Politics Across the Pond

Book cover
Churchillby By Roy JenkinsFarrar, Straus, Giroux. 1,002p $40

It would be difficult to discover two contemporary authors who rival Peter Hennessy and Roy Jenkins as articulate and authoritative interpreters of modern British political life. Each author brings to his work a well-established reputation as expert analyst of the institutions and personnel governing Britain. For 20 years Hennessy was a journalist for The Financial Times, The Economist and The Times, reporting on the Westminster Parliament and Whitehall. An insightful editorial commentator in print and a tenacious radio and television interviewer of the political elite, he is currently Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. Roy Jenkins, the quintessential British writer-politician, was for several decades a leading, if somewhat maverick political figure in the Labor Party. Like the subject of his biography, he has been at the center of political power, having served as home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer. Jenkins is the author of 18 books, chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the House of Lords.

Peter Hennessy’s background in journalism, as well as his historical and political science training, inform his study, Prime Minister. It is a broad, multipurpose and occasionally curious work, combining administrative history, political biography, institutional analysis, prescriptive pronouncements, personal anecdotes and what he calls gossip. After a brief Prelude setting forth the purposes of his volumeto examine and explain the continuities and changes, the constraints and the possibilities inherent in the job of being Prime Ministerhe discusses the nature of the office, its principal duties and how those burdens have evolved, especially with responsibility for nuclear weaponry, during the last half century.

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In Hennessy’s view, there is no inevitability about this evolution, and the premiership remains, as always, an instrument capable of being personally molded by each holder of the office. Therefore the core of his book is devoted to individual chapters on the 11 prime ministers from the end of the Second World War to the present. In this fairly straightforward chronological account, the author emphasizes the diverse personalities and talents of the 10 men and one woman who resided at 10 Downing Street. And a wide and fascinating spectrum it is, from the laconic Clement Attlee to the facile and telegenic Tony Blair. Hennessy offers shrewd assessments of managerial styles that ranged from the collegial to the presidential.

Harold Wilson, for example, allowed his faction-ridden cabinet to exhaust itself in hours of unfocused debate, while Margaret Thatcher modeled a command premiership that permitted only disciplined, if not dictatorially controlled cabinet sessions. This quasi-biographical section of the book contains succinct analysis of significant issues, such as the miners’ strikes and the Suez crisis, that could weaken or bring down a government.

But it is also enlivened by delightful vignettes. Thatcher’s celebrated handbag features in several of these, as does her style of managing her ministerial colleagues: Well, I haven’t much time today, only enough time to explode and have my way!

Hennessy ends his historical survey with an audit of relative performance of the 11 prime ministers. Few readers will be surprised at his choice of Attlee and Thatcher as the significant weathermakers who transformed political life, or the consignment of Anthony Eden to the bottom of the poll. But some may find his assessments of Macmillan, Wilson, Heath and Blair more problematic. Reverting to his political science mode, he concludes the book with some timely reflections on the dangers facing the British premiership in an era driven by events and the media. He warns against the temptation toward a command model of central government presided over by a dominant, presidential prime minister. For Hennessy this will do little to serve an open society or the long and valuable British tradition of cabinet rule.

Hennessy’s text is not without weaknesses. He periodically clutters his pages with long and unnecessary extracts from documents and his own interviews. Matters of significance, as well as anecdotes, are sometimes frustratingly attributed to Private Information in the meticulous notes that make up over one hundred pages of the text. And, for a historian, he is lavish with the use of the first-person pronoun. But these are minor flaws in this fascinating mélange of the theoretical, the institutional and the personal. It is an informative and stimulating analysis of the office of prime minister.

Winston Churchill necessarily plays only a minor role in Hennessy’s study of the postwar premiers. Even in Roy Jenkins’s sympathetic biography of Churchill, his 1951-55 government forms only a dissatisfying coda to an exuberant and larger-than-life political career. Jenkins wisely confines that unhappy period to the last few dozen pages of his sprawling, fascinating and well-written reconstruction of Churchill’s life. Since that life has already been chronicled in Churchill’s own autobiographical writings, by a host of biographers and contemporary memoirists, and most exhaustively in the authoritative multivolume compendium of narrative and accompanying documents by Martin Gilbert, there is little new information that any biographer can offer. However, Jenkins manifests the deft touch of an accomplished biographer and an insider’s knowledge of the workings of the British political system.

He brings a critical intelligence, a graceful literary style and a fine sense of proportion to the daunting task of portraying a man whose career spanned the years from Queen Victoria to Elizabeth II, and from the battle of Omdurman to the nuclear era. Jenkins displays a thorough familiarity with this complex period, and he is able to capture in a few clearly written and informative sentences the historical context of the myriad activities and crises in which Churchill played a leading part. Succinctly and deftly, he summarizes such diverse matters as religious ferment in the Sudan of the 1890’s, suspicion of anarchists in Edwardian London, pressures for the interwar return to the gold standard and the wartime controversy over deployment of Allied forces in the Mediterranean.

In addition to this masterful display of the art of the biographer, what distinguishes Jenkins’s life of Churchill from other studies is his insightful evocation of the culture of both Parliament and cabinet, the principal theaters of Churchill’s political career. His treatment of Churchill’s brief tenure as home secretary, for example, and his longer and controversial tenure as chancellor of the exchequer are scrutinized with the insight and understanding of one who has held these demanding positions.

Like Churchill himself, Jenkins is particularly sensitive to the traditions and the political atmosphere of the House of Commons. He brilliantly portrays the significance of parliamentary rhetoric and its capacity to alter political chemistry. He gives ample scope to the impact of Churchill’s heroic speeches during the critical moments of the Second World War, but he also reminds us of Churchill’s periodic rhetorical fiascoes and those crushing moments when, even in his later years, Churchill lost the ear of the House.

Jenkins devotes close to a third of his book to Churchill as wartime prime minister. He avoids the temptation, to which Churchill in his own six-volume war memoir happily succumbed, to retell the military history of World War II. His focus remains firmly on the man during this crowning achievement of his career. Familiar episodes that have been subject to close and repeated scrutiny are retold with freshness and frequently with penetrating insight: the parliamentary revolt against Chamberlain; Churchill’s scuttling of Halifax’s peace initiative in May 1940; the shifting and increasingly unhappy relationship between the prime minister and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jenkins portrays a prime minister who, while successfully attempting to direct the war effort in detail and exhausting himself by obsessive travel and efforts at personal summitry, remained scrupulously faithful to his obligations as a democratic statesman, always aware of and attentive to the mood of the House of Commons. He ignores much of the revisionist criticism of Churchill’s conduct of the war, or (as in the case of John Charmley’s acerbic studies) dismisses them in a few sentences. Occasionally, even in this massive study, one wishes for more. Churchill’s volatile relationship with his generals and his role in the war beyond Suez could certainly be probed more deeply.

Jenkins is not uncritical of his subject, particularly Churchill’s reactionary stance on Indian independence and his occasional quixotic causes, such as his support for Edward VIII in the abdication crisis. He amply demonstrates Churchill’s flawshis frequent insensitivity, his compulsive need for activity, his loquacity, his tendency to bully and dominate, his ill-chosen political confidants and friendsas well as his periodic bouts with depression. Nonetheless, the Churchill emerging from these pages is a heroic figure. His demonic (and depression-preventing) energy found outlet in constant and productive activitypainting, bricklaying, travel and principally in a ceaseless flow of words. (Jenkins carefully traces the process of Churchill’s authorship of more than 30 printed volumes as well as newspaper and magazine articles, and explains their financial importance in the undisciplined domestic economy of this Whiggish gentleman of sybaritic habits.)

The ambition that drove Churchill into the political arena in his 20’s, the incessant speechmaking, the compulsion that demanded he be in the center of every political or military crisis ultimately molded the man who became prime minister at the most fateful moment in Britain’s long history. In Jenkins’s biography, the story of the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street is brilliantly retold.

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