By Jon Cogburn
The major argumentative and explanatory tasks in Boris Johnson's re-revisionist The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History concern whether Winston Churchill did have an outsized effect on history, whether this effect was good or bad, and how he was able to achieve it. The book is extraordinarily entertaining as well as fair-minded. Here I want to focus on what initially struck me as what I take to be Johnson's most extraordinary claim, that a necessary part of Churchill's success came down to his ability to simultaneously embody a unique set of British ideals (humour, drink, portliness, eccentricity) and having done so much in his life to help ordinary British people themselves realize these ideals.
First though, on the book's fair-mindedness, there is a chapter for the prosecution, focusing on Antwerp, Dardenelles, striking unions, and India. It's pretty good, though Johnson does not go into the fact that the kinds of attitudes Churchill had about Empire were surely responsible for the pathetic way that European colonies in the East folded under the Japanese onslaught. In some notable cases the Europeans had a clear military edge, but couldn't do anything with it because they were surrounded by an indigenous populous who didn't see the advantage in being a European property over a Japanese one. Had these provinces not so folded, Britain would have been in a vastly stronger position vis a vis Germany. I suspect that Johnson doesn't go into this because Churchill bore so little responsibility for post Edwardian Imperial policy in the lead up to World War II. Given some of his journalistic work, and some of his decisions when he did have a strong enough portfolio with respect to foreign policy, it's also not entirely implausible that had Churchill born that responsibility, he would not have so readily imbibed the racist and consequentially strategically suicidal views of the Victorian age. [For how increasing racism in Victorian England radically undermined intermarriage with local elites (one of the precursors to success in long lasting non-genocidal Empires) and ended up hobbling the Empire, see William Dalrymple's White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century England.] While it's fair of Johnson not to blame Churchill for failure to correct this prior to World War II, it surely counts against at least the scope of Churchill's prophetic vision, and surely also relevant to assessing one of the men responsible for the Bengal Famine of 1943.
One of Johnson's most interesting claims is that part of Churchill's success at mobilizing a badly defeated country (contrast with the political leadership of France, who began the complicity in their own immiseration by rejecting DeGaulle's plan to retreat to North Africa and continue fighting) was the fact that he both personally embodied the ideals which he presented Britain as fighting for and had credibly done so much to make those ideals more real for the overwhelming majority of Brits actually doing the fighting. From the previous paragraph it is clear what kinds of things Churchill had done to make Britain more closely resemble British ideals. But this would be fatally misleading if we don't look at the actual content of the ideals, which Johnson explores:
What are the key attributes of the Brits - at least in our own not-quite-so-humble opinion? Well, we think we have a great sense of humour, unlike some other countries we could mention. Ever since Shakespeare put that chauvinistic drinking-song into the mouth of Iago and Cassio, we have fancied our ability to drink your Hollander under the table, your Dane dead drunk, and so on. The British tend to be a bit suspicious of people who are inordinately thin (and we are now the second-fattest nation on earth); and in general we think of Britain as the natural homeland of the eccentric, the oddball and the individualists.
Al four of these traits Churchill covered under the capacious bowler hat of his own personality (129).
Later in the book Johnson will go into the ways that Churchill's celebration (and even organization) of British eccentricity was such a decisive advantage to Allied weapon design, strategic and tactical thinking, as well as intelligence/espionage efforts, both with respect to intercepting Nazi communications and with respect to over and over again at decisive moments completely misleading Nazi intelligence efforts. Part of Churchill's early aversion to the Nazis was his utter revulsion both for the anti-semitism and also for the broader form of life. He valued and embodied the kind of irreverence and eccentricity which Naziism must stamp out. While Churchill was excoriated early in his career for noting how awful it must be for Manchester children in abject poverty to grow up never hearing anything clever, there was a point to this. His labor and welfare reforms were not just in the service of increasing the number of calories that children receive but also in the service of helping the nation embody the ideals that he himself embodied. For example, in addition to creating a minimum wage, Churchill created mandatory tea breaks for workers. Johnson argues that this combination of embodying national ideals while having done so much to help them be realized by his fellow citizens gave Churchill enormous political power with respect to motivating British people to fight and win.
If Johnson is correct about the way that political leaders embodiment of ideals is something that must be taken into account in understanding their causal roles, then many, many interesting things follow. For example, one can see American political paralysis as in part our inability to have our national ideals rendered consistent by a political leader who can embody them. Bush attempted to embody the cowboy tough guy who has a heart of gold underneath it all. Obama attempted to embody our ability to use reason, discipline, and hard work to transcend and take control of our own misspent history. Trump attempted to embody the homespun crusader who has the street canniness and sometimes wisdom to defeat both the forces arrayed against him but also to stick up for the little guy. These are all recognizable American archetypes, but for most they are inconsistent with one another. People who embody different aspects then end up representing constituencies who are too much at one another's throat. Uncle Sam is no John Bull. He's just a guy pointing at you, with his beard, hat, and red, white, and blue clothes. Part of Churchill's success was because it was easier to get British people of that time to agree what their national ideals were. The way the rural/urban split works in the United States today makes this almost prohibitively difficult. But part of Churchill's success was surely also helping to create agreement about how some of the British ideals could be unified. He did this both with his journalism and the social welfare and labor reforms he helped lead.
It is surely also true that these things are easier in War time. But compare Roosevelt's four freedoms with Bush's enjoining us in our own homes to fight terrorism by continuing to shop and supporting another round of tax cuts for the wealthy. The brilliance (or lack thereof) of our leaders matters especially in wartime.
Another interesting thing that follows (and this is Johnson's own brand of Toryism here) is that it is a mistake to allow political reform to undermine people's ability to embody those national ideals which are valuable. Post World War II architecture was a huge boon with respect to economic balance sheets. We got very good at cheaply building places where you can warehouse people. But residents of council flats in England, banlieues ringing French cities, American housing projects, and all the small towns gutted by Walmartism are a testimony to the ways that types of reform can make sense statistically but be disastrous in terms of the effects on the forms of life worth fighting for. One can (and should!) make a similar kind of argument with respect to the way management culture has deformed so many important cultural institutions (e.g. universities) and aspects of our shared lives. The poor British find themselves trapped between a Toryism that is a sham cover for libertarian rapacity and party that ostensibly represents labor but is really the apotheosis of management culture (required reading!). I'm not preaching here, Democrats are only superior in the sense that they are so much less effective than Blair was. But our corresponding vice is that American Republicans are much better than contemporary Tories at playing their game.
Johnson's meditations actually makes me feel much better about holing up in a room or sitting in my backyard reading books I will not have a chance to discuss with anyone other than my spouse (and I realize that I'm very lucky in this regard), writing academic essays that at most (optimistically) tens of people will read, writing songs no one will hear, etc., etc., etc. These things are worth doing, and as such also worth doing badly and worth doing alone. That is, even (and especially) as an entirely personal matter, it is important to embody the kinds of normative practices that one finds favorable, even and especially when those practices don't fit with the age very well. It's one thing to fight, but quite another to fight for something worth fighting for. I forget whether it was Martin Amis or Christopher Hitchens who used to respond to Lenin's (or was it Trotsky's?) barbaric adage about needing to break some eggs to make an omelet. Amis/Hitches said this would only even make a little bit of sense if there were prospects of getting some omelets. The important converse of this is I think the moral imperative to attempt to live a life well worth living, to actually learn to use the eggs (or whatever) to create something beautiful on the plate. Too much political discourse discounts such things as frivolity, not only unserious but morally culpable given the extent of our problems, an insult to people for whom nicely cooked eggs are not an option. I think this is a dangerous and destructive way of thinking, but also worry that in present conditions the only way to counter it is to not embody it yourself. Churchill certainly didn't, and if Johnson is correct, him not doing so saved a continent from slavery.