History » Historical Figures

The best books on Winston Churchill

recommended by Richard Toye

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News by Richard Toye

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News
by Richard Toye

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Winston Churchill’s role as a global statesman remains immensely controversial. For some he was the heroic champion of liberty, saviour of the free world; for others a callous imperialist with a doleful legacy. Here, historian Richard Toye chooses the best books to help you understand the man behind the myths and Churchill's own role in making those myths.

Interview by Benedict King

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News by Richard Toye

Winston Churchill: A Life in the News
by Richard Toye

Read

Your most recent book is Churchill: A Life in the News. Churchill was making the news even before he became a politician, as a soldier, but also, quite literally, as a journalist. What’s your focus in the book? 

Churchill: A Life in the News takes the story from his birth. His birth was reported in The Times, actually on the front page, which in those days carried these little personal ads. So that was his first mention in the press. As the son of a well-known politician, Lord Randolph Churchill, he got occasional mentions through his childhood and his teenage years. And then he exploded onto the scene when, as a young man in the 1890s, he joined the army and wrote journalistic accounts of small wars, starting in Cuba, then the North-West Frontier in India, then the Sudan, then the Boer War.

He was a very good journalist, very interesting, and certainly one of the most highly paid. That background also influenced him when he was prime minister. At the time of the Anzio landings, when things were going badly wrong, there was a minor crisis when British journalists had their press credentials withdrawn because they were alleged to be spreading despair. They were restored, and it turned out to be a little bit of a storm in a teacup, but Churchill said in the House of Commons, “Well, I would never have been allowed, when a correspondent during the Boer War, to use the expression, ‘The situation is desperate.’”

In some ways, as a young man, he was pushing the envelope a bit. He was trying to be a little bit controversial, a little bit provocative, but he was doing so with an understanding that he was governed by the rules of censorship—particularly when he was a serving soldier, and also as a journalist. There were strict limits to what you should and should not say. Having operated as a journalist in that context made him less forgiving and less understanding, later, of journalists who he thought were doing things contrary to his government’s interests, basically by being openly critical of him or his ministers.

In the Boer War he went out as a journalist, then joined in the fighting, didn’t he? But in the Sudan he was actually a commissioned officer who was taking money from The Morning Post.

That was not unusual at the time. How were the newspapers to get their news, unless they had people on the spot? As journalism became more professionalized, some very successful papers started to be able to afford to send their own people out, which they certainly were doing in the 1890s.

Not all war reporting was done by soldiers. But there was still quite a tradition of journalism being a letter which a person has written from a faraway place. It appears in the newspaper six weeks later, when it’s made its way all the way across the sea on a fairly slow boat.

So his dual role wasn’t that eccentric?

No, I don’t think so. Maybe he was unusual in the degree to which he had already decided that he wanted to build a political career and was trying to exploit his opportunities to that end. It’s as if, whatever other people are doing, Churchill was doing it times ten. It became a bit more problematic and controversial when he did it because he was trying to make it into such a high-profile thing. But it certainly wasn’t unique.

You have also contributed to another book published in 2020, The Churchill Myths. What aspect of his reputation is that looking at? And to what extent is it looking at his own role in that myth-making?

We start with the statement that this isn’t a book about Winston Churchill. It’s a book about his image and the way it evolved in the years after his death, and the way in which people have attempted to exploit it for various political purposes. At the level of cartoons and films, there is one fixed Churchillian image—with a cigar—and it’s true. But, actually, in terms of the way in which he’s discussed, there has been a significant evolution.

To give two examples during his own lifetime: nobody in Britain criticised Churchill in respect of the Bengal famine. Partly because they probably didn’t care very much about the Bengal famine, if we’re absolutely honest. But also, the information that we now have about the things which Churchill said and did about the Bengal famine weren’t in the public domain—and remained out of it until the 1970s and 1980s when there were various archival releases, publication of people’s diaries and so on and so forth.

“He wanted to be a celebrity politician.”

Even in the 1990s, there was a critical biography of Churchill by Clive Ponting which doesn’t mention the Bengal famine. Now it’s probably one of the major points of criticism levelled at Churchill, if not the biggest point. Without going into the rights and wrongs of that, it takes archival releases, but it also needs historians to decide that this is an important theme and to start making arguments about it.

On the other hand, one of the things that he’s most celebrated for now—explored in the film Darkest Hour—is the question of whether or not the British should try and explore peace terms via Italy in 1940. All these discussions did take place, but we didn’t know that they took place until the early 1970s, when the cabinet papers were released. Churchill, in his memoirs, not only did not mention them, he explicitly said that there was no discussion of the idea of peace terms whatsoever. Now, he may have been doing that to protect other people. We don’t really know. But he was at pains to deny that it happened and yet, now, that is one of the things for which he is most celebrated. Churchill has always been an icon of Britishness, but how that has played out has been very different over time.

One of the things this book, The Churchill Myths, makes clear is that over the last 40 years the Churchill myth has been even bigger in British politics and more dominant than it was, say, in the first fifteen years after his death. Yet he’s a deeply problematic figure. I think you say in the book that Churchill probably wouldn’t even get into the British National Party these days.

Actually, we quote somebody else as saying that. I don’t think I’d go quite that far! His place in public life is very difficult to judge exactly. There were critical plays in the 1970s, but then you might ask whether that was an elite thing that most of the population never saw. How much weight should we attach to these negative representations?

Thatcher and Reagan made a great play with the Churchill myth, as you would expect. George Bush Sr and John Major didn’t particularly. Tony Blair was interested in doing it, but it was a little bit problematic for him because he was a Labour prime minister and there’s no way you’re going to get a big cheer at the Labour Party Conference from mentioning Churchill. During the Kosovo crisis, for example, he mentioned Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin standing up to fascism and putting himself in that position.

“Churchill has always been an icon of Britishness, but how that has played out has been very different over time”

I think that 9/11 changed things (although the British knew what they were about even prior to 9/11, because they offered George W. Bush a nice bust of Churchill for the Oval Office. He was very keen on that. They knew they were playing on fertile territory.) 9/11 and then the Iraq War created a series of opportunities to roll out various tropes, whether in respect of 1940 or 1941. Or, when the occupation of Iraq was proving a bit problematic, politicians started talking about the difficult period of establishing peace after World War II, Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, and so on. I think that was probably a critical moment in intensifying or, perhaps, renewing a phenomenon that might, otherwise, have faded away a bit.

Let’s move on to the books. One of Winston Churchill’s own books, My Early Life, is the first one. I’m not quite sure when he wrote it, but what story is he telling about himself?

It was published in 1930 and it is very much the story of his early adventures. It covers his childhood, his schooling, the wars I was mentioning earlier. And it concludes with him getting married to Clementine Hozier. The last line is: “And I lived happily ever after.”

He wrote a lot of other autobiographical works, but in contrast to the multi-volume World Crisis and the six-volume Second World War—which were very much based around documents and trying to justify particular courses of action and, often, to exculpate himself from where he had come in for criticism—My Early Life is a more personal book. His memory is certainly not perfect in every respect. He does slip up and, for example, says he makes a speech one year, when actually he made it the year before. But I think it’s the book that would be most likely to win you over to liking Churchill’s personality, even if you didn’t share his politics. There’s an ironic, kind of self-mocking tone to it, which I think casts him in a better light than much of his other more self-justificatory writing. It shows his ability to laugh at himself and the follies of youth and to be a bit more reflective.

“For a lot of people, if they escaped from prison in South Africa in a dramatic way, that would be the thing for which they were famous. Yet a lot of people don’t know that about Churchill”

It’s funny because he publishes it at a point when he’s about to take a sharp turn to the right and campaign vociferously against greater self-government for India. He doesn’t in that period come across in a particularly forgiving or magnanimous light. But this book is humorous and, of course, it’s a pretty exciting story.

For a lot of people, if they were put in prison in South Africa and then escaped in a very dramatic way, that would be the thing for which they were famous. And yet, a lot of people don’t know that about Churchill because there’s so much focus, understandably enough, on the 1930s and the 1940s. Of course, when people make documentaries about him it gets mentioned, but that is still a fact that would come as a surprise to a lot of people. It shows that there was a Churchill before the Churchill with whom we’re all familiar, with this very dramatic and impressive and often quite strange and problematic backstory. This book enriches your understanding of him, even though it’s not a book to be taken literally as an account of everything that he did.

Is he very consciously positioning himself politically in the book in a way that is then interesting in the light of what happened in the 1930s when he was out of power and then what happened in the war? Is he building personal myths about himself? Or is it fairly free of that kind of thing?

I don’t think it’s egregious. In other books—when he writes about Gallipoli, for example—it’s full of, ‘if only this had happened’ and ‘if ships had arrived 10 minutes earlier, then the whole course of the war have been different’—that kind of thing. I think it was possibly easier for him to write a slightly more modest account of a time when he wasn’t that important in politics. In terms of justifying his entire record, there’s considerably less at stake. Some things were at stake. Aylmer Haldane, one of the other people in the prison in South Africa, contested Churchill’s account of whether or not he’d done the honourable thing in escaping in the way he did. It’s not necessarily a trouble free zone.

He starts the book by saying, ‘I was a child of the Victorian age’. Now, that reads as a simple statement. And it’s obviously true: he was born in 1874. But what was the significance of that? Why does he choose to say it then? It very much relates to the point I was making earlier, about his turn to campaigning on India. In my book on his imperial views, Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made, I argue that his views weren’t frozen in time at the end of the Victorian period. He joined the Liberal Party in 1904 and spent 20 years in the Liberal Party. He was perceived by some as a Little Englander and a danger to the Empire when he was a minister in the Colonial Office in 1905-08.

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What he’s actually doing in 1930, having made a swing back to the right throughout much of the previous decade, is re-identifying with his youth and saying, ‘these are my roots’. In that book I say that it was in the interwar years that Churchill decided to become a Victorian. That is to say, there’s image-making going on and, so, although My Early Life is ostensibly a relatively unpolitical book, you can read deeper things into it.

That’s interesting. I’m based in Oxford, where the debate has been raging about Cecil Rhodes. His political vision seemed to involve a union of the British Empire and America imposing peace on the world. It struck me that Rhodes and Churchill were very much contemporaries and that perhaps the ways in which they thought about these things—with Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, for example—was very similar. But you’re saying that wasn’t a consistent theme through his political life.

He only started using the phrase ‘the English-Speaking Peoples’ in 1911. It waxed and waned. Of course, it did become very important, but I don’t think he was by any means as unpleasant a person as Rhodes was. There was a whole swathe of people who used this language well before Churchill did. They used it in ways they thought were quite unproblematic—which we now see as quite problematic.

Let’s move on to Warren Dockter’s Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy. Tell us a bit about this book and why you’ve chosen it.

I’ve chosen it because it relates to the point I was making earlier about some of the complexities of Churchill’s views. It is quite easy to say that Churchill was anti-Indian, but actually, you need to refine this. Churchill was in many respects violently anti-Hindu and was influenced by a key book by Katherine Mayo called Mother India that came out in the 1920s and perpetuated various fairly unpleasant stereotypes about Hindus.

There was a degree to which Churchill was somewhat concerned about the fate of the so-called Untouchables. It wasn’t that he was purely unpleasant but, at the same time, he was more favourable towards Muslims in India. Now, of course, there’s a famous quotation from The River War, his book about the Sudan war in the 1890s, where he says something along the lines that ‘Islam is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia is in a dog.’ Again, he’s got this image of being totally anti-Islam.

“He commented that the Hindu-Muslim divide was the bulwark of British rule in India; in other words, divide and rule”

Warren’s book explores this in interesting ways. He shows the complexities of it. Everybody who attempted to govern the British Empire had to take account of the fact that the British Empire was—to put it one way—the world’s largest Muslim power.

I remain a bit sceptical about how sincere any of Churchill’s efforts to cultivate Muslims were, and particularly his contacts among the princes. I think he was in theory willing to work with them. But he also made a comment in 1939 in the cabinet that the Hindu-Muslim divide was the bulwark of British rule in India; in other words, divide and rule. You can’t look at all these contacts with Muslims, see him being polite to them and conclude that he must have been a really nice, open-minded, progressive guy. There were deeper things going on. But I think it is an important story.

He was Colonial Secretary just after the First World War, and in that role was instrumental in delineating the borders of Jordan, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East as it is now. Does this book tell us something particular about how he thought about that part of the world or what he thought he was doing at that time?

It shows the complexity of the Islamic world, containing Sunni and Shia, and people of various different ethnicities. It’s a very large part of the world. One would be hard pushed to describe Churchill as pro-Arab. He made various unpleasant comments about them, particularly in relation to the Arabs of Palestine. At the same time, he was somebody who was prey to rather romantic visions of the Middle East. He was friendly with T.E. Lawrence, which was obviously crucial in that respect. As Warren shows in his book, Churchill was quite prone to dressing-up games, getting into Arab clothing and hanging about with people like Lawrence and Wilfred Blunt. There was an orientalist appeal that this had for him.

I’ve seen suggestions that Dockter makes the case that, relatively speaking, Churchill was ‘progressive’ in his policy making towards various parts of the Middle East and Islamic World, compared to the orientalist prejudice of many of his contemporaries. It sounds from what you’ve said that you’d treat such claims with a certain amount of scepticism.

I’d be a little bit cautious and I think that Warren would hold back from saying that Churchill was ‘progressive’ as such. I think he’s trying to show, rightly, a more complex picture.

And I do think that—partly through Churchill’s own fault—he gets it in the neck for decisions that were taken in the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Churchill gets the blame for having drawn these lines in the sand and created supposedly unsustainable states at the Cairo Conference of 1921. But there are a lot of things that have gone wrong in the Middle East over the past hundred years, only some of which can be blamed on Churchill. Part of the reason why he gets blamed so much is because he was such a showman that he wanted to associate himself with these decisions, whatever they were, even if he wasn’t really the driving force.

Decisions had to be made. Churchill said, ‘Let’s have a conference in Cairo’. So, everybody made their way out to Cairo. This became a famous episode. But if he’d just let the experts get on with it and sign a few memos, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. He’s paid the price for something which he himself wanted to do. He wanted to be a celebrity politician. He wanted to get the credit for decisions. In some ways that’s been positive for his reputation and in some ways it’s been negative.

Some people believe he’s responsible for every good thing that happened and single-handedly responsible for everything that happened in 1940; other people turn that around and, going to extremes, portray him as the root of all evil. The reality is that his role in decision-making, whether it was on the Bengal famine or in the Middle East, was sometimes rather less than is popularly suggested.

Let’s move on to David Reynolds’ In Command of History. This is about his writing career between his two premierships, from when he lost power at the end of World War II to his return as prime minister in 1951. Is that right?

Yes. One of the reasons I admire this book so much is the technical feat of writing it. The genius is really in the structure. Writing a book about writing a book is a very difficult thing to do when what you’re trying to do is cast light on the historical episodes that the book is about. Reynolds has succeeded brilliantly in doing that and getting the balance right. It’s hard to see how it could have been done better. It’s not too long. He had to be selective because there’s an enormous amount of material and he couldn’t cover everything. But I think he basically chose the right bits. Fundamentally, it’s a book about the way in which Churchill tried to manipulate his account of history in order to make himself look better. That’s what it boils down to. The only criticism I have of the book—and it’s not really a very big one—is that with the title, which is obviously great, there is a slight risk of suggesting that Churchill was always successful in getting his interpretation accepted.

Churchill had the great advantage of having access to lots of original documents, which nobody else had access to and, therefore, it was quite difficult for anybody else to refute his account. But people weren’t stupid. There was a lot of publicly available information that people could use to dispute Churchill’s interpretation and they did. One has to be a bit cautious about thinking that ‘In Command of History’ means he laid down this version and then that became the totally authoritative, uncontested version until such time as the archives were open to everyone.

Obviously the Bengal famine was something that he skirted over, but is there a very broad interpretation of events that he gives, that has subsequently been overturned?

One of the important points in the book is that, in the first volume, The Gathering Storm, David rightly points out that you could read it without really knowing that Churchill spent a huge chunk of the first part of the decade campaigning against the ‘Government of India Bill’. Because Churchill generated so many memoranda, so many speeches over the years, it became fairly easy for him to construct a story where he spotted the danger of Nazi Germany earlier than everybody else and then consistently spent all the time up until 1939 talking about this while—supposedly—barely anybody else paid the slightest bit of attention.

Those are the foundations of the heroic narrative, that he was a uniquely farsighted prophet. Historians would now emphasise—and indeed have been doing for about 50 years, if not longer—that Churchill was concerned to obtain political office and that many of his actions and exactly what he said at particular moments was shaped by that. You can go through his speeches and have fun finding the bits where he said really nice things about Neville Chamberlain, for example.

Churchill, from his own point of view, wouldn’t have denied that he was seeking office. He would have asked how he was going to do anything or get what he wanted unless he held office. And, sure enough, he had to hold office, as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1940, before he could obtain the highest office, that of prime minister.

“He would insist to the publishers, ‘Well, I could finish this volume if I had a holiday in Morocco!’ For which they, of course, were expected to pay…”

The book also shows how accounts of particular episodes during the war were shaped by the desire not to offend the Americans post-war, or not to offend Eisenhower. He might have been quite critical of some things Ike did during the war, but that was not the sort of thing to which he was going to draw attention.

This book is also interesting on the technique by which the book was actually written. Churchill was a bit of a nightmare author. He was always late and the book got larger and larger. There were always corrections up until the last minute. He would insist to the publishers or to Time-Life, who were serialising it, ‘Well, I could finish this volume if I had a holiday in Morocco!’ For which they, of course, were expected to pay…

As well as creating this heroic image of himself through the 1930s and during World War II, did Churchill’s book serve almost as manifesto for him taking over again in the early 1950s and completing undone business, or is that overdoing it a bit?

It certainly kept him in the public eye. Obviously he was the leader of the opposition, so you’d think he would have been in the public eye anyway. But he wasn’t that desperate to turn up and be incredibly diligent in the House of Commons. He left a lot of that stuff to Anthony Eden. So, yes, if he can remind everybody of his past greatness, that’s obviously electorally useful. It serves all sorts of functions. It served to ‘justify himself before history’, as he puts it. It served current political purposes. And he wrote it to make money.

Let’s move on to Christopher M. Bell’s book, Churchill and the Dardanelles

The Dardanelles was one of the most controversial episodes of Churchill’s career. Some people might still argue that, if it wasn’t for a few small things going wrong, then it could have been a great success. Again, it’s one of those episodes where Churchill, personally, attracted more opprobrium than was perhaps fully justified. But, at the same time, he walked into the trap. He was exonerated to an extent by the Dardanelles Commission, during the war itself, and he went to great lengths to provide evidence and persuade the commissioners of his righteousness. And it was true that he hadn’t single-handedly ordered this, that it had to have the approval of Asquith as prime minister and all sorts of military figures and other ministers.

“The Dardanelles was one of the most controversial episodes of Churchill’s career.”

His role in the Dardanelles was pretty fundamental but, again, the single hero/villain picture is too simplistic. The book does a very good job of looking at press coverage and shows the ways in which parts of the press, particularly the Morning Post, which by this time had turned against Churchill, were really out to get Churchill and were gearing up to attack him well before things had started to go wrong. Essentially they had some quite weird agendas of their own. At this point he was a Liberal and was seen as a traitor to the Conservative cause.

That was the motivation of the Morning Post, was it, that he was this turncoat?

Reading between the lines. Nobody says, ‘I’m going to do him in because he’s a turncoat’. They say, ‘He’s egotistical, he’s unreliable, he doesn’t listen to military expertise’ et cetera. But it gets so vitriolic that you think, ‘Well, what’s the agenda here, really?’ Chris Bell does a very good job of being very balanced, neither underplaying or overdoing the criticism of what was an absolutely foundational episode and, obviously, very critical for the interpretation of Churchill’s career.

Why did Churchill expend so much time and effort defending himself over the Dardanelles? After the failure of the expedition, he did the honourable thing, resigned and went to fight in the trenches—at least briefly. Why did this episode get under his skin so badly?

I think that he had a deep suspicion that he’d actually really ballsed everything up. If you wanted a psychological reading, based on speculation, you could argue that his sense of guilt was going to be alleviated if he could prove that actually everything was all somebody else’s fault. He was looking for someone else to validate that view. We all do this. We try and explain to ourselves and to anyone who will listen that it couldn’t possibly be us and that, if we did make a mistake, it was entirely understandable at the time, and it was probably somebody else’s fault we did make a mistake, because we didn’t have the right information, or whatever.

I think there’s a powerful urge to self-justification, which we are all prey to and you can imagine how that might operate if you have played a significant role in a colossal military error. I think that did play on his mind and it almost became an obsession: ‘It wouldn’t have gone wrong, if only I’d really been properly listened to’ or ‘if only people had had the courage or conviction to carry on.’ It was as if he was arguing that it would have worked if only they had doubled down. Then it would have been worth it. That would have shown it to be justified.

There’s obviously a direct political motivation. As you mention, he goes to the trenches, but he’s pretty keen to come back, really, not through any lack of physical bravery, but simply because, at a deep level, what he’s really interested in is politics, rather than military affairs. So there’s a practical reason why he needs to justify himself, or thinks that he does. But I think there’s also the more profound psychological motivation to absolve himself.

Lots of people criticized him heavily for it, not just at an official level, but among the population at large. He was held personally responsible for it, wasn’t he?

It’s very difficult to separate out what the papers are saying from what people thought. If you look at World War II, where you start to get Mass Observation diaries, for example, you do see people recalling, or at least being aware of Gallipoli. How much that necessarily had an impact at the time is a bit unclear. There was a famous occasion in, I think, 1923, when he was making a speech and somebody from the audience shouted out, ‘What about Gallipoli?!’ But it wasn’t as if everywhere he went he encountered hecklers who shouted, ‘What about Gallipoli?!’.

Even the Australian resentment may have actually taken a while to develop. This is something John Ramsden says in his book Man of the Century: Churchill was being invited to Gallipoli reunions in the 1920s.

Let’s move on to the final book, which is Violet Bonham Carter’s Winston Churchill As I Knew Him. I think this was published in the year he died, but she was a friend of his in his early political career. Is that right?

Yes, throughout his political career, really. She was one of the few close female friends that he had. That’s not to say that he didn’t get on well with women, but most of his close friends were men. That’s not particularly unusual for somebody of his generation or, indeed, probably for many men today. She was, of course, also the daughter of H.H. Asquith and met Churchill early on in his career. She gives this account in the book of the first time they met. At that dinner he says something like, ‘We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm.’ She captures various memories, which otherwise might not have been recorded.

It was clearly something of a labour of love. It was being prepared for publication before he died. It only takes the story up to 1915. She did think of writing another volume, but never got round to it. It’s full of personal anecdotes and a considerable amount of charm. She was a very determined person. She knew her mind. She didn’t mind telling Churchill off when she thought that he was making mistakes.

There’s a lovely bit of evidence I found in her archive. It was Churchill’s 80th birthday and they were going to publish an edited book, where different people who knew Churchill would provide their memories and reflections. She did contribute. She was the only woman in the book and the editors wrote to her to say they’d like her to write a chapter called ‘Winston Churchill: the Woman’s Perspective’. She refused to do that, saying that it would be as ridiculous to have a chapter called ‘Churchill: the Woman’s Perspective’ as it would be to have a chapter called ‘Churchill: the Man’s Perspective’. She told them she was going to write something else. They got this letter and they wrote back saying, ‘Oh, all right. We accept you’ll write something else. It’s a pity because we would so much have liked to have had ‘Churchill: the Woman’s Perspective’.’ And she writes back and explains it all again which, I have to say, I admire.

“When they met, Churchill said, ‘We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm’”

But she could be over the top in making a fuss about things. Martin Gilbert, who was Churchill’s official biographer, but in the early 1960s was a researcher, once made the mistake of spelling her surname with a hyphen. And she told him, ‘There’s no hyphen in my name. I’m very very surprised that you should have made this basic mistake.’ She could have been a bit more relaxed about that!

The other thing to say is that nobody quite knows whether, when she first met Churchill, she expected or hoped that he would propose to her. Was she in love with him? If she was, she clearly got over it. We don’t know. When she was writing her own work on Churchill she had a sort of rivalry with Randolph, Churchill’s son, who had started the official biography at the same time. She wrote to him saying, ‘I had all these letters from your father from the early period, but I’ve destroyed them because they’re too personal or too intimate.’ Of course, she may have meant intimate in the political sense. But it’s very sad that that happened and one can only wonder what gossip was in there that we would very much like to have today.

How does her portrait of him compare with his self-portrait in My Early Life? Did she know him before he was married to Clementine? Does she talk about him largely as a friend in private life, or as a politician, or both?

I think she may have met him as early as 1906, so before he’d really properly met Clementine. Clementine and Winston had a whirlwind courtship in 1908.

How to compare them? You’ve got to remember, there’s a little bit of tension because, rather than just being somebody who wants to give Churchill the best possible write-up, the person she is really concerned about defending is her father. I don’t think there are any particularly obvious points in the book where there is a clash between the two, or at least she manages to nuance it. But, if she had to make a choice between saying something that reflected badly on her father or something that reflected badly on Churchill, then she wouldn’t be afraid to say something critical of Churchill. Whereas Asquith is untouchable. I think that is, actually, an important dynamic.

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But it’s basically an affectionate portrait by somebody who was, on the whole, politically sympathetic to him, particularly during his Liberal phase. She was a lifelong Liberal and the respect that he had for her, which was very genuine, was well illustrated in the general election of 1951. She ran as a Liberal in Colne Valley and he succeeded in getting the Conservative candidate to stand aside. In fact she lost anyway, but he was so determined that she should be elected that he was willing to put the fundamental interest of the Conservative Party to one side.

That was partly a political strategy on his part, because he wanted to appeal to Liberal voters and former Liberal voters and to win them back from Attlee. He wants to play up his own former Liberal credentials and he wants to highlight Liberals and former Liberals whom he’s associated with. But his willingness to challenge the bureaucracy of his own party over this does show the very considerable respect he had for her.

What kind of a book is it? Is she quoting evidence to support points she’s making, or is it a simple memoir, her own recollection at the time of writing?

It’s more of a memoir. She had a researcher working for her on it, so she didn’t just sit there and write it off the top of her head. She definitely made sure she had her factual points of orientation and got her dates right. And she had kept extensive diaries and letters, which have subsequently been published. You do get some discrepancies. The glow-worm quote isn’t in the diary. So, you do wonder, did she just forget to write it in her diary, but remember it clearly and reproduce it years later? Or did her mind play some weird trick on her, or did he say it on some other occasion? One always gets little questions like that.

And in what sense is she using her memory of Churchill up until 1911 to defend her father politically?

If Churchill can be shown to have been virtuously promoting Liberal reforms, that reflects well on her father. I’m certainly not saying she wrote the book on Churchill in order to vindicate Asquith. But it’s a benefit of the book, in a way, because it means she’s not going to be an absolutely uncritical or slavish admirer of Churchill, whether or not she makes all the right criticisms. I think that, for that reason, it becomes a better book because it has that element of distance, while still being admiring.

Finally, I’m curious to get your views on the Churchill book publishing phenomenon—as an insider. Do you see it just increasing with ever greater strength from year to year, or will it reach saturation? What keeps it going?

I think the books I’ve cited show it’s possible to take an original approach to Churchill and take an angle which nobody has ever done before. But there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of people who are willing and able to do that systematically and create new insights.

At the other end, there is a market for what you might call the ‘Churchill’s laundry lists’ angle. Or, if you want to write a book about some aspect of World War II you call it ‘Churchill’s Bomb-Sight Developers’ or something like that. There’s a certain amount of mediocre work that continues to be promoted. And then there are some things that are OK as ‘curiosities’—I won’t name any titles, it would be unfair. They are perfectly alright as far as they go, but they don’t really advance our understanding very much.

Every couple of years another really good book on Churchill comes out and, at the same time, huge numbers that are somewhat indifferent. I expect it will continue in a similar vein for the foreseeable future.

One final question. Is there a particular one volume biography that you would recommend? I’m only aware of Roy Jenkins’ and Andrew Roberts’, but there may be others.

I would probably recommend Paul Addison’s Churchill: The Unexpected Hero, particularly bearing in mind that not everybody wants to read an awful lot about Churchill and that it is a fairly short one. It’s very scholarly, but very accessible. I think Paul, who died this year, was an excellent historian, who deserves more recognition. When I was running a course on Churchill, that was the book I told my students to read over the summer. That and My Early Life and they’d be well set up with a basic understanding for the start of the year.

That would be my recommendation, rather than an intimidating doorstopper, although Roy Jenkins’ book understandably—and rightly—has a lot of fans.

Interview by Benedict King

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Richard Toye

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He previously worked at the University of Cambridge. He has written widely on modern British and international political and economic history. His critically acclaimed book Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness won him the 2007 Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year Award.

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Richard Toye

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He previously worked at the University of Cambridge. He has written widely on modern British and international political and economic history. His critically acclaimed book Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness won him the 2007 Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year Award.