Books interview with Boris Johnson: “Churchill was a tremendous bully in some ways, but we needed a bully”

Boris Johnson talks to Matt Elton about his new account of the life of Winston Churchill, from the childhood experiences that motivated him to the legacy of his Second World War leadership

British statesman and writer Winston Churchill, aged 26. Photograph by Elliott & Fry. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Who were the formative figures in Churchill’s early life?

The biggest contribution Churchill’s parents made to history is that they neglected him as a child. There’s no doubt that Churchill’s father, Randolph, had an absolutely mesmeric effect on Winston. He wanted to be like him, and suffered terribly from a sense that he was a disappointment, that his father actively thought he was a failure and a wastrel. I think he longed to prove himself, possibly because some of the things that Randolph said were so wounding, and to show he had the stuff of greatness in him.

His mother slightly starved him of affection: she was a beautiful, glamorous figure, but never quite gave him the kind of affection that I think modern mothers would instinctively give to their children. She was very remote: she would stride in to the room in her skin-tight jodhpurs, looking fantastic, but was not really involved in his upbringing the way most modern mothers are.

It was Churchill’s nanny, Mrs Everest, who  gave him absolute solidity and dependability.  They wrote these charming letters to each other, and he was absolutely devoted to her. Both of his parents refused to come to sports day one of the years that he was at Harrow, but she turned up and he proudly walked around arm in arm with her, braving the ridicule of his peers.

What do you think it was that Churchill felt he had to prove?

First of all, he felt that he had something to prove intellectually. Don’t forget he was sent to Harrow (rather than Eton), which in those days was thought to be a dumber school. There was no question of him even trying to go to Oxbridge, even though his father had done well as a classicist at Merton College.

Churchill felt the effect of this, even though, when you look at his school reports, they’re actually not bad. One of the myths about Churchill is that he was a dunce – he wasn’t remotely!

He also felt that he needed to prove his bravery. At school he was conscious of being small and runty: other kids threw cricket balls at him and he ran away. He later said that, having been in many ways a coward, there was nothing that he wanted more than to acquire a reputation for physical bravery. He wanted to prove that there was no act too daring or too noble.

The amazing thing is that his appetite never really diminished. It drove him all the way through, even after the Second World War. I mean, what an engine! He just kept going.

What was the fuel driving this engine?

I think that Churchill was just naturally endowed with absolutely superhuman energy, coupled with the era in which he grew up. He was one of the last great Victorians. Although he came to prominence in the Edwardian age, when he entered parliament Victoria was still on the throne, and so he was like this vast promontory of the Victorian world jutting out into the 20th century.He was constructed on a Victorian scale, with a belief in Britain and its huge empire.

I think he felt he had to measure up to all of that: to be big and strong enough to sustain the great vault of the empire. Money was not unimportant, either. He spent huge amounts, and was always broke. He often said to his wife, Clementine: “I’m sorry, but we can’t buy the joint for Sunday until I’ve sold this article to the Daily Mail.” They really did live like that sometimes, so money was a big spur to his creativity.

How did he view his own politics, and his tendency to switch sides?

I think that he viewed it with an absolute, brilliant ruthlessness. He once made a crack that you should approach your political party as a jockey approaches a series of horses in the stables: just find the one that will carry you the furthest, and the fastest. That was his approach, and nobody before or since has been so nimble in leaping from saddle to saddle in mid-career.

How did people respond to Churchill during the Second World War?

People such as Richard Toye, in The Roar of the Lion [his 2013 book that explored the impact of Churchill’s speeches, and suggested that they produced a wider range of reactions than is often imagined], have delved deeply into how people actually responded to his wartime speeches. I enjoyed Toye’s book tremendously, but at the end of it I couldn’t help wondering whether Churchill had won the argument in spite of it all. His audience was colossal, and yes, of course you can find huge numbers of people who reacted against his speeches, that’s just the way it is – particularly with something as strong and urgent as Churchill’s message and style.

You can imagine wounded soldiers lying in hospital wards shouting swearwords at radio broadcasts of Churchill’s speeches, as Toye documents, and yet huge numbers of people felt absolutely lifted by what he said, felt the napes of their neck prickle, and knew that it was the right thing to say.

The final vindication of Churchill on that point is that, in a way, he was fighting for people’s right to tell him to bog off. That was what the whole war was about: there were some creeps on the other side who didn’t believe in democracy, and we did.

Things were going so badly for us in the war. We were losing virtually every sodding battle; you could see that the empire was going; we were being bled white by the Americans. It really was a nightmare. The Blitz was absolutely terrible – and we were fighting for what? We were fighting to stop this ghastly guy from dominating Europe, but it was a most terrible sacrifice and struggle for the British people. There was so little to console ourselves with – except for this guy, Winston Churchill, who seemed to stand for everything that was good about the country, and be able to sum it up. All of the evidence that I’ve seen seems to show that his reputation now is not a million miles from what it was during the war.

You write about some of the charges that can be laid against Churchill: that he was spoilt, bullying, a warmonger…

Well, let’s start with the bit about him being spoilt. Certainly, if you read his childhood letters to his mother asking to go to see Buffalo Bill, there’s an amazing wheedling sense of entitlement: he had a thousand toy soldiers, and was attended by every kind of comfort. His grandson, Nick Soames, told me that his grandfather never went anywhere without someone to look after him, and I suppose in a sense that is spoiled – but he was also able to think about others, which is not often thought of as a feature of spoiled people. To get to your second point, was he a bully? He was a kind of bouncy-castle personality: he filled the room, and, of course, was a tremendous bully in some ways, but we needed a bully. We needed someone who was going to drive the whole flywheel of the war effort to get stuff done. And thank God he was as he was.

Whether he was gleeful for war is interesting. There is no doubt that as somebody who had been to Sandhurst, who had actively sought out military conflict as young man, he loved warfare and military glory. He saw how it paints events with glamour and increases people’s stature – but it’s absolutely wrong to say that he tried to incite war. He saw its horror when he was in the trenches of the First World War; he came back and made passionate speeches about the horror of seeing men turned into bundles of bloody rags.

He fought to prevent the Second World War. He had absolutely no appetite for embroiling Britain unnecessarily. He wanted to minimise casualties, which was why he supported the use of gas, and the tank: because he knew that the slaughter would be all the greater if things went on as they were.

What hopes did Churchill have for a European union after the war?

This is a subject that enrages Churchill enthusiasts, because he said so many different things at different times. He wanted a united Europe, with France and Germany at its core, but I don’t think he would have wanted the UK to have been solely committed to that. I think he would have seen us assisting and participating, but also having an eye to our primary relationships with America and former imperial countries. He would have wanted to have his cake and eat it.

I think it was a great shame that Churchill wasn’t PM when the Schuman plan to create a European community got going in 1948. I’m absolutely certain that he would not have allowed Britain to have been on the sidelines. If he had been there, I think that there’s a good chance that we would have had a much more intra-governmental structure more suitable to Britain’s traditions of parliamentary democracy. Churchill was a child of parliament: he would not have wanted to see the rights of the electorate, through the House of the Commons, being eroded by Brussels.

Are there any modern politicians who compare to Churchill?

I don’t think there are. I think he was a one-off, I really do. I mean, Margaret Thatcher was nothing like Churchill, frankly. Tony Blair was nothing like him; John Major was nothing like him. Harold Wilson used to compare himself to Churchill, but it didn’t pay off for him, did it, really?

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The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson (Hodder and Stoughton, 416 pages, £25)