Churchill’s Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Unreliable, unprincipled, a fat and foolish fantasist, this prime minister was a jackdaw of a journalist, a “veritable Rossini of rhetoric” who was addicted to photo opportunities and three-word slogans. He was hopeless at detail, had money worries despite earning a fortune from his writing, and was a poor judge of character whose aides included oddballs.

His father neglected him and he had a difficult relationship with some of his children; yet somehow, to the horror of the establishment, this sybaritic chancer prospered politically, remaining unscathed by a score of scandals any one of which would have sunk a less buoyant craft.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is, as it happens, describing Winston Churchill, and the oddball aides were Brendan Bracken and Frederick Lindemann, not Dominic Cummings, but you do not have to be Inspector Poirot to sense he may have someone else in mind.

There is no shortage of books about Churchill. Indeed, a salable if breezy one was written by a certain Boris Johnson. Nor is criticism of the wartime premier unknown.

Wheatcroft claims in his opening pages that “this is not a hostile account”, adding “nor is it contrarian”. This is true in the sense that Wheatcroft takes the now widely held, even fashionable view of Churchill, which is that he was reckless and racist, a “stormy petrel” in Wheatcroft’s neat phrase. The real contrarians these days are those historians who unashamedly stand up for Churchill.

A “veritable Rossini of rhetoric” who was addicted to photo opportunities and three-word slogans.

The book is something of a penny-farthing. Its larger, front part is a thorough if slightly florid account of Churchill’s life, from his lonely and unsuccessful school days to his death in 1965 as the world’s most revered statesman.

Then comes the penny-farthing’s smaller wheel, when Wheatcroft laments the way that misinformed “Churchillism” has taken hold, fueling American neo-conservatism and delusions of post-imperial British importance.

Not least among the latter is the idea of an Anglo-American “special relationship”. Wheatcroft argues that there is no such thing, as Churchill discovered when dealing with the war-shy Roosevelt. The US will always place “the immutable laws of Machtpolitik” over any sentimentalized bond to an English-speaking ally. Few British people who have spent much time in the US will dispute this fact of political life.

Churchill always had a taste for danger. As a young army officer in the last years of the Victorian Raj, his days began before dawn with “a clammy hand adroitly lifting one’s chin and applying a gleaming razor to a lathered and defenceless throat”. It was a life of manservants, polo, far too many evening chotapegs and the occasional skirmish.

Churchill, who was brave in battle, augmented his already healthy income (his mother supplemented his $345 army pay with an annual allowance of $690) by working as a reporter in the Boer War. Armed but in plain clothes, he was taken prisoner and could have been shot as a “franc tireur”.

Churchill always had a taste for danger.

Somehow he got out of that scrape and by the age of 26 he already had five books to his name. None was as hefty as Wheatcroft’s 624-page brick. It is so thick that the binding on my copy was unable to bear the strain and split.

Churchill had a journalist’s self-serving eye for a story. Having become home secretary in his mid-thirties, in 1911 he dashed along to Sidney Street, east London, where three Russian anarchists were holed up in a house. A photographer was conveniently on hand to catch an image of Churchill in silk tall hat and astrakhan-collared greatcoat alongside the rifle-toting soldiers and police. Churchill would later admit he had been looking for action, fame and a story to tell.

So it continued: the Gallipoli disaster, the gold-standard row, the creation of Iraq, and later of Israel, his aggression against trade unions, the Dieppe landings, his insistent belief in whizbang SOE expeditions in the Second World War and much more. In his quest for action and fame Churchill was often careless of human life. By modern standards, and even by the standards of his day, he was foul about “lesser races”. But he was good copy.

Wheatcroft relies on other politicians’ memoirs, Westminster and Whitehall records, gossip from aristocratic drawing rooms and observations from fellow Churchill historians.

The trouble with these sources is that they are too intellectual and do not explain how Churchill retained a popular following. His electoral record may have been pretty spotty, but it is undeniable that he connected with citizens, even if they did not vote for him. How can that vulgar magnetism be explained?

The real contrarians these days are those historians who unashamedly stand up for Churchill.

A rare mention of the public comes via George Orwell, who noted that Londoners were affected by Churchill’s wartime broadcasts, even when puzzled by the more high-flown passages. They could not follow the words but they got his drift.

Kenneth Rose, another journalist, recalled that when his guardsmen heard one of Churchill’s speeches — the one ending with the “advance Britannia!” riff — the troop sergeant said: “Sounds as if the old bugger’s pissed.” And yet they fought under him.

Churchill, despite or because of his colorful flaws, fulfilled the public’s idea of political leadership. Bad behavior was part of that expectation.

In the “shadow” part of his thesis — the penny-farthing’s smaller wheel — Wheatcroft looks at how Churchill’s reputation has been fictionalized since his death by despots, writers and cinematographers, not least in films such as the “preposterous” Darkest Hour. Fidel Castro, hardly the greatest devotee of liberty, claimed to have been inspired by Churchill’s leadership of a small island against a continental opponent. Cheeky sod.

Tony Blair and George W Bush channeled Churchill when taking us to war in Iraq. Not all the examples convince. Even without Churchill’s example, Margaret Thatcher would surely have fought Argentina over the Falkland Islands. It could have been electoral curtains for her otherwise.

Wheatcroft, for all his talk of machtpolitik, does not always remember that the electorate is an ever-present in politicians’ calculations. When Bill Clinton sucked up to Sinn Fein/IRA in the 1990s, it was not necessarily out of antipathy to the British. It was because the Irish vote matters in America.

Fidel Castro claimed to have been inspired by Churchill’s leadership of a small island against a continental opponent. Cheeky sod.

Many of those who disapproved of Churchill in his day belonged to “the Respectable Tendency”. Wheatcroft defends them as “the best elements in English public life who might better be called the Honest Tendency”.

How house-trained old Geoffrey has become. What happened to the carousing Spectator hack and Evening Standard diarist whom Private Eye nicknamed “Rigid Man” owing to his tendency to fall into post-prandial stupors?

His prose still has the odd pleasing curlicue, though. Words used include estivate, enophile, mephitic, simony and epiphenomena.

The Respectable Tendency thought Churchill a gangster and regarded Neville Chamberlain, whom Churchill replaced as prime minister in 1940, as “a good fellow”.

Nancy Dugdale, a politically itchy member of the Tennant family, boiled when Churchill became PM. She hated Churchill’s “boasting broadcasts” and considered him “the counterpart of Goering … the same treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot air”. And yet Orwell said those boasts went down well with the public.

Today we call that sort of thing boosterism. And despite the tuts and tsks of the Respectable/Remainer tendency, it still seems to find widespread approval.

Quentin Letts is the political sketch writer for The Times and a theater critic for The Sunday Times