Evan Mawdsley enjoys a new biography of Britain’s wartime leader that considers his lengthy military and political career
Reviewed by: Evan Mawdsley
Author: Ashley Jackson
Price (RRP): £20
Writing a ‘new’ short biography of Churchill is a challenge, because his career was so long and varied, and because so much has already been put on paper.
Ashley Jackson does not take the route of debunking and revision, and for a book which mentions the danger of hagiography it reveals few blemishes. Episodes for which Churchill was criticised – the Dardanelles, opposition to Indian home rule, the Abdication crisis, Singapore – have for him been misunderstood: Churchill was consistently well-intentioned, and his mistakes were remarkably few given his long public service.
The book begins effectively by anchoring Churchill in the aristocratic life of rural Oxfordshire, where he was born and buried and where the landscape and history provided much of his sense of identity.
At the same time – and not inconsistently – Jackson criticises those who see the 20th-century statesman as a dinosaur rooted in the Victorian upper classes. Churchill was, Jackson argues, “a modern man who embraced change and spurned the conventions of his time and his class”.
While the longest chapter, 100 pages, is devoted to the Second World War, Jackson takes pains not to dwell exclusively on this, not to see the period before 1939 as just a springboard to greatness, and not to dismiss the post-1945 years as an uncomfortable anti-climax.
The emergence of Churchill as a wartime leader comes two-thirds of the way through. In earlier chapters the battles of ‘young Winston’ in the Sudan, South Africa, and elsewhere are vividly described, followed by the early rapid ascent to high office. In the 1920s Churchill is described as “probably the ablest… politician of the day”.
The so-called ‘wilderness years’ of the 1930s have in Jackson’s opinion been much exaggerated, as Churchill retained considerable influence. The approach is more strained when the author attempts to defend Churchill’s return to power in 1951 at the age of 76, levelling the charge of ‘ageism’ against those who dare to criticise his decisions.
Jackson is a specialist on imperial/colonial history, which is an important part of the story. He also deals assuredly with other aspects, including politics, social welfare, economics, and the great many military campaigns.
In addition, this well-rounded account examines the statesman as an author and, less seriously, as an amateur painter, although it’s not so strong on Churchill family life.
This book is not based on intensive use of primary sources, but tells the story in the words of the great man and those around him. Little attempt is made to explore historiography – although there is one rebuff to the “iconoclast” John Charmley and another to Roy Jenkins.
While specialist historians may find little really new here, they will value a beautifully written account that runs efficiently and with confidence over the full course of Churchill’s career.
For those who have not read about Churchill and his times before, this book is to be warmly recommended.
Professor Evan Mawdsley is the author of World War II: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2009)