The Magazine

Winston in Focus

A great man gets a second look.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By ANDREW ROBERTS
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Keynes’ own remark that practical men of affairs are often the slaves of some defunct economist has not lost its piquancy now that the defunct economist is Keynes himself.

Dilks presents Churchill as a late-developer who didn’t discover a love of learning until he was 22, possibly the result of his never having attended university. Nonetheless, Churchill “radiated a coiled energy” that, once unleashed, was impressive. He might have inherited some of it from his maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, whose wife once remarked to his mistress, “My dear, I understand what you feel. He is so irresistible.” 

Throughout his life, Churchill collected people at the head of their fields—“Nature’s princes,” in Dilks’s words—such as the special forces warriors T. E. Lawrence and Orde Wingate, the painters Sir John Lavery and Paul Maze, the strategists Charles Portal and Harold Alexander, the orators John Morley and Joseph Chamberlain, the statesmen Arthur Balfour and Lord Rosebery, and the premiers Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. Having known all the true greats of his day, the wilderness years of the thirties, when the midgets took over, were presumably less painful for him than they otherwise might have been. 

Dilks posits a number of intriguing possibilities that are worthy of investigation: that Churchill’s life was probably saved at the Battle of Omdurman because of a longstanding injury to his shoulder, which forced him to carry a pistol instead of a sword; that, in the words of his friend Desmond Morton, “physical danger .  .  . gave him a thrill almost of a sexual nature”; that Churchill did not, in fact, suffer from the depression so often attributed to him with minimal actual proof; and even that “there was no gulf of ideology between [Chamberlain] and Churchill in the realm of international affairs.” Few will concur with every one of the author’s conclusions, of course—not least that Britain nearly went to war with France in May 1945. 

This book will certainly dispel forever the lazy assertion that Great Britain somehow “stood alone” in the year and five days between the fall of France in June 1940 and Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. In perhaps his best essay, Dilks shows how the British Empire and Commonwealth “consistently had more divisions in fighting contact with the enemy than the U.S. until the summer of 1944, not only in Africa and Europe but also in Asia.” Not until 1944 did the U.S. Army Air Forces drop more bombs on the enemy than did the empire and commonwealth forces. 

The description of the contributions to victory made by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, and India—which all fought from the start of the war in September 1939 to its finish in September 1945—is at times deeply moving. “On Churchill’s own admission,” records Dilks, “it was not until late in the war that he realized fully what a small country Britain is.” The reason being that, all his life hitherto, the empire and commonwealth had allowed him to ignore that blatant geographical fact.

“Never in the field of human argument,” states Dilks, “can the name of a single thinker have been prayed in aid by so many politicians .  .  . or advanced in support of so many propositions quite incompatible.” It is true, and Churchill would undoubtedly react with contempt at the way in which modern politicians attempt to squeeze his words into their ideologies, regardless of context. A classic case today is the way that Churchill is presented as having supported a European superstate in his great postwar speeches at Zurich and the Hague, which, when read carefully, clearly state that he wanted Britain to be “associated with” but certainly not part of such an endeavor. (Churchill had his own view of how contempt should be employed, saying in 1954, “As you know, contempt is not contempt if you have to take any trouble expressing it. It has got to be quite involuntary, and if possible unconscious.”)