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.