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National Observer Home > No. 55 - Summer 2003 > Book Reviews

Book Review: Churchill

by Ray Jenkins

London: Pan Macmillan, 2002, pages 957 and index, $25.

This new and comprehensive biography of Winston Churchill has been well received by leading reviewers in England and the United States, and certainly its length makes it much fuller and more complete than most other biographies. Its main fault arises through the identity of its author, a former Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Labour Party ministries.

By reason of his political origins Jenkins sees Churchill's life with a noticeable bias: he is excessively kind to Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee and other Labour Party leaders, and unsympathetic to their Conservative opponents. Similarly, Jenkins' political position of the Left has made him noticeably more mild in his reference to Stalin and other communist leaders than might have been expected. Hence he gives reduced importance to Churchill's serious misjudgements of Stalin at the end of the Second World War. Generally Roosevelt is blamed for the disastrous consequences of the Yalta Conference and similar meetings, whereby the Soviets consolidated control over Eastern Europe. But Churchill himself was also culpable in this regard: he showed no real concern for the unfortunate millions who were handed across to one of the most brutal dictators of the last century, and understandably Stalin himself regarded him as naïve and as an easy mark.

Indeed, Churchill epitomises the general problem of subjectivity and arbitrariness that unfortunately afflicts the entire genus of biographies. Authors generally adopt a position either for or against their subjects; and they have in any event prejudices that distort materially their account of events.

On the whole a former politician, whose life has invariably involved partisanship, is one of the worst persons to write a biography, and especially a biography of another politician. It may be expected to be almost impossible for a former politician to put aside long-ingrained biasses; and moreover politicians generally are less interested in scholarship (or in accuracy) than in persuasion and the achievement of partisan aims.

Hence Jenkins' Churchill is not a satisfactory book. First, as noted, there is the difficulty of a partisan background by which the author has clearly been influenced. Secondly, Churchill is, understandably, based to a large extent on the accounts and writings of others. Whilst to some extent this position was unavoidable, it is legitimate to ask to what extent this biography adds to what appears from other biographies of Churchill. Thirdly, the author appears often to approach particular subjects unduly superficially. He is clearly an intelligent and fluent writer, but there is concern about his depth.

This is not to say that Jenkins' Churchill should be dismissed altogether. Some of its biographical material is interesting, and the author is well able to capture his subject's egotism, his drive and his capacity for hard work, as well as the serious and unpleasant defects in his personality: and the facts (as opposed to the value judgments) set out appear to be accurate to a high degree. Accordingly readers with a particular interest in Churchill may be disposed to purchase this book, and may read it with pleasure, although they should be careful to bear the author's personal leanings in mind.

R.M. Pearce

National Observer No. 55 - Summer 2003