Walter Russell Mead is Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
When a critic charged that Oliver Goldsmith had written The Vicar of Wakefield for the money, Samuel Johnson is said to have replied, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote for anything else."
Roy Jenkins -- chancellor of Oxford University, former Labour chancellor of the Exchequer, and prolific author -- is no blockhead. And the enduring public interest in the greatest and most interesting Briton of the twentieth century gave him confidence that the public would welcome yet another biography of the man who beat Hitler. But Jenkins had more than money on his mind when he began work on his Churchill. This engaging, intelligent, and more than thousand-page-long life of Winston Churchill is the capstone of perhaps the most ambitious project in modern British biography: a triptych composed of lives of the three statesmen whose careers spanned the climax and fall both of the British Empire and of the Liberal Party. Jenkins' biographies of the British prime ministers William Gladstone, Herbert Asquith, and now Winston Churchill -- together with Mr. Balfour's Poodle, his 1954 account of the struggle between the House of Lords and Asquith's government from 1909 to 1911 -- give us one of the most accessible and comprehensive accounts we have of the ideology and the politics of America's great predecessor on the world stage.
AGE OF EMPIRE
This body of work is, above all, a history of Liberal Britain. Gladstone assembled the Liberal Party in the mid-nineteenth century from the remnants of the pro-free trade Peelites, aristocratic Whigs, and reform-oriented Radicals. Under Gladstone's leadership, the Liberals dominated British politics through much of Queen Victoria's long reign and were primarily responsible for the extension of the franchise to virtually the entire adult male British population. Under Asquith, who was prime minister from 1908 to 1916, the Liberals laid the foundation of the modern welfare state, prepared the groundwork for Irish independence, and reined in the power of the House of Lords.
The great contribution of Jenkins' Churchill is to place Churchill where he belongs: as part of this fissiparous and crisis-ridden Liberal tradition. Churchill entered political life as a "Tory Democrat," following his father's erratic footsteps to the far left of the Tory Party, which took up many of the ideas of the more moderate Liberals. Churchill left the Conservatives in 1904 when Joseph Chamberlain succeeded in persuading the party to abandon free trade in favor of a preferential tariff system. This was the same issue that split Gladstone and the Peelites from the Conservatives.
The political label that describes the young Churchill best is probably that of "Liberal imperialist." As a Liberal, he was committed to free trade, free markets, basic social legislation on behalf of working people and the very poor, restrained government spending, moderate and measured constitutional reform, and a government that interfered as little as possible in the lives of British subjects. As an imperialist, he was devoted to the maintenance of his country's great power position and of the British Empire.
To sum up a century of British politics, both the country and the Liberals prospered when Liberal imperialism was possible. Increasingly, however, the nation was forced to choose. Liberal principles could scarcely be reconciled with the realities of British rule in Ireland, and Gladstone's Liberals split in 1886 over home rule for Ireland, with Liberal unionists voting with the Conservatives in the House of Commons.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, office-hungry Liberals put the divisive home rule issue on the back burner and focused on more traditional Liberal issues such as efficiency in government and domestic reform. On the Conservative side, far-sighted imperialists were already sensing that the sun might be setting on the British Empire. The problem was less the restiveness of what the British still unselfconsciously called "the natives" of their overseas colonies than the increasingly independent-minded governments of the "white dominions" -- Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, given the constitutional arrangements of the time, South Africa. British strategists seeking to hold the empire together saw a preferential tariff system as the best way to strengthen the dominion leaders who wanted to maintain tight links with the home country.
Conservative imperialists could embrace this logic; most Liberal imperialists, including Churchill, could not. Their concept of the British Empire was of a system that grew stronger by cooperating with the underlying logic of the international economy -- a system that drew its strength above all from the vitality of a deregulated British economy toughened and invigorated by both the challenges and the opportunities of free trade.
The Liberal Party gave Churchill his first taste of high office. As home secretary in Asquith's government, Churchill prepared some of the sweeping social legislation more widely identified with his successor in that post, David Lloyd George. He also joined with Lloyd George to oppose what as late as 1909 he denounced as excessive naval spending to counter the German threat. Within the Admiralty, his wartime advocacy of alternatives to the grisly deadlock on the western front, including the ill-fated Dardanelles expedition, can also be seen as an expression of the traditional British strategy of shunning continental commitments in favor of a naval strategy.
Churchill returned to the Conservative Party after the 1922 collapse of Lloyd George's coalition -- the subsequent disintegration of the Liberal Party and the rise of Labour left him no alternative. As a Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer, he continued to advocate the policies of sound money and financial retrenchment that Gladstone would have welcomed and returned to his prewar advocacy of tight rations for the military.
Churchill was 55 when he left the Exchequer in 1929; another ten years would pass before he returned to the Admiralty in 1939, and he was 66 when he finally reached 10 Downing Street in May of 1940. The conventional view is that Churchill remained an imperialist through his "wilderness" years, but that he left his liberalism behind. The coalition government that Churchill led from 1940 through 1945 is usually seen as a basically Conservative government, with the Labour members there primarily for decoration and to keep the trade unions happy.
This is a view that Jenkins wants to challenge. Up to a point, he is right. Those "wilderness" years, Jenkins reminds us, were fundamentally the result of Churchill's unpopularity with the Tories. Jenkins shows that some of the few allies Churchill had in the grim fight against appeasement were Liberal supporters of the League of Nations. Conventional Conservative Party leaders such as Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain never trusted him; in this they reflected the profound feelings of his fellow Tory members of Parliament. In May 1940, the Conservative caucus would never have made Churchill prime minister; Labour's Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood put Churchill in 10 Downing Street by making clear that they would not enter a coalition under either Chamberlain or the Conservative caucus' preferred successor, Lord Halifax.
Those familiar with John Lukac's Five Days in London (whose conclusions Jenkins accepts as probable though not proven) will know the significance of this event. It was Lord Halifax (kept on at the Foreign Office by Churchill due to Conservative Party pressure) who sought to persuade the War Cabinet to open peace negotiations with Hitler at that critical time. Once again, it was Attlee and Greenwood who sided with Churchill against Chamberlain and Halifax and helped prevent the British capitulation that, left to its own devices, the Conservative Party leadership (along with Lloyd George) might well have accepted. Jenkins' history of the war years emphasizes Attlee's role: while Churchill traveled from summit to summit, Attlee presided over the War Cabinet and provided the administrative continuity that Churchill could not give.
This is an unusual but not unjustified light in which to cast the wartime cabinet. Attlee (who gave the young Jenkins his first taste of political office) was part of the moderate Labour movement that Jenkins, like many of his generation, saw as the true heir of the British Liberal tradition. Though obscured by a confused political landscape, Jenkins tells us, the old Liberal tradition continued under the surface to guide the country through the darkest days of World War II.
Churchill is a much less interesting figure for Jenkins after his 1945 decision to accept the leadership of the Conservative Party. Indeed, the conventional view that minimizes Labour's wartime role, and especially Attlee's, can claim Churchill as its author. Churchill's own memoirs make no mention of Halifax's flirtation with a negotiated peace in 1940, nor of Chamberlain's sympathy with it -- a gesture widely seen as attesting to Churchill's generosity, but also an example of party loyalty in the charged partisan atmosphere of Attlee's stormy postwar government. The Tory Party reinvented itself after World War II in the image of Churchill; it was Churchill that Margaret Thatcher consciously sought to evoke as the essence of solid Tory England. Jenkins succeeds in showing this picture to be much too simple and in many respects deeply misleading; his desire to separate Churchill from the Conservatives, however, causes him to underrate Churchill's role in rebuilding and rehabilitating the postwar Tories. Jenkins' account would have us see Churchill as a passive King Log both after a Labour landslide swept him out of power during the Potsdam Conference of 1945 and after his return to office as a Tory prime minister from 1951 to 1955.
Perhaps, but within a year and a half of taking office, his successor as prime minister, Anthony Eden, had engineered the Suez crisis -- the greatest humiliation in modern British history. Even given Churchill's failure to persuade U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to negotiate more seriously with the Soviets in 1953 and 1954, British foreign policy ran far more smoothly in his hands than in Eden's. That the appeasing, socially purblind Tories of the prewar years showed the flexibility to accept Labour's postwar social legislation and also made a transition from empire to ally surely owes something to Churchill's years as party leader.
Churchill's final contributions to the modern Tory Party can be seen as an act of filial piety. As a young man, Churchill wrote an impassioned biography that successfully rescued his ancestor John Churchill, the great military commander, from the obloquy in which Thomas Macaulay's devastating but inaccurate portrait in the History of England had buried him; Churchill's life of his father sought, less successfully, to redeem Lord Randolph's reputation from the low ebb to which his political irregularities had brought it. As an old man, Churchill had the great satisfaction of leading the party that rejected his father, and what is more, by committing the modern Tories to the welfare state, he brought the party around to the direction his father had first proposed for it.
PRIVATE LIVES, PUBLIC MEN
When it comes to Churchill the man, Jenkins adds significantly to our understanding. One of Jenkins' most endearing and illuminating habits as a biographer is to help us understand the financial lives of his subjects. With Gladstone we are fully acquainted with the changing state of his investment portfolios; the more modestly circumstanced Asquith and Churchill are shown earnestly trying to make a living. The account of Churchill's difficult finances and the role that his freelance writing played in keeping the family afloat are a significant contribution to our understanding of his political career. Notoriety was necessary to Churchill; his reliance on the pen helped ensure that he took interesting stands and to some degree may have stiffened his political courage at critical points in his career. If he could not sit in government on the Treasury bench, he could always make a living as an opposition scold.
About Churchill's family and psychology Jenkins is both tactful and illuminating. Noting that Churchill was "probably the least dangerously sexed major politician on either side of the Atlantic," Jenkins marvels at but does not speculate about Churchill's placidity during the long separations that were a recurring feature of his married life. Lord Randolph Churchill was by any standard one of the more heartless and cruel fathers of his time; these faults have been detailed in other books and Jenkins does little but recapitulate the outlines of the well-worn story. The spotlight he turns on Lady Randolph (nee Jenny Jerome) is cold and relentless. Although he dismisses one estimate that she had 200 affairs ("suspiciously round" is his judicious remark on the number), he leaves us no doubt that the personal life of Churchill's mother had to have had an enormous impact on him. Winston and his younger brother Jack did not, it is widely supposed, have the same father. Lady Randolph's second husband was two weeks older than Winston; her third was younger still. She and Winston quarreled frequently about money during the lean years after Lord Randolph's death. She wanted money to fund her social life; he wanted it to build his career.
Jenkins has another great merit as a biographer: he understands the parliamentary aspect of his subjects' careers. In the days before radio, parliamentary debates were widely and fully reported in the newspapers and were a chief determinant of the rise and fall of political careers. The ability to hold the attention of the House of Commons was an indispensable skill for the serious politician; Jenkins is unrivaled in his ability to chronicle and interpret the ways in which Gladstone, Asquith, and finally, Churchill learned to master the chamber.
A WORLD OF IDEAS
Accomplished biographer though he is, Jenkins suffers from two serious weaknesses, one conspicuously on display in Churchill, one happily not. Unfortunately, Jenkins does not make an effort to recreate the intellectual climate of the era of his characters, especially when it comes to international politics. The rare exceptions -- where, for example, he helps to explain Gladstone's convictions about Irish home rule in part by reference to his views on the United Kingdom's relations with Europe -- make the reader regret the rarity of such explanatory background. Readers will search the pages of Churchill in vain for a serious exposition of Churchill's views about the future of the British Empire in the 1930s. Fear that Japan would take advantage of a British-German war to attack British interests in the Far East played a role in recommending appeasement for many staunch Tories in the late 1930s; how and why did Churchill's view of the United Kingdom's world position lead him to different policy views on Europe -- and what did Churchill think about Japan?
Jenkins' other great weakness is his difficulty in entering into the views of his subjects where these stray too far from his own. This has only a minor effect on his Churchill, contributing to the weakness of his treatment of Churchill's performance as leader of the Conservative Party following 1945. The damage to his biography of Gladstone is much greater; Jenkins spent a lifetime dealing with the sectarian, moralistic hair-splitting of the Labour left, and the experience left him with a strong distaste not only for the pieties of orthodox Marxism, but also for the pious Christianity that had so profoundly shaped the culture of the Labourite left in the coal pits. One does not have to like a religion to write well about the spiritual life of believers; Lytton Strachey's masterful demolitions of Cardinal Henry Manning, a friend from Gladstone's youth, and of that nemesis of his old age, General Charles Gordon, in Eminent Victorians shows that. Unfortunately, Gladstone's Christianity just makes Jenkins freeze in impassive dislike. Jenkins is too just and too human to want to mock, say, the religious spirit that led Gladstone to venture into London's red-light districts to "redeem" prostitutes, and, often, to flog himself for being more interested in the flesh than in the spirits of the women he met. At the same time, he is unable to help us feel or understand the mix of passions that took Gladstone down this road -- or to see the relationship between these private obsessions and the values and passions that drove his public career.
Nevertheless, with all these illuminating and enjoyable biographies behind him, Jenkins should next try his hand at a political history of British liberalism from the repeal of the Corn Laws to Tony Blair. It is a project that Oliver Goldsmith would not scorn; few books would fill a greater need on either side of the Atlantic, and on the evidence of his biographies, no one could write it as well as Roy Jenkins.
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