A sell-out crowd gathered at this evening’s Spectator event: Boris Johnson in discussion with Andrew Neil about his book on Winston Churchill. Here is my summary of BoJo’s main points:-
- Churchill: strength through drink. He wrote more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined, and did it all on the most incredible regime involving a pint of Pol Roger champagne a day. He’d drink red wine, white wine, brandy, cigars – then pace up and down in his study and start to compose at 10pm. I don’t know any modern journalist, tough species though they are, who could do that. He could go on until 3am producing perfectly excogitated sentences for the embattled typists.
- Churchill’s suicidal courage. His physical bravery would lead most people nowadays to say he was as mad as a box of frogs. The Churchill family has asked me to play this down, but with his own pistol he personally dispatched about a dozen people. He was almost suicidally brave in his aviation. There was an element of trying to prove himself. Loads of his contemporaries fell in the First World War but he survived. He went into No Man’s Land 36 times, and walked so close to the Germans that he could hear them talking.
- Churchill’s ‘manly’ Franglais – and his relationship to Europe. He is responsible for some of the greatest Franglais of all time, telling de Gaulle “Si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai” (If you double-cross me, I will liquidate you). His Europhilia is overstated: his policy was for Britain to be at the centre of a series of concentric circles, and he was right in that – we should retain our relationship with our friends in the Commonwealth and Europe. He thought we should have a leading role in Europe, but a main component of his vision was that Britain should stay close to the United States.
- Churchill vs Thatcher. The Lady’s achievement was arguably greater than Churchill’s: she was a woman, she had further to travel, her father had not been Chancellor of the Exchequer. What they had in common was iron determination to get their way. Churchill was a Whig, he believed in looking after the poor and improving the condition of the people. He was the founder not just of the labour exchanges but the tea break, which was not very popular under Thatcher. But comparisons are futile: he was quite unlike any modern politician.
- Even Churchill may have cut the military. (Boris was asked what Churchill would have made of Cameron’s defence cuts). When he was at the Admiralty in the 1920s he was accused of making cuts that weakened Britain’s defence. He did not have a perfect record in that himself in peacetime, but he was a soldier and loved the Armed Services. What drove him all his life was a belief in the greatness of this country and the empire. When he saw the flag coming down all over all of the world, he said: “I’ve worked, achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end”. I think he was fishing for complements then.
- India: Churchill’s unfinest hour. His attitudes in the Bengali famine were reprehensible: he said that Gandhi should be trampled by elephants at the gates of Delhi. On India, he really lost the plot and it’s hard to make a defence for some of the things he said but nonetheless I shall. He was a Whig, he was a progressive and credited the Empire for getting rid of various barbarous practices like the untouchables and believed that India, if left alone, would collapse. The Bengali famine and India were probably the biggest black marks on Churchill’s record.
- Churchill’s libido. I took an interest in this point. He has plenty of girlfriends – there’s a showgirl, Violet Asquith falls in love with him and it’s tricky because her father’s the Prime Minister and he has to rebuff her. He had five children, one tragically died. He rebuffed Fellowes, a Parisien who tried to seduce him in Paris. But there’s every reason to believe he was a normal sort of chap in that respect. Just because he did not behave like sex-crazed tyrants did not make him a lesser man, and it fundamentally doesn’t matter anyway because he had greatness of soul.
- Churchill was more hawkish on Soviets than Americans. He forecast the Cold War and its outcome: he said it will collapse, that the totalitarian system would not work eventually be rejected. He was all up for calling this out and Truman, the wimp, was horrified. Jim Callaghan was a signatory to a Commons motion denouncing Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech and did you hear him grovel? I didn’t.
- Churchill and the Holocaust. It’s alleged that he could have done something to stop the Holocaust and I’m not sure he could have done anything as some people say. Had he been able to destroy that camp I’m sure he would have done. It’s unlikely that he knew that Coventry was about to be bombed and let that happen. On the Bengali famine, he was bang to rights – but not on the Holocaust.
- And… what Boris would most like to ask Churchill. “What would you do about Ebola?”
It was, as ever, a superb event – which sold out in a jiffy. There are still tickets available for the one next Monday: the brilliant Neil MacGregor, author of History of the World in 100 Objects (right), discusses his book about Germany. You can buy tickets here.