24 JUNE 1966, Page 10


Churchill the Historian


Aa justification for his revelations of Shurchill's health, Lord Moran has appealed to history and historians. He claims that G. M. Trevelyan told him that his special knowledge was the stuff of history and that he must put down what he knew. (One wonders if Trevelyan mentioned publication.) However, Trevelyan was quite right. Lord Moran's diaries are the stuff of history. And as to reticence, public men and their families cannot expect privacy. And if we are to understand our world, and cur statesmen, and indeed our problems, a book such as Lord Moran's is absolutely necessary, as it raises issues of fundamental importance.

How far can any country permit a tired, old and sick statesman to continue in office? The problem is not so easy of solution as it might seem. Churchill was all of these things from 1951 to 1955 as, less certainly, he had been from 1943 to 1945. In the 'fifties all business was an effort for him, big speeches a nightmare, and the detail of government tiresome in the extreme. And yet, time and again in his conversations with Lord Moran, his sense of the future, of what politics should be about, so long as they were talking about England, Europe or the Atlantic alliance, was both deep and true. And his mind still grasped the great issues after his body had become too feeble for a statesman's job. And there lay the dilemma for Lord Moran and Churchill's friends. The world was highly combustible from 1950 to 1955. Who could be certain that not only Churchill's wisdom but his unusual authority might not be needed? And if we judge by what came after—the disastrous premiership of Eden—obviously Moran was right to hold his hand, and let Churchill struggle on against his increasing physical odds.

Had Lord Moran decided otherwise, per- suaded Churchill's family and colleagues that Sir Winston could not cope and so brought about his resignation, would Churchill the historian ,have flourished even more strongly or were the same seeds of decay, the same sense of fatigue, as apparent in his literature as in his politics9 Was Time strangling the creator as well as the statesman?

Fortunately, creative work does not make the same incessant demands on a man's energies as the day-to-day leadership of a great nation. The golden phrase, the splendid epithet, may well up suddenly during an hour's idleness. Certainly it is difficult to detect any great diminution of powers in Churchill's history of the Second World War. True The Gathering Storm possesses a certain diffuseness of structure, a mild ten- dency to ramble, but in his long books Churchill never bothered how many thousands of words there might be. He wanted to Bet it down, docu- ments Fod all, history and autobiography mingled so skilfully that it will take legions of historians many generations to assess his history with confidence.

Yet his two great books on the First World War and the Second World War will remain masterpieces. They possess vital information, magnificent writing, and Churchill's point of view. Churchill was conscious of being a his- torian who would write of the events, even as he enacted them. This conscious knowledge that everything he wrote was a historical document will make the task of the suspicious historian doubly difficult. To unravel the true course of events, to analyse the exact interplay of charac- ter or to weigh the importance of decisions will require a profound knowledge of Churchill and the way he worked as a historian. Nevertheless, perhaps this is not an inappropriate time to try to assess Churchill's quality as a writer of his- tory, and to do so it is necessary to stress what seems obvious--the facts of his early life, ancestry and background which permeate his writing as an old man as they did the first works which came from his pen.

And one must start at the beginning. Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, not a house nor a home, but a monument, built to glorify his ancestor, John, Duke of Marlborough, and his battles. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, a duke's son, gifted, flamboyant, reck- less, an orator who could hold the Victorian House of Commons spellbound. He died early. a failure; crushed and defeated by the inexorable men of small minds who are the bone and sinew of politics. His mother was Jennie Jerome, the gay, pleasure-loving daughter of a tough Ameri- can millionaire. Although she loved English social life, she always stood a little apart, conscious of other places, other people. Sir Winston's educa- tion followed the pattern of the English aristocracy : governess, preparatory school, pub- lic school (Harrow), the Royal Military College Sandhurst, a remorseless emphasis on Latin, Greek, mathematics; for exercise, the horse and the gun; for the moulding of character, the officers' training corps. There was a little history and geography, and bits and pieces of literature —Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, Steven- son's tales—as solace for the imagination. It was a life—bright, rich, ordinary for its class;—yet shadowed in strange places with tragedy and discontent. Nor were his parents rich by the standards of their friends. They lived high— parties, dinners, balls—the lavish gaiety of the Victorian social round. Large houses, a drove of servants and extravagant clothes ate away their smallish income and sharpened the anxieties that Lord Randolph's political life engendered. The brilliant father, cheated of his ambition, died a difficult death. By then Churchill, who had done abysmally badly at school, was- a young sub- altern, about to join the Fourth Hussars, an expensive regiment for a man without any means worth talking about. For the next four years Churchill careered about the world, using his social influence, tasting- excitement—guerrilla warfare in Cuba and fighting tribesmen on the North-West Frontier of India. This was a spirited time interlaced with danger. Churchill next wit- nessed the bloody affair of the -Mandi that cul- minated in the Battle of Omdurman. Then came a time as a war correspondent in South Africa for the Boer War. This led to capture and im- prisonment. All of this was the stuff of history as well as war. During these years, principally at Bangalore in India between bouts of polo, Churchill began to read serious history--Gibbon, Macaulay, J. R. Green; and even more serious political philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Schopen- hauer, Malthus. The life of action had proved

insufficient for this small, restless, red-headed young aristocrat; his creative energies were too great, his need for expression too insistent.

And so Churchill began to write contemporary military and imperial history, describing his cam- paigns as if they were Caesar's: first came The Malakand Field Force, then The River War. These brought quick fame for Churchill, fol- lowed by invitations to lecture, to write articles, to undertake books. America welcomed him as ardently as Britain. The historian was launched. And so was the politician, for enough money to live on enabled him to quit the army and finally, after initial defeat, to enter the House of Commons. For the next fifty years the historian and the statesman worked together, mouklin; each other's ideas and subtly influencing decisions about the present and the past. Very rarely in the history of mankind have great statesmen been historians. Even rarer has it been for great his- torians to be statesmen. Yet Churchill was undeniably both. And both the historian and the statesman were tied to a special, an almost personal past—to Blenheim, to the tough world of Victorian politics where a commonplace Cecil had stifled a Churchill genius, to the exotic, glamorous life of a cavalry officer in the India of the British Raj. It was a world of privilege and tradition. These were the influences and forces that were to mould not only the choice of subjects that Churchill, the historian, wrote about, but also the way he was to write his books.

His works were, however, the result of his character as well as his environment. Like most great statesmen. Churchill's temperament was not a subtle one. His private life was straight- forward. He married late, but married happily. There was no complexity. Friendship did not come easily : most men distrusted his vivid imagination and his obvious thirst for power. Those ties that he did form with Beaverbrook, Cherwell and Brendan Bracken were marked by a tenacious obstinate loyalty. Many thought him rash because Churchill took decisions easily-- not only about actions but also about people and about principles. Once made they were difficult to change. He enjoyed being obstinate. His compulsive desire for decisive acts led him to prefer military and political history, to delight in the trenchant delineation of character and to love ptingent historical judgments. Although simple and somewhat inflexible, Churchill's character bubbled with passion. He obviously enjoyed anger and ferocity, yet he was also warm-hearted, quickly moved to tears, and could indulge a generosity that is rare in political lift. He responded directly to a sense of occasion with something of the unawareness of a child. This is as true of his histories as of his life. Time and again, one is reminded of one of his great models in the writing of history—Macaulay. He, too, was a man of straightforward feeling and judgment, quick to praise, quick to con- demn, resolute, forthright, blinkered to subtlety. and, like Churchill, he lacked doubt. No wonder Churchill read and re-read him. Certainty. simplicity, warm feeling, these are all qualities which when transferred into the language of literature, make for a mastery of narrative, a clarity of exposition and a universality of appeal which most historians can never hope to possess. These advantageous gifts had, however, their corollary of weakness. Churchill was not a clever man. He possessed a good memory and ' splendid capacity for self-expression, but he was no intellectual. One looks almost in vain in his History of the English Speaking Peoples for the complexities of economic, intellectual, scientific or technological history. True, the reason for this partly lay in his social origins, date of birth and education, but it was also partly due to the limitations imposed on him by his very moderate intelligence. His lack of high intellec- tual powers made it easy for him to accept without question the historical traditions of his class. This was the grand Whiggery of his Spencer ancestors—English history was the slow growth of law and liberty; via Magna Carta. Reformation, Civil War and so on to the triumph of Parliament and of Cabinet; these liberties they planted overseas, carried to alien races, and con- ferred on the lower orders. The unity of empire was brought about by kingship and by an ever- abiding sense of the destiny of the English- speaking peoples that embodied God's will. This was the kernel of his historical belief, as it was the mainspring of his political attitude. There were times when his concept of the English his- torical tradition gave to his statesmanship a sense of destiny, as when he stood four-square for resistance to Hitler after the appalling defeats of 1940. Yet there were other occasions when this attachment to the past blinded his sense of the future. His attitude to India was deeply historic and deeply absurd. He realised that India had been a prey to invasion for centuries; he knew that Russia's interest, over a century old by 1945, had not waned; he had experi- enced the ferocity of tribal warfare on India's frontiers and the weakness of her peasantry; he had lived long enough in India to appreciate the slowness of her progress, and the terrible ' inertia of her caste-ridden society. And his memory dwelt on the countless Englishmen who had lived and fought and died for English supremacy. None of these things should have mattered against the concept of a future India— free, industrialised, struggling by itself and for itself, escaping from its dingy history. This he could not perceive; lacking all capacity for his- torical analysis, his intellect could not lead him to conclusions at variance with his beliefs. The future, except in war, was never in Churchill's bones.

(To be concluded)