Churchill’s leadership during World War Two made him one of the most remarkable leaders of the twentieth century. Recognition of Churchill’s contributions have also been much promoted by Martin Gilbert’s numerous books on Churchill, the Churchill Society and Churchill’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a rare honour for a statesman. Apart from a few hints here and there, most popular portraits of Churchill focus exclusively on his war leadership. That focus is natural but there is so much more to Churchill’s story; his military career, his considerable literary output and his inspiring speaking abilities. As I had the pleasure of hearing Martin Gilbert speak several years ago, I decided to brush up on my Churchill with his book, “Churchill: A Life.”
Churchill’s father was a politician by training but that was not Winston’s first profession. Churchill beghan in career was in the Army where he served in a variety of outposts in the British Empire including South Africa and India. Even at an early age, Churchill demonstrated great persistence, a quality that would serve him well throughout his career. It took him several attempts to win admission to Sandhurst, the leading British military academy but he was eventually successful in his studies. After completing a few tours of duty, Churchill went on a wildly successful speaking tour and began his long career as an author and journalist. Reading about Churchill’s efforts to build his public profile reminded me of Michael Hyatt’s book PLATFORM. Even as a young man, Churchill thought about following his father’s footsteps into politics. With that goal in mind, he made the most of his experience to comment on British military and diplomatic policy.
Churchill’s contributions to politics and leadership outside of the World Wars are discussed in considerable detail in the book. One of the most enduring concepts he advanced was the notion of a minimum income, a cause which has been taken up in Canada by Senator Hugh Segal. Churchills political views were complex and different to classify according to modern categories. On some issues, he was certainly a Conservative in every sense of the word but he sometimes found himself at odds with others in the party. Churchill also understood the value of building and maintaining relationships with those who held different views – in the early 20th century, he founded the “Other Club” where MPs of different parties could meet without public comment. By the 1940s and 1950s, he was an advocate of diplomacy with the Soviet Union. Churchill always looked for ways to engage with his opponents.
World War Two may be considered the apex of his political career but one needs to remember he was already in his sixties by the time he became Prime Minister. Gilbert paints a vivid picture of Churchill’s life during the war – constant travel, regular communication with Roosevelt and Stalin and so on. At times, the book provides so much detail that one gets lost in it. I suppose Gilbert found it a challenge to condense his considerable scholarship on Churchill – he has written over a dozen books on the man. That said, reading the details, mode of transport and conditions of every single international trip can be overwhelming. In this great detail, Gilbert reveals plenty of interesting details such as Churchill’s efforts to establish a democratic Poland and subject Russian influence in Europe to certain limits. Unfortunately, many of these strategic efforts were frustrated by Stalin in some cases and disagreements with the Americans in other cases.
In sum, I would recommend the book for someone with an interest in Churchill’s contribution to British life. There is much to be learned from Churchill’s flexibility, his incredible energy in many different projects and his reasoned attitude to his foes. If you have an interest in the defining conflicts of the twentieth century, it would be hard to do better by reading about a man who lived through, led and wrote about those epoch defining times.