December 30, 2018

Winston Churchill predicted it

I am currently reading Andrew Roberts's book on Winston Churchill- its a good read and Roberts has an eye for a good quotation and anecdote. There are a couple of things that I'm not happy about in the book however- one is that half the book seems to be given over to Churchill's first premiership which is probably the period of his life that we know most about and where (I haven't got there yet so may be wrong) there is  least "new" to say. The second is the occasional moment where I think Roberts overclaims for Churchill. For example, on page 43 Roberts quotes a teenage Churchill suggesting that vast changes were coming for Europe:

great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine, and I tell you London will be in danger- London will be attacked and I will be very prominent in the defence of London. I see further ahead than you do. I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save England and London from disaster
Anyone who knows Churchill's subsequent career, as Prime Minister in the second world war and the leader who took Britain through the Blitz, must experience a reaction reading those words. Roberts labels this "extraordinary prescience" but is it? I would argue strongly that this is not a prediction that is anything more than a teenager's grandiosity. There are details which are wrong- Britain was not invaded in 1940 but bombed and Churchill was not directly in control of the defences of London- he was Prime Minister not say Field Marshall for the capital. Churchill did not explain in his prediction, as Roberts retells it, why he thought that disaster was coming either.

This is a case as well of history being told backwards not forwards. What I mean by that is simple- we are reading Churchill as is Roberts through the lens of 1940-5. It is understandable- people often talk about history explaining who we are and how we came to be the kind of people we are. It does not help us understand the past that well: we can't see Churchill correctly if we view his entire career as a preparation for the moment he faced Hitler. Churchill in 1893 or 1903 or 1913 had no knowledge- and neither did any of his friends or enemies- of what would happen in 1943 or 1953. When you read the statement above, you can only see what it really means if you forget the blitz and Dunkirk, and even forget the Somme and Gallipoli and Sidney Street and think of it through the lens of a precocious teenager, arguing with and boasting to his friends at school. It tells us a lot about that teenager- both in terms of his interests (clearly historical and in the broad sweep of history and politics), his ability to imagine and his sense of his own importance- but it tells us little about that teenager's future or indeed the future of his country.