Mr. Churchill’s Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book That Defined the “Special Relationship”
By Peter Clarke
(Bloomsbury Press, 347 pages, $30)
Churchill and the King: The Wartime Alliance of Winston Churchill and George VI
By Kenneth Weisbrode
(Viking, 208 pages, $26.95)
The same question has been asked of almost every book on Winston Churchill published over the past three decades (excepting Sir Martin Gilbert’s official biography): Do we really need another book on Churchill? When the book in question is of the caliber of Peter Clarke’s Mr. Churchill’s Profession or Kenneth Weisbrode’s Churchill and the King, the answer is yes indeed.
The “profession” Clarke refers to is writing, not statesmanship or politics. Writing was how Churchill put bread on his table from the late 1890s to well beyond the Second World War. His earnings from writing enabled him to purchase his Kent manor, Chartwell, in the 1920s. He continued writing while serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s, leading critics to remark that he was doing neither job very well. During the “Wilderness” years between 1929 and 1939 when Churchill was out of high government office, his earnings from writing were 30 times greater than his salary as a Member of Parliament. Politics was a duty and parallel career; painting was a pastime; fine food, clothes, Champagne, and old brandy were indulgences, paid for lifelong, he once told an editor, with “what my pen has brought me.”
Clarke, a former professor of modern British history at the University of Cambridge, has written nine books on British history, including two on the Keynesian economic revolution, and one on the economic decline of the British Empire starting in the late stages of World War II. He is at ease with abstruse economic principles, contract law, balance sheets, and tax codes. His concise and engaging writing style will put readers at ease with these subjects as well, which is fortunate because Mr. Churchill’s Profession not only tracks the arc of Churchill’s writing career and the arc of his narratives, but parses in detail how Churchill structured the business side of his profession—how he sought tax loopholes, borrowed money, and over-spent his budgets in order to sate his remarkable culinary, travel, and artistic appetites.
By the time Churchill began writing his four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples in 1936, his published works included biographies of his father, Sir Randolph, and his luminous ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. He began his writing career as a war correspondent in Cuba, Sudan, and India, ostensibly to report the facts, but in fact to prime his political career. He was, argues Clarke, “the author of his reputation.” By the 1920s he considered himself a professional historian, though he still (and always would) put his family or Englishmen in the best possible light in his written works, sometimes with “terminological inexactitude,” a phrase he coined to criticize the rhetoric of his parliamentary enemies.
By the mid-1930s, when he was in his 60s, his literary output was stupendous. He had published his autobiography My Early Life, histories of the Sudan campaigns and the Boer War of the late 1890s, and The World Crisis, six volumes on the Great War—all to general acclaim and robust sales. By then he had turned Chartwell into a “word factory,” pacing his study while dictating his pages to scribbling stenographers, as private secretaries and research assistants hustled about feeding him new source material.
But the Second World War put his History on hold for more than a decade. His greatest works (at least as measured by length) lay ahead: his History of the English-Speaking Peoples and his World War II memoirs. It is in telling this tale that Clarke shines.
In 1936, while the Western democracies competed with gusto at the Berlin Olympics, Churchill, hard at work on his History, saw “The Gathering Storm” (which he would later use as the title for the first volume of his war memoirs). He also saw the need, then and far into the future, for a “special relationship” with the U.S. History of the English-Speaking Peoples is at its core an argument for that special relationship, and in that sense prescient.
The war brought work on the book to a halt, but Churchill had sowed the seed of a special relationship in his own mind, and that seed germinated and blossomed in his most powerful speeches of 1940, when England appeared doomed. When in those addresses he refers to the “English race,” he is speaking to America, drawing America into the heroic narrative. He was telling Americans, our danger is your danger, though few in America saw it that way during those terrible months. (Nor did they see it that way in 1946, when Churchill called for a special relationship in his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College.)
By immersing himself in England’s storied past, Churchill prepared himself for the day—and it duly arrived overhead with the Luftwaffe in July 1940—when the storm broke over England in all its unimaginable fury, at least unimaginable to most Britons. But not to Churchill, who, to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin, possessed an imaginative, mythic “knowledge” of the past so rich as to “encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future.” This was the product of a lifetime of writing.
Churchill liked to say that destiny called him to No. 10 Downing Street in May 1940, and that he but gave the lion’s roar to the lion’s heart which beat in the breasts of Englishmen. This is Winston at his most humble. But Peter Clarke makes a compelling case that Churchill would not have been able to marshal his words and send them into battle against Nazism with such power absent a lifetime of professional writing—and the thought, research, and imagination that drove that process (though somewhat erratically at times, such was Churchill’s wont in all endeavors). The author begat the orator. Writers take note. Politicians, too.
Churchill and the King is a slim volume, at just 208 pages including notes and index. Yet it merits a place on Churchillians’ bookshelves, alongside two other fine, slim volumes: Sir John Keegan’s Winston Churchill and Paul Johnson’s Churchill. But whereas Keegan and Johnson try to condense Churchill’s life into fewer than 200 pages, Kenneth Weisbrode chooses to sketch—in detail—one specific aspect of that life: Churchill’s wartime relationship with King George VI.
Some viewers of The King’s Speech may have come away feeling that Churchill was portrayed almost in caricature as a cigar-chomping manipulator who scowls and grunts inaudible asides to the king, himself portrayed as a stutterer and not much more. Weisbrode came away from that film determined to write a credible account of the relationship between these two men who led Britain in World War II.
He succeeds. Right off the bat American readers might ask: Wasn’t George VI simply a figurehead, and didn’t Churchill alone lead Britain in its darkest and finest hours? In just a few pages Weisbrode offers a tutorial on the monarch’s role in British government, which, in essence, is to offer moral guidance to his people and ministers, to deport himself with dignity as an example to his people and ministers, and to probe and prod his ministers toward political and military strategies that represent the nation’s best—and most moral—interests, as the monarch sees it. It is a role that has evolved over more than a thousand years, and is necessarily somewhat fuzzy given Britain’s lack of a written constitution.
But at the end of the day, the British monarch is the head of state, and as such is accorded certain courtesies, not least of which is that his (or her) prime minister come to Buckingham Palace on a regular basis, not simply to tell the sovereign what the ministers are up to, but to ascertain from the monarch that the ministers are acting in general agreement with his general wishes.
All this requires political dexterity on the part of both parties. If there is a modern ground rule, it is that personality clashes have no place between monarch and minister; political disagreements, yes, but the king’s subjects never clash with their monarch. It is simply unthinkable (or at least has been since Charles I lost his head). This near reverential relationship between head of state and his citizens is foreign to Americans, but is fundamental to understanding how Churchill and George VI worked in harness between May 1940 and VE-Day, 1945.
The first third of the book examines the childhood and young adulthood of both men. They both revered their fathers, who in turn neglected and belittled their sons; Churchill had his lisp, the future king his stutter. Their mothers exerted powerful influence over their sons, but not always wise influence. They both were small boys, loners, and not much interested in their school duties. They both were packed off to the military, the career choice of fathers who thought their sons were not worthy of loftier positions—Churchill to the army, Albert (as George VI was called at birth) to the navy.
None of the similarities, however, meant that the two men were destined to have a warm, respectful, and efficient relationship. Indeed, Albert was a reluctant prince and even more reluctant king, following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII. Churchill was aggressive in his political pursuits, and not always wisely, as when he took Edward’s side (and therefore Wallis Simpson’s side) during the abdication crisis. This roiled Albert, who disliked Churchill immensely for his intrusion into royal family matters, and on the wrong side, no less. Halifax, an appeaser, was King George’s first choice for prime minister in 1940, not Churchill. But when Halifax bowed out, the king had no choice but to summon the mercurial Churchill.
This is where with great insight Weisbrode examines the king’s wartime role and his relationship with Churchill. The king and queen and the two teenage princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were seen by Britons as the model family. Buckingham Palace was bombed by the Germans numerous times while they were in residence. The family visited London’s wrecked neighborhoods; they let it be known that they took target practice with pistols and rifles in the gardens of the palace. They remained in London during the Blitz, where Edward and Wallis Simpson may well have fled. The British people saw the Royal Family as the embodiment of British will, British goodness. Their courage and Churchill’s words inspired the country.
Weisbrode proposes—rightly so, I believe—that King George’s greatest service to Britain and to Churchill was to act as a check and balance on his prime minister during their weekly lunches. Churchill liked to “nag, pester, and bite” his colleagues and minions. He’d bully, berate, and belittle until he got his way. This was a weakness, especially when his aim was a questionable policy. But in the presence of the king, Churchill had to exhibit studied, reasoned thinking. The king was not to be bullied. As such, Churchill had to dispense with florid phrases and wild thoughts. He had to speak with precision.
This was not natural for Churchill. But it was to the benefit of Britain and the detriment of its mortal enemy—Nazism.