A book about a statesman by a politician prompts two questions: Do we learn anything new about the statesman, and do we learn anything useful about the politician? In this case, the answer to both questions is yes.
First things first: The Churchill Factor is not intended for scholars, nor for readers with a detailed knowledge of Winston Churchill. But it is directed at two spacious segments of the reading population: those who know something about Churchill, and those who know nothing. A half-century after Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson is rightly despairing about ignorance of his subject; but his evidence is almost wholly anecdotal—and to those who worry about such things, not a shock. The average Englishman knows as little about Admiral Nelson as the average American knows of General Grant.
If the reader’s knowledge of Churchill is a blank slate, this is a lively, and pertinent, introduction to him. Johnson makes the claim, and he is surely correct, that Churchill’s historic influence is palpable, undeniable, almost wholly benign—and relevant to our times. Most readers are likely to know something, however, and they will benefit not only from this book’s wealth of lore and information, but from Johnson’s corrective opinions and analysis. Some of what we know about Churchill is mythology; some of what we know is plainly wrong; and some of what we know derives from the distortions of ideology and journalism. Johnson believes that “the Churchill factor”—the difference one astonishing life can make in the progress of humanity and advancement of freedom—refutes the doctrine that history is a random series of events, pushed and pulled by abstractions. “There has been,” declares Johnson, “no one remotely like him before or since.”
There is, to begin with, the sheer quantitative sweep of Churchill’s life and work. He was already famous when Queen Victoria was alive, and he died in the year the Beatles won the MBE. He started near the top—duke’s grandson, moneyed family, wide social connections—but his life was a propulsive, one might say obsessive, march forward: He soldiered, he wrote, he traveled, he governed, he sought danger and knowledge and power with limitless energy. His appetites were exceeded only by his enterprise. In America, we tend to think of him as the pugnacious war leader who defied Hitler by inspiring his countrymen; but Churchill’s long influence began with his architecture of the British welfare state and ended with his warnings about the postwar Soviet Union and nuclear conflict.
Nor was Churchill a stranger to contradiction. An instinctive man of action—a bust of Napoleon still stands in his study at Chartwell, his country estate—he wrote for a living, and for spiritual sustenance. He possessed many of the biases and presumptions of his time and place, but his lifelong allegiance to Britain’s empire was tinctured with an empathetic view of its inhabitants. The physical embodiment of John Bull, his politics were the “Tory democracy” of his father, and his instincts were a Whiggish devotion to human progress. Churchill’s comprehension of Hitler and the Nazis was intuitive, and his hostility was absolute; but he hated tyranny, not the Germans, and in his famous words, was magnanimous in victory. He had a policeman’s view of the law but a clergyman’s attitude toward justice. He was romantic, simultaneously, about Britain and Europe.
Then there is the qualitative scope of his career. Churchill had a genius for turning up at opportune moments, and making the most of them. He began at the last cavalry charge of the British Army (Sudan, 1898) and finished by pleading for the first Cold War summit (Geneva, 1955). He invented the notion of Britain’s “special relationship” with America, promoted the development of the tank and Royal Flying Corps in the Great War, charted the map of the modern Middle East, introduced the concept of a united states of Europe. His Nobel Prize for literature might be seen as more political than literary, but few statesmen have written influential volumes on their politician-father’s reputation, on their ancestors’ historic achievements, on the two world wars, on painting, on politics, on the idea of the “English-speaking peoples.”
He was, in short, the personification of the Great Man in history—and in Johnson’s view, the greatest in the history of Great Britain, certainly. Churchill dominated the world he inhabited, and he saved freedom from tyranny. But he enhanced that stricken world as well, influencing not just events but individual lives, and making Britain a more prosperous, just, and humane society. Indeed, Churchill’s greatness is a tangible thing, not least in the way his life, and his life’s example, have inspired the author’s devotion.