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Andrew Roberts on Churchill and his comebacks

Octavian Report: How do you explain the meteoric rise of Winston Churchill, and why does he make such a terrible error at Gallipoli?

Andrew Roberts: I think his early meteoric rise was partly just down to nepotism and the fact that he had a very famous name. It helped enormously that he was a Churchill, that his father, Lord Randolph, was one of the most famous politicians of the Victorian Era. It’s impossible to present him as somebody who rose from nothing. He was the grandson of a duke and he was born in the grandest palace in England, a palace so grand that the royals actually envy it.

Very swiftly after his entry into politics, however, he was judged according to his merits. And all of that went very, very well until his massive fall from grace when he got the Dardanelles operation so badly wrong. It was a catastrophe that led to 160,000 Allied killed and wounded.

The idea itself was a concept of genius: to get the Royal Navy through the Dardanelles Strait and moored off Constantinople and thereby take the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War by forcing them to leave the Central Powers, essentially. It was a completely brilliant concept.

However, on the 18th of March 1915, he lost six ships. On the 25th of April 1915, he forced an attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula against the better judgment of many people in the Admiralty. That was the kernel for this appalling bloodletting.

He not only fell from grace in that he was sacked from the great position that he loved so much — First Lord of the Admiralty — but also he was given a sinecure job, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. This meant that he had no real control over anything in the First World War. He resigned that November and went to fight in the trenches. He was 40 at the time.

OR: How did he manage to psychologically and professionally rehabilitate himself?

Roberts: The key moment really comes in July of 1917 when he was back out of the trenches, where he had done extremely well and commanded the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He had been brave and had gone into no-man’s land some 30 times, sometimes so close to enemy lines that he could actually hear the Germans speaking German in their trenches. He was then made Minister of Munitions by David Lloyd George. At that point Churchill was in charge of 2.5 million people in the munitions factories, and he churned out munitions at a far greater and more successful rate than hitherto.

Another key part of his rehabilitation was that he was Minister of War in 1919 and demobilized the army. And he’d gotten some things absolutely brilliantly right in the First World War, like getting the Royal Navy ready at the beginning and developing the tank.

So there were good points and bad points. But he still had people shouting, “What about the Dardanelles?” at him, even during the 1930’s.

OR: He followed this up, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the decision to go on the gold standard at a rate that proved to be catastrophically wrong.

Roberts: Yes. But the whole of the government was in favor of it. Labour, then in opposition, were in favor of it. The other party of the opposition, the Liberal Party, were in favor of it. The whole of the City wanted it. All of the financial press wanted it. Other than J.M. Keynes, it’s difficult to look at any expert or major figure who didn’t think that Britain should go back onto the gold standard at that particular level at that particular time. Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer — the person who actually made the call. And being Churchill he also made witty and amusing and on occasion sarcastic points in its favor (which of course ultimately came back and haunted him).

He had quite extraordinary ups and down as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He thought that he wasn’t very good at money, but in fact almost all of his budgets were well-composed and appreciated by the City; the stock market went up after each of them. I think he recognized as well as anybody else that economics were not his strong point. As far as the general strike of 1926 was concerned, he was very aggressive and tough. But he had a Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who was quite emollient, and they very obviously played “good cop, bad cop.” He took the job of bad cop, and that’s been held against him ever since.

He was never going to be acclaimed as Prime Minister because of his economics. Though he was a little bit better at economics than his father, who referred to decimal points as “those damned dots.”

With the abdication crisis, he made another very bad mistake by supporting Edward VIII over King George VI. There are loads of other examples. Women’s suffrage being a classic one.

So, if you add up the Dardanelles catastrophe, women’s suffrage, the gold standard, and the abdication crisis, you’ve got a pretty good level of denunciation. An awful lot of people in 1920’s and 1930’s used this to decry what he then said about Hitler and the Nazis.

OR: Do you think that without Churchill the war might have gone in a different direction? Why was he able to see the threat Hitler presented when no-one else was?

Roberts: On the first: yes, definitely. On the second: I think it comes down largely to his sense of walking with destiny. I didn’t come upon that subtitle for my book because it sounds good. He actually did believe that he was walking with destiny. All his life, from the age of 16 onwards, he spoke about destiny constantly. His whole concept of personal destiny was something that is epicentral to our understanding of him.

And part of that destiny was not making a peace deal with Adolf Hitler in May 1940. It was the exact opposite. He was going to be the descendant of his great ancestor, the first Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. And he was going to be a figure who fit into the grand continuum of British history, from the Armada through to the War of Spanish Succession to the Napoleonic Era.

There are other reasons he was able to see the danger from Hitler before others. First is that he was a philo-Semite. He liked Jews. This is not common amongst men of his class and background in the 1930’s. He went on holiday with Jews as a child. He represented Jews in Manchester, his first constituency. He had supported the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. He believed in the right of the Jews to have a national homeland in Palestine even before that. And so you have this Zionist, effectively, in the 1930’s, who therefore had an early warning system when it came to Hitler and the Nazis and was able to spot what they were genuinely like.

Second is his sense of history. One of the reasons I’m very proud to be a historian is that Winston Churchill was one: he was able to see Adolf Hitler immediately as a hegemonist would-be tyrant of Europe. And so he was able to say, and did say, that here we have someone like Philip II of Spain, like Louis XIV, like Wilhelm II, like Napoleon, who wanted to dominate Europe. He could not allow this because historically, British independence depends on a balance of power in Europe.

Third, he had seen fanaticism in his life in a way that many of his contemporaries hadn’t. He had seen his friends slashed to pieces by Pathan tribesmen and Talib tribesmen on what is now the India-Pakistan border. He had seen it during his fighting in the Sudan, where he killed four dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman. And he was able to see that same kind of fanaticism — not religious of course — but political, in the Nazis.

Unlike the other Prime Ministers of the 1930’s, unlike Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, he was able to see that the Nazis were qualitatively different from the politics these men had had to deal with before. He could spot it. They couldn’t.

So you have these three elements all coming together in 1930’s and filling him with a certainty that Hitler and the Nazis had to be stopped, as well as the most profound sense of frustration that no one was listening. One of the reasons no one was listening was, as I mentioned earlier, that he made so many mistakes previously.

OR: How do you see his stellar career as a writer fitting into his political life?

Roberts: He didn’t write because he wanted his words to be heard. He did it because he was broke all the time. His parents were huge spendthrifts and he was pretty much in the red his entire life until he was in his early seventies.

He gambled enormously, both on the tables and on the stock exchange. He employed 14 servants and lived an extremely expensive lifestyle. He ordered the best of everything, all the time. So he was broke and the way he dealt with it was to to write books and articles. He wrote 840 articles and he wrote 37 books. And these helped. Some of the articles that he wrote were incredibly well-paid. He would get the modern equivalent of more than $30,000 per article.

One of the ways we know so much about Churchill and what was going through his mind, the way he was thinking, and his hopes and fears is his writing — and thus ultimately because of the fact that he was broke all the time.

OR: Do you have a favorite book of his?

Roberts: My Early Life, his autobiography from childhood until when he gets married to his wife Clementine in 1908. It’s been in print ever since he wrote it. It’s one of the great international bestsellers. It’s been translated into 22 languages, and it is extremely funny as well as being very moving. It gives wonderful insights into what he would like people to think about him. It’s not always entirely historically accurate. But it nonetheless is a combination of a wonderful adventure story and a proper memoir that makes you really understand somebody’s motivations.

OR: Why are we not producing leaders like Winston Churchill today?

Roberts: King George VI told William Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, that he wouldn’t appoint Winston Churchill as Prime Minister except in a world war. And that is of course the crisis in which he ultimately did become Prime Minister.

Assuming that we should have leaders in peacetime of the quality and the level and the caliber of Winston Churchill is almost a bit too much — we don’t have a world war. Equally, I think that we expect so much of our leaders in terms of their personal vulnerabilities. We demand that they should be completely clean individuals morally and physically and professionally. Churchill smoked 160,000 cigars. He drank an enormous amount. He made all the mistakes that I’ve mentioned earlier, any one of which could destroy a political career today. He made jokes all the time — people think nowadays of politicians with a sense of humor as untrustworthy. He was a person who I think would have done very well, by the way, on Twitter: many of his great witticisms can be fitted into 280 characters or less.

How many people like that are allowed to get to the top in politics today? He was somebody who said exactly what he thought. He had no speechwriters. He was writing his own speeches. He didn’t take much notice of opinion polls — that wouldn’t have got him terribly far in modern-day politics. He had no spin doctors and he never had any focus groups.

If we want politicians of the caliber of Winston Churchill, we’re going to have to alter the assumptions that we make about who can and can’t go into politics.

OR: How do you defend Churchill against his modern critics?

Roberts: It’s pointless to ask what Oliver Cromwell would have thought of socialized medicine. And a Victorian aristocrat born in 1874 in a palace who then goes off and spends years of his life defending the British Empire on the northwest frontier of India is going to be an imperialist and is going to think positive things about colonialism.

The idea that therefore we must despise him is contemptibly skewed. Luckily, the tide there — at least among intelligent people — is turning.

Yes, we had a café in London attacked a few months ago with people spray-painting Churchill’s face. A Churchill statue is occasionally attacked by left-wing university students who are either making names for themselves or do genuinely think that one can treat somebody who was still at school when Darwin was alive by the same mores that we live by today.

But we’re getting beyond that now, and that’s one of the reasons why people are able to see Winston Churchill for the great man that he was.

You have to factor in all the mistakes he made. It’s only by having made those mistakes that he was able to be the great man that he was. As he said to his wife Clementine, “I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.” And we are expecting too much of politicians today if we expect them to get everything right all the time, that we can pick them up on a few sentences that they might have said, often in off-hand remarks 20 or 25 years before, and assume that that should be enough to disqualify them from standing for public office. And with social media, the idea that everybody is on full-scale performance all the time means that you by and large are going to get people who are mealy-mouthed — or get such revulsion against that that you wind up in a polity that is no better.

OR: We talked about his failures. What do you view as Churchill’s finest moment?

Roberts: You have to go back to the four things he got right that very few other people did.

The first one was to appreciate that the First World War had to be fought, that you could not allow Germany to have hegemony over the European continent in 1914. Some of the recent revelations about Kaiser Wilhelm II suggest he wanted to use gas against the Jews, so it’s quite clear how proto-Hitlerian that regime was.

Then, of course, there is his brilliance in being the first and the best and easily the most senior of British politicians to warn against Adolf Hitler. That civilization must always thank him for.

His actual strategy in the Second World War — the strategy of drawing German strength down through the Mediterranean, cutting them off and capturing a quarter of a million Axis troops in North Africa, before then going on into Sicily and Italy and thereby weakening the Germans prior to the attack on D-Day — was a brilliant and successful strategy. It needs to be appreciated that it was primarily Winston Churchill’s strategy that was then subsequently sold successfully to President Roosevelt.

Finally, of course, he also — with the same level of obloquy and attack — was able to spot Stalin and Soviet Communism and the threat that they posed to Eastern Europe and indeed the rest of Europe during the Cold War. He said that four years, really, before everybody else, and he, again, was attacked for it.

So you have these four great things he gave the world, and against that, a lot of perfectly reasonable criticism about stuff to do with the gold standard and the abdication crisis — which, in my view, fades away against the iron splendor of Winston Churchill.