Book review: Churchill: Walking With Destiny

Stephen Pollard offers high praise for an important biography


At the end of my first A-level history class, we were presented with a reading-list of that week’s topic. “Why doesn’t someone just put it all in one big book, Sir,” asked one of the less natural historians in the group. How we laughed.

It turns out, though, that Andrew Roberts has put it in one big book.

That’s not strictly true, of course. Other than Napoleon, about whom it is said a new book appears every six seconds (or some such figure), Churchill must be the most written-about figure ever, with over 1,000 biographies, from Sir Martin Gilbert’s magisterial multi-volume collection to many others that we can safely pass over.

In fact, Roberts has produced a biography that does so much more than put it all in one big book. His Churchill is the most superb one-volume biography I have ever read — of anyone. And, as someone who has read a sizeable proportion of the existing Churchill biographies (in the distant past, I taught a university course on British defence policy in the 1930s), Roberts also manages something I thought impossible. He has given us a new, ground-breaking portrait of the man whom many consider to be the greatest ever Englishman.

Since Sir Martin Gilbert’s last volume was published, reams of new (and important) material has opened up, and Roberts has had exclusive access to much of it. Until now, I was not fully aware of just how unhappy Winston Churchill was as a child. His father effectively ignored him (which was not then uncommon); his mother was, if anything, worse. At school, Winston would write often to her but she would almost never reply. He was not so much lonely as forced to be a loner. You hardly need me to point out the implications for his political career.

Roberts rightly regards Churchill as one of the few truly great men of history but this is a rounded portrait and he is alive to his subject’s many failings, from the Dardanelles operation in 1915 to his opposition to Indian independence. He was literally self-obsessed: the First World War was, for Churchill, simply a wonderful opportunity for his own aggrandisement. He wrote to Margot Asquith in 1915: “I would not be out of this glorious, delicious war for anything.”

Roberts’s brilliance as a biographer was clear from his very first, of Lord Halifax. Re-reading it in tandem with this magnificent Churchill, one sees yet again just how finely history turns on random and uncertain events. Had Halifax become PM, the world today would be entirely, disastrously, horrifically different. As Roberts writes: “With enough spirit, he believed that we can rise above anything, and create something truly magnificent of our lives. His hero, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, won great battles and built Blenheim Palace. His other hero, Napoleon, won even more battles and built an empire. Winston Churchill did better than either of them: the battles he won saved Liberty.”

This is a simply wonderful book. A living, poetic, stirring yet thought-provoking portrait of a giant, it will be regarded as a classic for generations to come.

Stephen Pollard is the editor of the JC

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