Churchill’s Failure


Here’s a short book review from the Birkbeck Politics Blog offering some thoughts on Churchill and his recent biographer, Mayor of London and Prime Ministerial hopeful Boris Johnson.

I was reading Robert Rhodes James’ classic book Churchill: A Study in Failure. Failure isn’t normally a word associated with Britain’s great wartime Prime Minister, who led the UK and its Commonwealth allies in World War Two and was voted the greatest Briton of all time in 2002 (Isambard Kingdom Brunel was second, Princess Diana was third, Charles Darwin was fourth and William Shakespeare fifth).

However, long before May 1940 when he became Prime Minister, Churchill had held and lost many positions. He first became an MP in 1900 and had been, amongst other things, Home Secretary in the 1910s and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s. In his long career, he had made many poor decisions, pursing controversial policies such as sending the Black and Tans into Ireland or threatening to use chemical weapons on Iraqi tribes. He changed party twice (Conservatives to Liberals then back again) and was seen as opinionated, controversial and ambitious.

In the 1930s, and out of office, he then supported a series of lost causes (opposing Indian independence and insulting Gandhi). By the 1930s he had made himself deeply unpopular, and was more like a George Galloway or Douglas Carswell of his day than Prime Ministerial material.

Boris Johnson has also written a book about Churchill. The comparisons between them have been made by many people (see this not very complimentary review by historian Richard J Evans). Both Johnson and Churchill are and were journalists, rebels against their own party and showmen who naturally generate controversy. There are even more comparisons Boris may not want to admit; neither found popularity with MPs of their own party (see Tory MPs’ view of Boris here) and neither was particularly trusted or seen as a ‘team player’.

But for all the similarities, there are two key differences: Churchill in the 1930s experienced being wrong and being intensely disliked. He famously said he was shaped by his past failures; his success was down to his ‘ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm’. Churchill constantly picked the wrong side on India or which King to choose and so, for most of the 1930s, he was shunned and disliked, viewed as a renegade and a washout.

However, there was one subject on which he was proved right in the 1930s: how to respond to Hitler. As other politicians sought to appease Hitler, Churchill issued continuous warnings of the dangers of doing so. As the threat from Germany became clearer, so Churchill’s popularity grew, as he was seen as the man with the courage to predict and speak out.

Boris has not felt such failure or unpopularity. In fact, his career (despite the odd blip) has been one long streak of luck, actually resembling Winston Churchill’s politician father, who burnt brightly but very briefly. Nor, unlike Churchill, is it always clear where he stands; his Bloomberg speech on the EU was rather like David Cameron’s-pro-reform-but-if-not-we-can-leave-perhaps argument. Just for fun, you can compare Johnson’s speech with Churchill’s call in 1946 for a United States of Europe.

Most interesting is the question of his popularity. Ken Livingstone spoke of Johnson’s ‘potentially fatal flaw’.  Boris, he said, ‘wants to be loved even by the people he’s destroying’. Churchill was sure that politicians needed to be able to take and absorb anger and unpopularity. The question, as Johnson ‘bounds’ from the Mayor’s Office to the Commons with his eye on Downing Street, is will he appreciate Churchill’s lessons? Will he survive ‘going from one failure to the next’ or will, as Churchill put it, the ‘greatness of his office find him out’?

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