The Battle of Britain: The Fight for Churchill’s Shroud

In
March 2007, the Spectator, the London weekly magazine, published a truly
remarkable column. “Prepare
yourself for a veritable carpet-bombing of name-dropping,” its author said, and
he wasn’t kidding. Andrew Roberts had
published a new book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900,
a continuation of, and homage to, Sir Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking
Peoples. Now Roberts was following in his hero’s footsteps to America, for an author
tour like no other.
In
New York, which he was pleased to say “radiates
reactionary chic,” he was greeted by Tom Wolfe, Norman Podhoretz, and Jayne
Wrightsman, before “Harry
Evans and Tina Brown gave a dinner for 50… The following night Henry and Nancy
Kissinger gave a dinner party” where he met George F. Will, Peggy Noonan, and
Rupert Murdoch (“charming,
witty, good-natured, and even slightly retiring”). But that was nothing as
compared with the welcome that awaited him in Washington. First he bumped into
John Bolton, “who
said he was enjoying the book,” before Irwin Stelzer threw a big party, “and his friends Irving and Bea
Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Perle, and Charles Murray stayed for
dinner afterwards.” A
picture was already forming of this Englishman and his American admirers even
before the next day at the White House, where “we
were asked if we’d like to spend some time before lunch in the Oval Office with
‘the reviewer-in-chief’.” Ushered into the presence, “I had 40 minutes alone with the Leader
of the Free World, talking about the war on terror.” President George W. Bush “was full of resilience and fortitude—as I’d taken for granted he would be—but he was also thoughtful, charming and
widely read.” Then to lunch, where he met Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. As it
happened, Cheney had just returned from “Bagram
air base in Pakistan” (Roberts meant Afghanistan, but then these pesky stans
are so confusing), where he was seen boarding USAF Strom Thurmond with
Roberts’s book under his arm. And yes, the
aircraft that was bringing democracy and equality to the benighted Pashtuns
really was called that, after the South Carolina governor and then senator who
for so long insisted that “all
the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro
into our homes, into our schools, our churches.”Since
then, Roberts has written more books, including a biography of Churchill three
years ago. Here is where I come in, and where some disclosure is called for. My
own new book, Churchill’s Shadow,
has just been published in London and shortly comes out in New York. Both books
divided opinion. In my case, some reviewers liked the book, but Roberts didn’t—he
really didn’t, as he made clear in a two-page
diatribe in the Spectator, of which more later.But
first of all, who was this truly unusual author with such a stellar array of
friends and fans in Washington? Now 58, Andrew Roberts was educated at
Cambridge and published his first book in 1991, a biography of Lord Halifax,
the foreign secretary who might have succeeded Neville Chamberlain as prime
minister in the crisis of May 1940 but made way for Winston Churchill. And a
very good book it was, justifiably establishing Roberts’s name, before he followed with
another fascinating book in 1994, a collection of essays called Eminent
Churchillians. One essay was a ferocious assault on Lord Mountbatten’s
reputation, another described the hostility so many Conservatives felt toward
Churchill until or even after he became prime minister, and one more, maybe the
most revealing, was on “Churchill,
Race and the ‘Magpie Society,’”
looking hard at his racial attitudes, or simply his racism.Roberts has never been
afraid of voicing views for which extreme is the word, though not the only one.Over
the next quarter-century, Roberts published numerous books, some better than
others, ranging from a full-dress biography of Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s
last prime minister, to others that were frankly potboilers. But he also found
another career, as a polemical journalist or provocateur, describing himself as
“extremely right-wing.” Once again, he
wasn’t
kidding. A quarter-century ago, when others favored Western intervention
in the bloody Balkan conflicts, only Roberts advocated the use of tactical
nuclear weapons against Serbia. Fast forward to early this year, when most
people thought that the horrible riots at the Capitol on January 6 were the
work of right-wing fanatics but only
Roberts insisted that the blame for the violence lay
squarely with Hollywood liberals. From then to now, he has never been
afraid of voicing views for which extreme is the word, though not the only one.It
almost goes without saying that he has long been passionately hostile to the
European Union. In 1995 he published a quaint dystopian thriller, or something,
called The Aachen
Memorandum. Set 20 years later in 2015, it
described an England absorbed into the United States of Europe after a
referendum rigged by a pro-European elite, while Iain Duncan-Smith, Niall
Ferguson, and Michael Gove are freedom-fighters in an underground
Anti-Federalist Movement, and John Redwood leads a “Free
British” group from Oslo (the names are all Europhobic politicians and
pundits). I remember the editor of a Conservative national newspaper remarking
to me at the time that the book was one more example of how “Europe” drove right-wingers stark mad.His
politics intruded even into Roberts’s weightier books. The 1999 biography
of Salisbury was dedicated to Margaret Thatcher, linking her with Salisbury by
way of a phrase of his as an “illiberal Tory.” For Roberts this was the highest
term of praise for both of them, although they really had far less in common
than that suggests. Salisbury was a brilliant diplomat and a great foreign
secretary, but in domestic politics a mere embodiment of reaction, or inaction.
By following his own laconically expressed principle, “Whatever
happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as
little should happen as possible,” Salisbury ensured that both Irish Home Rule
and social reform were delayed by a generation. “Mrs. T” was in many ways the opposite, “a woman who through character and
conviction changed the country,” and you’d need more than one guess for who
wrote that unlikely if accurate tribute, which is to say Perry Anderson of the New Left Review.
Nor
were Salisbury and Thatcher Roberts’s only heroes. Within a matter of
years of Eminent Churchillians, he had become a preeminent
Churchillian himself. In 2000 he gave a lecture on “Churchill
and His Critics” at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. This was where
Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech in March 1946, and Westminster
College has since become the most wondrous of all Churchillian shrines, with
iconography ranging from a Christopher Wren church transported bodily from the
City of London to a large statue of Churchill to a part of that Iron Curtain,
in the form of a piece of the Berlin Wall.In
his lecture Roberts took on Churchill’s critics with his usual
intransigence. Listing all the great controversies in Churchill’s
life—Gallipoli in 1915,
intervention in Russia in 1919, rejoining the gold standard in
1925, the general strike the following year, his campaign against Indian
nationalism in the 1930s, the fire-bombing of Germany in 1942-45, and much more
besides—Roberts concluded, “I
personally believe he made the right choice in almost every single one of those
cases, displaying a far better track record of good judgment than any of his
contemporaries.” That was a truly remarkable verdict, and more than Churchill
himself thought, regretting in particular the gold standard decision, and
uneasy about the killing of half a million German civilians by bombing.Besides,
Roberts defiantly claimed that “the
English-speaking peoples seem to have a settled view of Churchill’s glory which
no amount of historical debate will now alter.” But do they, or should they?
And who are these “English-speaking
peoples” anyway? We learned more when Roberts published that book that wowed
the Bush administration, A History of the English
Speaking-Peoples since 1900. The phrase “English-speaking
peoples” had been current since the nineteenth century, but Churchill took it
up at an interesting time. During the 1920s, like many politically conscious
Englishmen, he was bitterly resentful of the United States. The Americans had
entered the Great War later than he thought they should have done, and then
suffered few casualties by European standards, before the postwar years when
they had implacably insisted on the repayment of war debts from England. Andrew Roberts poses with his book “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900” at the Dorchester Hotel in London in 2006.BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP via Getty ImagesIn
1928, Churchill was growing restless as chancellor of the Exchequer (a position
for which he was exceptionally ill-equipped) and thought of moving to be foreign
secretary, when his wife Clementine reminded him of the difficulty: “your known hostility to America might
stand in the way.” But the following year a luxurious and lucrative American tour quite changed his mind, and the seeds
were planted of what he was originally, and significantly, going to call a history of “the English-speaking races.”By
the time Roberts wrote his sequel he was not only self-appointed keeper of the
flame but more Churchillian than Churchill. At the grim conclusion of the Boer
war in 1901-02, Boer civilians were interned in concentration camps—yes, we
called them that—where appalling numbers of women and children died. The
horror was heroically exposed by Emily Hobhouse, an Englishwoman, bravely
denounced by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the Liberal Party, and
abhorred by Churchill: “I
have hated these latter stages with their barbarous features.” But not by
Roberts, who wrote that the blame for the concentration camps deaths lay with
their inmates themselves, and their insanitary habits.In
similar manner, the Amritsar massacre in the Punjab in 1919, when at least 379
Indians were killed by troops of the Raj, was denounced by Churchill in
Parliament: “Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British
pharmacopoeia.” But not by Roberts, who defended the massacre for having
restored order: “It
was not necessary for another shot to be fired throughout the entire region.”
No wonder that The Economist called this
book “a giant political pamphlet larded with its author’s prejudices,”
while Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate a piece
entitled “Bush’s
Favorite Historian: The strange views of Andrew Roberts.” Apart from noting
that the book was littered with obvious mistakes, Weisberg was startled by
Roberts’s fanatical tone:
“The fire-bombing of Dresden was ‘justified,’
the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki positive in
various ways. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, Roberts writes, were of course
overstated and resulted from ‘the fact that some of the military
policemen involved were clearly little better than Appalachian
mountain-cretins.’” And he concluded that “With
this book, Andrew Roberts takes his place as the fawning court historian of the
Bush administration.”What
even such critics failed to notice was that the thesis of that book is simply
false. It purports to relate “the
four world-historical struggles in which the English-speaking peoples have been
engaged: the wars against German nationalism, Axis fascism, Soviet communism,
and fundamentalist terrorism.” They may have been “engaged” in those struggles, but they didn’t
win them. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s imperial Germany was defeated by the
blood-sacrifice of the French army, and “Axis fascism” was defeated by the blood-sacrifice
of the Red Army, with the English-speaking peoples playing a decidedly lesser
part. Nor did those English-speaking peoples “fight
Communism” together except once in Korea, but that was the first—and so far
the last—war fought under the auspices of the United Nations, with French,
Turkish, and Indian troops as well. British soldiers conspicuously did not
fight in Vietnam, although President Johnson very much wanted at least a token
British force. But
of course the whole point of that decidedly teleological book was the last
struggle, against “fundamentalist
terrorism.” As Weisberg said, Roberts was “present-minded
in the extreme, returning at every stage of his narrative to justifications for
Bush’s
actions in Iraq. The neoconservatives who want to spread democracy in the
Middle East are the heirs to compassionate Victorians who sought to civilize
India, China, and Africa.” In one of his weirder passages, Roberts wrote that “Just as in science-fiction people are
able to live on through cryogenic freezing after their bodies die, so British
post-imperial greatness has been preserved and fostered through its
incorporation into the American world-historical project.”Again and again Churchill will say something shocking
and we will be told that everyone else said the same.Two
years after his visit to the White House, and quite undaunted by events,
Roberts was still insisting that “History
will show that George W. Bush was right: Iraq has been a victory for the US-led
coalition, a fact that the Bush-haters will have to deal with when perspective
finally—perhaps years from now—lends objectivity to this fine man’s
record.” He continued to write books on sundry subjects including Napoleon,
whom he greatly admires, and then his Churchill biography. One reviewer thought
his book the best one-volume life of Churchill, and another called it “a thousand pages of literary
purgatory.” A more balanced view came from Gerard DeGroot, a professor at St
Andrew’s University, writing in the London Times. He
didn’t
dismiss the book, but found it “more
reportage than reflection,” and a work that “harks
back to those relentlessly adulatory hagiographies produced immediately after
the war.” Roberts’s
basic technique was simple: Whenever Churchill did something admirable or said
something noble, he was extolled; whenever he did something deplorable or said
something ignoble, he was extenuated, usually by way of claiming that he was
simply a man of his age. Again and again Churchill will say something shocking
and we will be told that everyone else said the same. If he is right and
virtuous, he is uniquely so, if he is wrong and repugnant, well, so was
everyone else.Since
that book was published, Roberts has found yet another hero: “This is your Churchill moment, Boris,”
said one of his recent headlines, or again “MPs
love to complain about Boris. But his hero also endured a barrage of unhelpful
criticism,” or yet again, “How
Boris is taking lessons from his hero Churchill.” To which I will only say that
if Mike Huckabee hadn’t watched the movie Darkest
Hour and then tweeted “in
@realDonaldTrump we have a Churchill,” then there could be no more entirely
ludicrous comparison than between Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson.Authors
should keep quiet about reviews, or at least confine their plaints to friends,
as Evelyn Waugh did in a letter to Sir Maurice Bowra, “I’m
glad you liked my book. The reviewers don’t, fuck them.” In fact, the London
reviews of my book have been friendly enough, except for that howl of rage by
Andrew Roberts. Not only is my book a “character
assassination too far,” he says, full of mistakes, some of which traduce
Churchill, it is “relentlessly
sneering” and written a “tone
of perpetual snideness.” Others must judge, but it’s hard to reconcile those words with
Dominic Sandbrook’s verdict in the Sunday
Times: “this
book is never mean-spirited, and never degenerates into a demolition job.” What
seems to have bugged Roberts is the sheer lèse-majesté in challenging his own holy writ.What
seems to have bugged Roberts is the sheer lèse-majesté in challenging his own holy writ; his
view that Churchill “made
the right choice in almost every single one of those cases” discussed above, or
that there should be “a
settled view of Churchill’s glory which no amount of historical debate will now
alter,” views I certainly dispute. His title, Churchill: Walking With Destiny, echoes Churchill’s
own exalted words: that upon his appointment as prime minister in May 1940, “I felt as if I were walking with
destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and
for this trial.” Roberts follows this to the extent of dividing his book into
two parts, “The
Preparation” until May 1940, and then “The
Trial.”An
alternative view comes from a great historian. My revered friend Sir Michael
Howard died almost two years ago the day after his 97th birthday. He wrote a
still unsurpassed history of the Franco-Prussian War and many other books, was
Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and then a professor at Yale, as
well as one of the 24 British holders of the Order of Merit, and much else
besides. Besides, he was a scornful critic of the Bush administration and its
unneeded and unwinnable wars, calling the invasion of Iraq “a bad idea whose time has come.” But
then, unlike the men who thought up that bad idea, he knew something of the
reality of war. At Salerno in 1943, Lieutenant M.E. Howard of the Coldstream
Guards won the Military Cross leading his platoon in a night action against
German lines, a contrast indeed to the saber-rattling draft-dodgers and
flag-waving chicken hawks of the Bush administration. A
lifetime later, that old soldier wrote, “The
problem for the historian, is not, as so many Americans believe”—and have been
encouraged to believe by hero-worshipping biographers—“why
Churchill’s advice was ignored for so long, but
how it was that a man with so unpromising a background and so disastrous a
track record could emerge in 1940 as the savior of his country.” That’s
a problem that I have at least tried to address, quite unlike Roberts, for
whom, in his belief that Churchill had “a
far better track record of good judgment than any of his contemporaries,” the
problem doesn’t exist.Indeed, so angrily determined is he to defend Churchill at all times and in all ways
that he makes claims that are demonstrably false. My “insinuation
that Churchill had fascist leanings in the 1920s is not supported by anything
better than quotes from his avowed political enemies,” Roberts shouts, thereby
drawing a magisterial rebuke from Lord Lexden, a former Conservative Party
official and a learned political historian: “How
much more effective Andrew Roberts would be if he did not feel impelled to
defend Churchill against almost every hint of criticism. He denies that
Churchill had ‘fascist leanings in the 1920s,’” and
yet, “Visiting fascist Italy in 1926, he
declared that ‘your movement has rendered a service
to the whole world’; as late as 1937 he spoke of ‘the
enduring position in world history which Mussolini will hold.’”But
still on Roberts goes, often with preposterous defenses of his hero, in the
pages of the right-wing Daily Telegraph, and in
a new podcast called “History
Defended,” culminating in what must be the most sublime sentence of all: “Black lives mattered to Winston
Churchill, which is why he fought to defend the empire on the northwest
frontier of India.” He really
did say that. Well now, in 1897, Churchill “fought to defend the empire” in a
punishment mission against the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. As he wrote to a
friend, “After
today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed
without quarter … there is no doubt we are a very cruel people.” The
following year he fought in Sudan against the Mahdi, the bin Laden of his age,
and the people the British of the time called the dervishes, his ardent Muslim
followers. “I
have a keen aboriginal desire to kill several of these odious dervishes,”
Churchill wrote to his mother, and so he did at the battle of Omdurman, killing
several himself among the 10,000 who were wiped out mostly by machine-gun fire.
Much later he called the Hindus “a
foul race,” and during the terrible Bengal famine of 1943, when colleagues were
shocked by his indifference to the horror compared with his response to reports
of famine in Greece, he said, “The
starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis matters less than that of sturdy
Greeks.” And in his very last Cabinet meeting as prime minster before he
retired in 1955, he said the Conservatives should fight the forthcoming
election on the slogan “Keep
England white.” Yes, black lives mattered to Churchill.    One begins to wonder, does
Andrew Roberts actually read his own books?My
own view would be that, although racial attitudes in general were obviously
different 80 years ago from ours today, even then, “Churchill
was more profoundly racist than most.” Who could have written that? Why, it was
Andrew Roberts in his “Churchill,
Race and the ‘Magpie Society.’” In that essay in
1994, Roberts quoted Desmond Morton, one of Churchill’s wartime aides, who recalled his
private language: “Negroes were ‘n----s’ or ‘blackamoors’, Arabs were ‘worthless.’” and the Chinese and
Indians were described in ways one prefers not to print these days. As Roberts
wrote then, Churchill “was
a convinced white—not to say Anglo-Saxon—supremacist and thought in terms
of race to a degree that was remarkable even by the standards of his own time …
in a way which even as early as the 1920s shocked some Cabinet colleagues.” All of which is to say that Churchill’s
views and vocabulary were very much not “perfectly
orthodox thinking at the time.” At which point one begins to wonder, does
Andrew Roberts actually read his own books?He is also indignant at my writing about “what he calls ‘the
Churchill cult’,” which implies that I have made up this
phrase and concept, when the existence of a Churchill cult in England, but even
more in America, has been discussed for decades past. The very first issue of
the satirical magazine Private Eye in 1961 bore
the spoof headline “Churchill cult next for party axe?” (meaning the Tory
party), before Christopher Hitchens included an essay called “The Churchill
Cult” in his 1990 book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.
And this spluttering vexation is comical coming from a man
who is veritably the L. Ron Hubbard of the Churchill cult. Roberts described
another book tour, for his Churchill biography: “I’ve just returned from a ten-week,
18-state, 27-city, 87-speech book tour there, and can report that the
enthusiasm for all things Churchillian in the USA is stronger now than at any
time since his death. Merely bringing out a new biography of him secured me
interviews on all the major TV morning news shows, invitations to speak at
three presidential libraries, and a place on The New
York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. There are active
Churchill appreciation societies in 14 states and more being set up.” He ended
this tour in Texas, where he admired “George W. Bush’s excellent
portrait that hangs in the Dallas Country Club” before “dinner à
trois with the former president and Laura Bush.” And there is no Churchill
cult?But maybe the real key to Roberts’s anger becomes clear
when he accuses me of deriding “anyone who has had the temerity to admire
Churchill” or “who has sought instruction or inspiration from his life and
career.” It’s hard to see what temerity—“excessive confidence or boldness”—is really required to admire him since people do it the whole time. And yet
whom could he have in mind? Well of course he means people such as that “fine
man” George W. Bush, who loved to stand in front of the bust of Churchill in
the Oval Office while quoting him, as well as Roberts’s other friends in that
fine man’s administration, Cheney and Bolton and the likewise
Churchill-spouting Donald Rumsfeld. One
of my themes, while describing Churchill’s remarkable afterlife, is that his
name has been endlessly invoked, along with the names of “Munich” and “appeasement,”
which he turned into curses. And yet on every single occasion when that has
happened, it has unfailingly led to disaster, with Korea, Suez, and Vietnam
among the earlier cases. But never has Churchill ’s name played such a part as in the
wars in Afghanistan, where he fought as a young man, and Iraq, a country he
almost invented. One might say that there was no shortage of excessive
confidence or boldness 20 years ago among those in Washington who sought
instruction or inspiration from Churchill. Whether that inspiration led to
glorious victory, judge for yourself. One
last word. My book is not intended to be “relentlessly
anti-American,” as Roberts calls it, and I don’t believe it will seem so except to a “fawning court historian of the Bush
administration” or to anyone else who thinks that Bush was a fine man, and that
“Iraq has been a victory for the
U.S.-led coalition.” Nor is it intended to be merely an assault on Churchill. “Will
biographers of Churchill ever break the habit of either lauding or denigrating
him unduly?” Lord Lexden writes in his rebuke to Roberts. “They
shirk the historian’s central task, which is to weigh up
this extraordinary man’s successes and failures calmly and
dispassionately.” By
contrast with some others, I’ve at least attempted to do just that.
And I honestly believe that Churchill has suffered less from his critics than
from adoring hero-worshippers and cultic appropriation. Andrew Roberts is only
one, though a notable one, of those who have not only extolled Churchill but
used him as an icon, in the full sense, like the holy images once held up before
the Tsar’s armies as they marched to battle, and often to death and defeat.
Churchill’s shroud was waved to justify the invasion of Iraq, and then Brexit.
In these and other cases, the shroud-wavers suppose that Churchill was uniquely
wise and far-seeing, when he was quite obviously and gravely wrong about many
things for much of his life.He
was right in 1940, gloriously right, when his
magnificent defiance of Hitler was a rare personal triumph that changed the
course of history. And I say so not least because the Churchill of the Finest
Hour deserves to be rescued from hagiographers, court historians, and a certain
“extremely right-wing” polemicist.

2021-10-14 | critical mass, Winston Churchill, Books | English |