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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.