An Interview with Andrew Roberts

Octavian Report: Can you tell us what made Churchill, in your view, so effective as a leader during crisis?

Andrew Roberts: I think really what we're looking at in Churchill, with regards to today, is the power of resilience. The way in which all the way through his life, but particularly during the Second World War, he was an exemplar of resilience. The idea that you can be hit again and again, but you always get up and carry on fighting. And that's something that you see before the First World War in his life, certainly a lot during the First World War, then in the interwar years with regard to appeasement and the rise of the Nazis, and then of course all the way through the Second World War. It didn't end there, it also continues into the Cold War. So you have somebody who, again and again, personifies this vital human instinct of resilience.

OR: Is there something about Churchill that allowed him to get “black swans” like COVID right? Is it something that can be learned?

Roberts: He didn't foresee the pandemics of his own lifetime. The Spanish Flu is the great pandemic crisis of his life, which he didn't foresee any more than anybody else did. But he did foresee the rise of Germany before the First World War as being an existential threat to European liberty and before the Second World War. Now, of course, after the Second World War, in the great “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri on the 5th of March 1946, he also was the first person in the West to warn against the rise of Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe. So you have therefore an extraordinary series of tremendously prescient moments. Very often he was the only person actually making these warnings and that is not, of course, something that we saw in this pandemic. Our politicians are not scientists. Very few people ever saw this coming.

OR: What do you think a leader in a crisis like a pandemic should do?

Roberts: The first thing I think they should do is level with the people. What Churchill found, especially in the Second World War, was that people can take any amount of bad news so long as you're honest with them and so long as they know that you're giving them the bad news straight and that you're not sugarcoating anything there. And that was something that, of course, he made very clear in the first speech that he made as Prime Minister on the 13th of May, 1940 — his famous “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech. He was not promising anything at all apart from these four things, which of course nobody wants to go through. That's a key thing. Straightforward honesty as much as humanly possible, right from the beginning.

The second thing is to trust the science. He was a great believer in science and scientists. He believed that it would help win the Second World War. He was personally very friendly with scientists. He was always interested in science. There were various other aspects in the United Kingdom with regard to sweeping powers for the police, for example, and the discussion over whether or not to have food rationing. Issues with regards to volunteering — encouraging people to volunteer for the emergency services and health services. And these all can be seen in Winston Churchill's leadership in 1940 and 1941. Boris Johnson, who is himself a biographer of Winston Churchill, took a lot of leaves out of the Churchill playbook.

OR: Are there any Churchills operating today? Any Chamberlains?

Roberts: I do see some Churchillian leadership qualities, actually, in Boris Johnson. I think the way in which he's leveled with the public is excellent and there are, as I mentioned earlier, these other aspects of leadership that he's very much taking — deliberately so — from Churchill.

But overall it strikes me that the politicians and the statesmen  followed the events rather than leading them. It's very difficult, obviously, in something as vicious and unpredictable as the coronavirus, to actually lead events. I was not hugely impressed by world leadership and I have to say that I wasn't impressed in the pre-coronavirus period. I think the best way to describe my stance on this is unsurprised.

OR: Were you also completely unsurprised by the lack of preparedness for the pandemic?

Roberts: There were a couple of aspects of it. First of all, from until January early February, this came completely unexpectedly. Secondly, China is a totalitarian country, and there's a limit to the amount that you can believe what they tell you with regard to timing and patient statistics. If one assumes that there is a political aspect in everything happens over there, which there certainly has been since their revolution in the late 1940’s, it's not necessarily the case that you can believe everything that they've said. In that sense, Western leaders do have a slight excuse for being behind the curve.

OR: Can you walk us through Churchill's plague years? Was the Spanish Flu the first pandemic that he weathered?

Roberts: It wasn't his first one. That was the Russian Flu of 1891 when he was 15 and at Harrow. It killed a million people in Western Europe in 1891 and 1892. He was, on this occasion, moved to write the one poem he ever wrote. A 16-stanza poem, titled “Influenza,” in which he charts the beginning of the flu in Asia and Russia and the way it came from the east and slowly but surely infected every country in Western Europe, including Britain. It was a good poem, surprisingly. It was an awful lot better than the kind of juvenilia one might expect from a 15-year-old schoolboy.

The real killer, as you mentioned earlier, was of course the Spanish Flu, which was a horrific pandemic. No fewer than 25 million people died of the disease in its first five weeks. Eventually it was estimated to have killed probably over 50 million. There's a big historical discussion about quite how many people died. A remarkable statistic comes from that terrible pandemic, which is that of the 116,000 American military deaths in World War I, no fewer than 63,000 — which is over 54 percent — were due to disease, mainly Spanish Flu. Flu deaths outnumber those who died in battle.