Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

The Lion at Twilight

Churchill and Empire: A Portrait of an Imperialist, by Lawrence James (Pegasus, 448 pp., $28.95)

Whether the British Empire was truly, as Flashman author George MacDonald Fraser put it, “the greatest thing that ever happened to an undeserving world,” it was one of the dominant geopolitical realities of the 18th and 19th centuries, and survived well into the 20th. And for a fair portion of its existence, the career of Winston Churchill, stretching from the reign of Victoria to that of Elizabeth II, was entwined in it. He was no armchair general; Churchill fought for empire both in the cabinet and on the battlefield. Around the world he bore with gusto Kipling’s “white man’s burden.”

Churchill comes down to us in historical memory as the arch-defender of empire, determined that Britannia should ever rule the waves (and as first lord of the admiralty in both world wars, he worked to preserve that rule — for a time). But as Lawrence James recounts in this brisk, thorough, and revisionist study, the truth is more complex. James, a well-regarded historian of the British Empire, considers Churchill a reasonably enlightened and ultimately heroic statesman. But while he admires his subject, he unsentimentally recounts Churchill’s ultimate and unwitting complicity in Britain’s imperial demise.

The empire would be linked both to Churchill’s greatest triumphs and to his most crushing defeats. His heroics in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and South Africa launched his literary and political careers, making him a worldwide celebrity. But by the 1930s, his tenacious defense of British rule in India had nearly ruined him. He excoriated political colleagues of all parties for appeasing Indian nationalism and encouraging further unrest, and feared losing the Indian army, vital for the defense of British interests in Asia and the Middle East. He raged that Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi was “a half-naked fakir” and “a malevolent fanatic.” James is sympathetic to Churchill’s legitimate concerns regarding the rights of minorities in India, and the violent clash between Hindus and Muslims that followed independence made him seem prophetic. But, as so often in his career, Churchill found himself isolated when the India bill, which he condemned as an “unsure, irrational compromise,” became law, ensuring eventual Indian independence. As James shows, Churchill evaluated nearly every military and foreign-policy issue through the prism of Britain’s imperial interests, an intellectual framework that was sounder than most critics appreciate, but sometimes faulty and often politically hazardous. 

Perhaps the most compelling chapter in James’s tale concerns the Dardanelles campaign of 1915, that ill-starred attempt to drive the Turks — German allies — out of the Great War. It may fairly be said to have been Churchill’s brainchild, and as first lord of the admiralty he spared no effort in its conception. James quotes Margot Asquith’s recollection of Churchill’s delight in his role: “Why I would not be out of this glorious, delicious war for anything the world can give me.” At that point, even Churchill knew he had gone too far, but there was no denying his love of battle. Spurred by the Ottoman caliph-sultan’s declaration of jihad against the Allies, a move with potentially disastrous consequences for the multiethnic British Empire, Churchill was determined to strike at Turkey. According to James, the desire to confront a challenge to imperial authority was “a motive stronger than the conventional strategic and diplomatic objectives cited in textbook accounts of the campaign,” though to Churchill and others the Sea of Marmara was a more alluring prospect than more mud and blood in France and Flanders. As the planning continued, Churchill further exulted: “I love this war — I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.”

His enjoyment would not last. James argues that the conception was sound, quoting with approval the observation of Churchill’s prime-ministerial successor, Clement Attlee, a veteran of Gallipoli: “Sir Winston had the one strategic idea of the war. He did not believe in throwing away masses of people to be sacrificed.” But the execution was bungled, and the landing force faced a stalemate as intractable as any on the Western Front. So completely (if unfairly) was Churchill blamed for the disaster that he was forced from his post, his career seemingly in ruins.

#page#He would of course rise again, and fall again, but Winston Churchill finally reached supreme power in May 1940, becoming prime minister on the same day that Germany invaded France and the Low Countries. The appeasers may have won on the India issue, but the intransigence that had wounded Churchill in the past suited his present role to perfection. This was the most important chapter in the saga of Churchill and empire, for, as James argues, “the Second World War was an imperial conflict.” And the new leader was as determined to preserve the British Empire as he was to crush Nazi Germany.

But he could do neither alone. Churchill understood better than most that an alliance between Britain and the United States was critical. He assiduously courted FDR; as he said later, “no lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.” And he was determined to preserve this “special relationship” after the Americans formally entered the war in December 1941.

But, according to James, conflict was inevitable, for “while the Americans insisted that the dissolution of the old empires was a prerequisite for the building of a new world, Churchill, with equal vigour, believed that the British Empire and Commonwealth were destined to be its vital components.” And he also saw them as vital to the war effort; “the Empire,” writes James, “provided just under half of Britain’s armed forces” and vast quantities of food and weapons. To the prime minister’s dismay, however, the empire was dealt a series of blows more mortal than any inflicted by American hostility, most notably the fall of Singapore to a vastly inferior Japanese force, which he considered “the greatest disaster to British arms in history.” This abject surrender, coming after his admonition to the high command that “commanders and senior officers should die with their troops,” shook his confidence in the fighting spirit of his army, and indeed augured the twilight of empire.

Sadly for Churchill, and to the dismay of the author, Britain had become by Churchill’s death “a winded, middleweight pug in a world dominated by two fit and beefy heavyweights, the United States and the Soviet Union.” To James, the special relationship now “involves British soldiers fighting on old imperial battlegrounds in the Middle East and Asia to defend America’s informal empire.”

“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs,” observed Enoch Powell. Churchill was no failure; even the usually acerbic historian A. J. P. Taylor deemed him “the savior of his country,” and in a 2002 BBC poll Churchill was voted the greatest Briton of all time. In energy, intellect, and courage he towers over all other 20th-century leaders. But it was poignant that the empire he fought so long to save faded from the earth as his own life drew to a close.

Churchill and Empire is not quite as groundbreaking as its author claims; the subject has not been entirely “overlooked or discreetly sidelined in Churchillian literature.” Richard Toye, in his fine (and somewhat more scholarly) 2010 book Churchill’s Empire, dealt with it at length, and none of the countless biographies ignore it. But James has a gift for narrative and — though he never ignores it — is less inclined than Toye to dwell on Churchill’s occasional racism; he judges his subject by the standards of his time. Churchill and Empire is a thoughtful, searching look at British imperial rule and its most eloquent champion.

– Mr. Bishop has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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