Churchill the war leader has to be disentangled from the propaganda image created by him and those around him, and which was itself a significant part of the war effort...Given that his rousing speeches play on a perpetual loop somewhere in the back of the national psyche, and the bulk of the country is unshakable in its view of Churchill as the greatest of British heroes, how can the historian see him with any clarity? There are already more than a thousand biographies; what can Roberts add? He has drawn on some fresh material: the diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to Britain, and new accounts of the meetings of Churchill’s war cabinet... The author’s admiration for his subject is clear, but this does not stop him from discussing Churchill’s earlier misjudgments and catastrophic errors. There are many: the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of the first world war, ordered by him when he was first lord of the Admiralty; the infamous and self-defeating deployment of the Black and Tans to post‑1918 Ireland, when he was secretary of state for war; the siege of Sidney Street of 1911, which he ineptly directed; and the opposition to Indian self‑government. Roberts does defend these miscalculations but only to some degree...Perhaps no biographer, of whatever political persuasion and no matter how even handed, can get beyond the Churchill legend, so long as our devotion to a mythic version of the conflict that defined the man and his century remains so resolute.
Roberts clearly admires his subject, but his book is no hagiography. He details Churchill’s misjudgments and policy errors, including the 1915 Dardanelles expedition (although he was not solely to blame for its failure), the UK’s return to the gold standard in 1925, opposition to Indian self-government in the 1930s and support for the feckless King Edward VIII in the 1936 abdication crisis. Roberts is surely right to conclude that Churchill’s flaws scarcely matter when weighed in the balance against his irreplaceable role in ensuring Britain’s survival, above all in 1940.
This biography is written, not uncritically, but with unwavering respect. It is, though, curiously anodyne. For the biography of a man at the centre of two devastating wars, it is markedly clean of the mud and the gore, the sorrow and the pity, of conflict. Like Churchill, Roberts maintains morale by omitting distressing truths. All the same, his storytelling is skilful... Roberts knows how to balance the panoramic vistas of world-wide war with telling detail.
Roberts tells this story with great authority and not a little panache. He writes elegantly, with enjoyable flashes of tartness, and is in complete command both of his sources and the vast historiography. For a book of a thousand pages, there are surprisingly no longueurs. Roberts is admiring of Churchill, but not uncritically so. Often he lays out the various debates before the reader so that we can draw different conclusions to his own.
As the publisher obligingly warns us, there have been over 1,000 previous studies of Churchill’s life, including some dross, but many works of serious importance. To add anything worthwhile to this mountain requires that the author should be determined, courageous and have something new to say. No one has ever doubted Roberts’s determination and courage; the question remains whether he has anything new to say. Rather to my surprise, the answer has to be ‘yes’. Roberts has been assiduous in his research. His list of acknowledgements is formidably long, even extending to Janina Gruhner, of Zurich University, who showed him ‘the podium Churchill spoke from in 1946’. He does not seem, however, to have had exclusive access to any new source of great importance. The considerable merits of this book depend not so much on the novelty of the material as on the perception, good judgment and imaginative understanding of the author.
By drawing on many previously untapped sources, Mr Roberts has produced a more complete picture of his subject than any previous biography. His certainly knocks into a cocked hat Boris Johnson’s boisterously self-referential effort of a few years ago. The case it makes for Churchill’s greatness is incontestable. More unusually, the author makes him lovable. The vulnerability stemming from his lonely childhood; his frequently self-deprecating wit (Churchill’s jokes are often genuinely funny); his generosity towards his most bitter political foes; his loyalty to a close circle of often quite unlikely friends; and his unfailing courage, both physical and moral, are all immensely attractive.
The more difficult way to resurrect Churchill between hard covers is to discover new sources by delving into repositories near and far, and to pen an original portrait of an all-too-familiar figure. This is Andrew Roberts’s method and he uses it to excellent effect. Churchill: Walking with Destiny is the best book he has written since his prize-winning biography of Lord Salisbury... So plainly his book is not a hagiography; rather it is a cogent and plausible tribute... He brilliantly conjures up one of the most fascinating characters of all time. He enriches the saga with wonderful examples of Churchill’s aristocratic eccentricity, glittering oratory and wit – no one in public life deployed jokes more promiscuously and effectively, as when he dubbed Attlee’s Britain ‘Queuetopia’. While not quite getting to grips with Churchill’s egotism and ruthlessness, Roberts salutes his transcendent qualities of courage, eloquence, energy, magnanimity, tenacity, audacity, humour and imagination...
Roberts tells this story with enormous confidence, drawing on a vast range of sources to present what is undoubtedly the best single-volume life of Churchill ever written. He makes no secret of his admiration for his subject, but he recognises Churchill’s frailties and misjudgments, such as his contempt for Mohandas Gandhi or his belligerence during the general strike of 1926. His verdict is suitably sweeping. By standing firm against Hitler in 1940, he believes, Churchill fulfilled his destiny, saved his country and preserved liberty from extinction.
This book harks back to those relentlessly adulatory hagiographies produced immediately after the war. Nowadays, most historians, while accepting that Churchill was undoubtedly great, admit that he had some interesting faults that made him human. Roberts rejects many of these. He argues, for instance, that he probably did not cheat on Clementine, although she might have cheated on him. He dismisses the widely held view that Churchill suffered from severe bouts of depression — that Black Dog.
The result is the best single-volume life imaginable of a man whose life it would seem technically impossible to get into a single volume... The author’s conclusion that “the battles he won saved Liberty” takes us back to 1940, and cannot but be true: had Britain fallen, God knows what would have happened to the world. Yet Roberts shows us Churchill’s complexities, faults and rough edges as a biographer should. The obsessives, of whom there are many, can gorge on the eight-volume official Life, written by Randolph Churchill (who finished only two volumes before he drank himself to death) and Sir Martin Gilbert (who wrote much of those first two, and all of the other six), in all its turgid, hagiographical and exhaustive earnestness, if they wish. For most of us, seeking a more concise, authoritative view, Roberts will be enough.