Tuesday 17 September 2019

Churchill, a 'frolicking' Dev and the bell-ringing Irish suffragette

Biography: Churchill: Walking With Destiny, Andrew Roberts Allen Lane, hardback, 1,105 pages, €38

Winston Churchill gives the V sign outside Downing Street
Winston Churchill gives the V sign outside Downing Street
Churchill: Walking With Destiny

Frank MacGabhann

When I first read the subtitle of this book, the thought crossed my mind that it might be a hagiography. So I took up the invitation on the jacket cover to visit the author's website to discover that the "pride of his collection" of Winston Churchill memorabilia are the former British PM's own hairbrush and one of his bow ties.

Andrew Roberts has written or edited nearly 20 books, including biographies of Napoleon and Lord Halifax, as well as many books on warfare in general, and is visiting professor of War Studies at King's College in London and a trustee of the International Churchill Society. He has, of course, previously written on Churchill.

The author reveals that 1,009 biographies of Churchill have been written since 1905. The question is inevitably posed - "Why 1,010?" Martin Gilbert wrote nearly 20 volumes on Churchill. Since then, Paul Addison and Roy Jenkins have written well-received one-volume biographies. Others have had to narrow the focus, such as writing a literary biography, or a comparison of Churchill and David Lloyd George, or about Churchill and Ireland.

Roberts does no such thing and attempts to give the reader the entire gamut of Churchill - from young imperialist to army officer, to budding Tory politician, to his crossing the floor of the House of Commons and aligning himself with Liberal Lloyd George and his 'people's budget', to his delight and glee at the outbreak of the Great War and the disgrace of his failed grandstand play for glory in the Dardanelles. The book also covers Churchill's time as Colonial Secretary and his fighting every anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire that he could, including sending the Black and Tans to Ireland. It then moves to his own political isolation in the 1930s where he was lucky enough to be able to speak freely about Hitler.

The most interesting part of the book has to be the drama of his recall to Government in 1940 and his superb leadership during the war, but this has been told and retold. The principal new source material is the diary of King George VI, to which Roberts was apparently the first to have full access. Interesting insights though they may be, they hardly justify a new biography.

Regarding Ireland, Roberts rightly condemns Éamon de Valera's signing in Dublin of the book of condolences at the German legation following Hitler's death, but describing it an example of what Churchill called de Valera's "frolic[king]" with Germany seems to be stretching it. Churchill made the frolicking reference in a famous victory radio broadcast on May 13, 1945, where he castigated de Valera for Ireland's neutrality while Britain "stood alone" against Germany.

Perhaps Roberts should have related de Valera's masterful reply to Churchill - that Ireland had also stood alone against a mighty foe - or stated that it is universally accepted that Ireland was "neutral in favour of the Allies" during the war. Neither Ireland - nor India or, indeed, any British colony - had the right to independence, according to Churchill. Roberts never demurs from this proposition.

One of the problems with the book is Roberts' glossing over of Churchill's role in the women's suffrage movement, especially given that this year sees the centenary of (some) women in these islands voting for the first time following many years of struggle. The author fails to mention that as home secretary in 1910 and 1911, Churchill allowed the force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes.

Roberts also might have mentioned that Churchill proposed two votes on women's suffrage. First he proposed asking the men if they were in favour of granting women the vote. If that vote was in favour, then the women would decide if they wanted it.

However, Roberts does mention Mary Maloney, the Irish suffragette who tormented Churchill in the by-election in Dundee in May 1906 by following him around for a week, drowning out his speeches with a loud bell. The book includes a picture of her at one of Churchill's speeches with her bell.

As may be expected from a 1,100-page book and a 90-year life, there are many interesting vignettes and stories of Churchill, his wit and repartee and how he thought that the British Empire was God's gift to humanity.

Unfortunately, the author includes only one political cartoon. If anyone in modern history was a cartoonist's dream, it was the top-hatted, round-bellied and cigar-chomping Churchill, yet only one political cartoon is included.

While there is perhaps enough mild criticism of Churchill by Roberts to take the book out of the realm of Butler's Lives of the Saints, Roberts has not justified writing another biography of the man whom many consider to be the greatest Briton of his century.

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