossier against the History of the English-Speaking Peoples is threefold: Churchill did not deliver the book to his publisher on time; he did not deliver the book that he had contracted to deliver; and the finished book was largely written by other hands, Churchill himself only contributing volumes one and two and the history of the American Civil War in the fourth volume.   

These are the main criticisms, but there are many other ancillary criticisms. While revising proofs, Churchill candidly shared with G. M. Young his disapproval of Oliver Cromwell: “I remain hostile to him, and consider that he should be condemned as representative of the dictatorships against which all the whole movement of English history has been continuous.” For Clarke, this amounts to little more than “a sort of class action against dictatorship,” and Cromwell is “thus an unlucky defendant against an indictment neither entirely generated by nor faithful to a purely seventeenth-century context.” 

But if one compares Churchill’s Cromwell to that of Christopher Hill, the Marxist historian who viewed Cromwell in much the same light as the left viewed Joseph Stalin—that is, as a necessary, even salutary dictator—we can see Clarke’s charge that Churchill was guilty of special pleading as a deft piece of table-turning. 

Clarke also slags Churchill for preferring the old-fashioned Whig history that he read in his youth to the Marxist history that came into vogue in the 1930s. For Clarke, that Churchill never ceased to delight in the narrative histories of Edward Gibbon and Lord Macaulay is proof of his sentimental amateurism. Another strike against Churchill is his admiration for William Pitt, Lord Chat–ham, the brilliant orator and war leader who led his countrymen to victory against the French not only in India, Africa, and Canada, but on the Rhine as well. For Clarke, Churchill’s attempt to differentiate the inspired leadership of the elder Pitt from the usurpatory tyranny of Cromwell only reinforces their similarities. Indeed, in Churchill’s own account of the two men, Clarke sees an unwitting hypocrisy: “Many of the qualities denounced as dictatorial in Cromwell become admirable qualities in Chatham’s unique personal command.” Yet Clarke goes further. In response to Churchill’s observation made during an August 1939 broadcast that “it is curious how the English-speaking peoples have always had this horror of one-man power,” Clarke writes: “A lot depended, of course, upon which man was being judged by these elastic historical standards.” 

In other words, Churchill could not take Cromwell to task (or Hitler, for that matter) because Cromwell, Chatham, and Adolf Hitler were “all one-man powers.” This is the same equivalence that John le Carré made so fashionable during the Cold War, excusing genuine tyrants while discrediting the opponents of tyranny. 

Another target at which Clarke trains his fire is the “special relationship,” which he treats as an offshoot of Churchill’s “sentimental vision of the unity of the English-speaking peoples”—a vision without any discernible root in reality. For Clarke, “Churchill surely asked too much of sentiment. American policy towards Britain, whether under [Franklin] Roose­velt or his successors, was based on more substantial considerations.” But Churchill’s writings on the special bond between America and Great Britain are valuable precisely because they affirm the shared democratic values of the two countries: their shared commitment to liberty. Clarke’s contempt for such values, his dismissal of them as so much sentimentality, is typical of his hostile, reductionist view of his subject. 

Yet there is something even more distasteful about his handling of the “special relationship.” After calling Churchill’s respect for Anglo-American collaboration into question, he suggests that Churchill advocated this collaboration “to turn his soft words into hard cash, dollars and pounds alike.” Here, perhaps, is more envy than spite: As Clarke himself documents, Churchill was consistently well paid for his work, but that is no reason to insinuate that he only advocated the “special relationship”—or any opinion or policy—to swell his bank balance. 

Clarke may flail at Churchill for not paying attention to his publisher’s deadlines, or for failing to deliver on its agreed scope at a time when he was defending Britain against the full fury of Nazi aggression. But he cannot fault him for casting aspersions on the character of those with whom he disagreed. The eloquent eulogy that Churchill delivered in the House of Commons on the death of Neville Chamberlain was moving proof of that. In the meantime, readers seeking a more balanced and incisive study of the “special relationship” should repair to Andrew Roberts’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (2007), which nicely exposes the sophisticated cynicism that is evident on nearly every page of Mr. Churchill’s Profession.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and the forthcoming Newman and His Family.