The Churchill Factor – Boris Johnson
Father Christmas brought me this book – in my fancy he is a rather shambolic and unpredictable character with unruly hair – and despite my initial misgivings it was a riveting read. I devoured it in three sittings, its bright and breezy style engaging and carrying the reader along. Johnson brings his classical learning, his love of rhetorical devices and wit to play and is responsible for many a witticism, some of which even work. In deliberately exposing himself to danger Churchill wanted to prove that he was a Marlborough, not a Marlborough light (boom, boom). For the purist his lapse into the use of the historic present from time to time may be too much to bear but on the whole his style and the pace of the book carries the enterprise off.
So much for style, what about substance? The thesis of the book is that Churchill was the greatest politician of the Western world and we would do well to understand what made him tick. So Johnson launches into a thematic analysis of his hero’s characters, attributes and achievements. But if you are looking for heavy-duty research and analysis then you will be disappointed. What we have is very much more impressionistic – more of a Van Gogh than a Rembrandt, you might say.
Churchill’s major achievements were spotting the Nazi peril at an early stage, holding the appeasement movement at bay, rallying the nation’s spirits and luring the Americans into the war, although Pearl Harbour and Hitler’s foolish declaration of war on America had a lot to do with it. But to counter that, he was responsible for the Gallipoli disaster, could be held responsible for sowing the seeds of the current Middle East conflicts and a little too fond of proposing the use of poison gas for modern sensibilities.
Johnson clearly empathises with his subject. Churchill was seen as an opportunist and unprincipled and not really trusted by his colleagues. After all, when Chamberlain stood down in 1940 the Conservative hierarchy wanted Lord Halifax to succeed, an appeaser who may well have cut a deal with Hitler. It is not hard to imagine the same arguments being trotted out by the Tory hierarchy of Johnson as they ponder the succession to Cameron.
Churchill also had an inexhaustible appetite for work. When mulling this over, you remember that the author of this book is supposed to be the mayor of London, a prospective parliamentary candidate, a well-paid newspaper columnist and an airline bouncer. Typical Boris, you might say, to lay the seeds of comparison between himself and Churchill. In truth, Boris isn’t fit to lace his brogues.
Where Johnson is weak is analysing the faults of his hero. Churchill, despite prevailing in the Second World War with a little help from his friends, lost the 1945 general catastrophically. Why? The nation was ready for a change and wanted to overthrow the patricians who had brought the country to its knees. For all his strengths Churchill found himself no longer du jour but rather a relic of a different generation and a different age.
Of course, he came back but his final premiership was blighted by ill-health. Not unsurprising given the industrial quantities of hooch that he consumed. The whiskies, Johnson assures us, were very weak and the cigars, Havana of course, were stage props, rarely consumed in full. Churchill had a disconcerting habit of giving his half-chewed, half-smoked cigars to the hoi polloi. Grateful I’m sure – no wonder he was booted out!