Churchill & Son by Josh Ireland

It is not easy being the child of a great or famous person. Endless celebrities’ children’s memoirs remind us of that doleful fact, to the point that Famous-Parent Syndrome ought to be a recognized psychological illness. One person who coped with it well was Sir Winston Churchill, but then his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, died aged 45, when Churchill was 20 years old, and so could not stymie his son’s life.

By contrast, Winston himself lived to be 90, and it is the contention of this well-researched, well-written, but often misguided book that he utterly stymied the life of his own son, whom he had named Randolph in fealty to his dead father. “Winston demanded an asphyxiating loyalty from those closest to him,” argues the author of this book, Josh Ireland. “This meant that Randolph was compelled to attach himself to a series of doomed, unpopular causes.… Every step Randolph took to try to set a course of his own was treated as if it were a deliberate attempt to sabotage his father. The inhibiting effect of his fidelity prevented him from ever building an identity, or a career that was truly his own. At the same time he was desperately trying to live up to the prodigious ambitions that Winston had implanted within him.... Randolph was trapped in a cage built by his father.”

It is quite a charge sheet against Winston Churchill, and moreover Ireland believes that he “never saw Randolph clearly, neither when he encouraged his young son to dream that he would one day lead the country, nor when he rejected him as a troublesome failure. Winston’s great imaginative facility … which was the foundation of the leadership that saved his country in 1940, failed his son.”

Although Ireland lays his argument out cogently, supported by ample evidence from a mountain of excellent sources, particularly Randolph’s papers at Churchill College at Cambridge University, the refutations to it are obvious. What if Winston had not encouraged his son to dream of greatness? What if he had not asked him to help fight his causes? Considering that the seemingly most doomed and unpopular of those causes was anti-Nazism, was it not a good thing that Randolph’s fidelity to his father left him on the morally correct side of history? Moreover, Winston only truly (and temporarily) rejected his son when his marriage to socialite Pamela Harriman was at stake, due to Randolph’s impossibly abusive behavior.

Three generations of Churchills (from left, Randolph, Winston, and Winston) attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953.

It was not Winston who drove Randolph to be so monumentally rude to people. His father might have been an early enabler in Randolph’s alcoholism, but by the time he was in his 30s, Randolph needed to take ultimate responsibility for the cirrhosis of the liver that would ultimately kill him at 57. Nor was it Winston’s fault that Randolph was so hateful to his mother, Winston’s wife, Clementine. (Once, when Clementine reprimanded Randolph for taking a liking to an older woman, he replied, “I don’t care, I need her. She’s maternal and you’re not.”)

“Every step Randolph took to try to set a course of his own was treated as if it were a deliberate attempt to sabotage his father.... Randolph was trapped in a cage built by his father.”

It is true that Randolph was spoiled by his father, who held up his cigar for silence whenever Randolph held forth, which must have been supremely irritating to anyone else around the table. But it was an act of love, for which Winston cannot really be blamed. Ireland is certainly not hagiographic about Randolph, noting “his impertinence and laziness, his wildness and lack of control,” but there is a point in life when the blame for sarcasm and boorishness cannot be directed at the parents. If Randolph Churchill had not had to carry quite such a famous surname, it is perfectly possible that he would have been a much more impressive figure.

Randolph was physically brave, and had he not been the prime minister’s son, he would probably have won the Military Cross for his exploits with Marshal Tito’s partisans in occupied Yugoslavia during World War II.

Randolph also hated injustice and was infuriated when an immigration questionnaire asked him to state his race before he would be allowed to visit apartheid South Africa. “Damned cheek!” he exclaimed, and wrote on the form: “Race: human. But if, as I imagine is the case, the object of this inquiry is to determine whether I have coloured blood in my veins, I am most happy to be able to inform you that I do, indeed, so have. This is derived from one of my most revered ancestors, the Indian Princess Pocohontas, of whom you may not have heard, but who was married to a Jamestown settler named John Rolfe.”

One has to admire Randolph for that, and also for his reaction when a former editor of The Times of London, who was staying at his house, admitted over dinner that he had been partly responsible for hiding the truth about Nazi Germany from readers before the war. Randolph, who had a carving knife in his hand, started “shaking and trembling” with fury and bellowed, “Shits like you should have been shot by my father in 1940!” Then he lunged toward the editor, who had to dodge round the table until Randolph hurled the knife onto the floor and strode out of the room.

This book is ostensibly about how Winston built and broke his son, but readers will conclude that he built much more than he broke.

Andrew Roberts is a historian whose books include The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, Napoleon: A Life, and, most recently, Churchill: Walking with Destiny