Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews


Roy Jenkins
Pan Macmillan (December 2002) 1001 pages
ISBN: 0330 68805 8

reviewed by David Skea

Meanwhile never flinch, never weary, never despair.
—End of Churchill's last major speech to the House of Commons, March 1, 1955

This is the story of Sir Winston Churchill as seen by another politician, albeit one who is now Chancellor of Oxford University and who specialises in political biography. So one should expect a detailed history of Churchill the parliamentarian, and rightly this is so. The book also includes a section on Churchill's early years, his early army service and his early journalistic work.

Churchill was first elected a Member of Parliament in July 1900 at the age of 25 and, except for the short period 23 April to 9 May 1908 (an interesting historical incongruity caused by the then requirement for Ministers on appointment to be confirmed by their electorate in a bye-election. In this case Churchill lost the bye-election (Oldham) and had to find another constituency (Dundee)) and the longer 15 November 1922 to 30 October 1924 (Churchill lost Dundee and had problems in winning in another constituency. Eventually he won Epping for the Conservative Party), he remained a Member until his death on 24 January 1965. Early on in his political career he changed parties, from Conservative to Liberal. He was then a Minister in Asquith's (Liberal) Government holding several portfolios, the most notable being Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. However during World War I (in 1915) Asquith formed a national coalition government drawn from both the Liberal and Conservative parties, and Churchill was no longer a Minister. For a time he rejoined the army and served in France. In 1924 Churchill again changed parties, back to the Conservatives, and was then Chancellor of the Exchequer for 5 years. The next 10 years were not good for Churchill. He remained on the backbenches until World War II broke out in 1939, when Chamberlain again put him back in the Admiralty.

In 1940 Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister. Churchill, then aged 65, formed a national coalition government, and became Prime Minister, a position he held until 1945 when Labour under Attlee defeated the Conservatives. Churchill was again Prime Minister from 1951 until 1955.

All of the above is covered in great detail in this book, and what becomes clear is that Churchill never sat still and did nothing. He was always full of activity and had very definite views on many topics, which he disseminated to all concerned. He was seen by many of his colleagues as frequently stepping outside his responsibilities and consequently made enemies. Home rule for India (he was against) and the rising menace of Hitler were two of the many subjects that he covered (some colleagues would have said ad nauseam). He was a very skilled orator, many would say the best in the House of Commons at that time, and he wrote his own speeches.

What to me was fascinating was the discovery that Churchill was also a prolific author. Not only that, but a skilled negotiator with the publishing houses obtaining advances which were equal to some of the best of today's (for example, in 1905, the advance for Lord Randolph Churchill was £8,000, worth today about A$1.2 million). I should have known this, as I had read in an abridged form his The Second World War and A History of the English Speaking Peoples, but I was unaware of his 13 other books and his four volumes of collected speeches (in total 36 volumes). And this does not include his numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Nearly all these were written while he was a Member of Parliament. In 1927 Churchill wrote to Baldwin, "I have had a delightful month—building a cottage and dictating a book. 200 bricks and 2000 words per day."

What becomes clear very early on in this book is that Churchill was no ordinary person. It is reported that Churchill lived and entertained in an affluent style, and if his income did not meet his expenses then his income had to increase. He did not accept that he had to economise. In 1937 the News of the World was paying him the equivalent of A$30,000 an article, although at this time a lot of the hack work was being written by editorial "ghosts" who got maybe ten percent. Churchill did, however, rework the drafts and polish them.

Jenkins notes that there are at least five biographies of Churchill including Gilbert's Winston S. Churchill (six volumes, the official biography). Jenkins' book, as I said at the beginning, is a political biography, so there are places that beg for a little more detail about Churchill's life outside politics. Churchill's wife, for example, was away for a lot of the time, although they appear to have been a very loving couple. It would appear, too, that his friends were not her friends. And certainly Churchill's first and major love was politics. Their frequent times apart, as Jenkins says, did lead to a voluminous correspondence between them, much to a biographer's delight. These days the telephone would have been used more and these communications lost.

On the down side, Jenkins assumes that his readers are conversant with many of the British ways of life—especially that of the London powerbrokers. There is a small glossary of parliamentary terms aimed primarily at the American reader at the beginning of the book, but I found that Jenkins slips into London scene too easily for a non-participant. What, for example, was the "Other Club"?

I enjoyed reading this book, and I have learnt some of the history of that time that had passed me by. Emulating Churchill, I set myself a target to read 2000 words (50 pages) a night, and it took me nearly three weeks to finish. It's not a light read but a necessary one if one is to understand the political environment of Britain during the first half of the 20th century.


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