Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Last Lion

I have completed both volumes of the two volume biography Winston Churchill titled “The Last Lion”. Overall this work confirms the old adage that within every fat book there is a thin book struggling to get out. While this is a very complete and detailed biography it is filled with minutiae and asides that are not all that interesting, contribute little to the forward motion of the book, and generally break the flow of the story. Nevertheless, for all of its flaws this is an excellent book and one well worth reading, because it reveals the man as he must have truly been, brilliant but flawed.

There is no doubt and this book confirms the assessment that Churchill was a brilliant and gifted man. However, it also shows his flaws and they were many. He was a man with one foot solidly planted in the 19th Century and one in the 20th Century but clearly he was never comfortable in the 20th. Ironically, he was one of the few – and maybe only – British leaders who actually looked into the future, while most of them couldn’t come to terms with what was obviously the future. Yet Churchill himself maintained many of the same values that characterized his colleagues and 19th Century Britain – the Britain of Empire, pomp, glory, and most of all power.

Churchill was an aristocrat and personified everything that most Americans find distasteful with the aristocracy. He lived his entire life with servants, other aristocrats, and the royal family. He was a “gentleman” and felt that only other ‘gentlemen” were suited to lead. By gentlemen he of course meant other aristocrats or the upper classes, but he didn’t equate upper class to money (he himself always struggled for money) but to birth – either you were born a gentleman or you weren’t and if you weren’t you could never become one. He pulled every string and used every connection to further his own ambitions which were generally to benefit the country but always seemed to benefit him as well. He was soundly disliked by almost everyone who came into contact with him. Some – like General Lord Kitchener—came to respect and admire his abilities and to tolerate him but could not be construed as friends.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about Churchill was the way he conducted himself as a junior officer. He was a subaltern – equivalent to a 2nd Lieutenant – but he regularly went off on his own, ignoring orders from superior officers, pulling strings in London to get different assignments, and simply moving on to other countries and conflicts as it suited him. Had any other junior officer attempted this they would have been court-martialed or at least called on the carpet. He simply had his mother see the King or one of her many connections and got his way. This was the root of the dislike Lord Kitchener had of Churchill. Furthermore, all of his life – including his tenure in the service – he traveled with an entourage. He always had servants and baggage – mountains of baggage that included fine wines and foods – even in the service. Unior officers do not – as a rule – have an entourage and certainly do not travel with mountains of baggage filled with luxuries. So there is no wonder in that he was heartily disliked by virtually all of his superior officers and most of his colleagues.

He was always for the country and could never really accept the loss of empire. He almost single handedly prolonged the First World War by insulting the Turks. When the Turks who were clinging to the tottering Ottoman Empire contacted him to establish an alliance prior to the war—he rejected them because they ‘weren’t gentlemen”. He then added insult to injury by confiscating three battleships built by Britain for the Turks without even offering to pay for them. He needed them – Britain needed them – the Turks were not British and therefore inferior so they had no right to them. This arrogance characterized him his entire life.

He never considered anyone except himself and what he wanted was important and necessary and what anyone else wanted or needed was unreasonable, irrelevant, or unnecessary. Opinions and needs of those not of the aristocracy or ruling class were simply ignored unless he was running for office and in that case he was willing to address their collective needs and desires – as long as it suited him.

His arrogance was monumental and was the root cause of almost all of his problems. His colleagues in Parliament detested him and conspired to keep him out of office. While this was understandable – given his personality – it cost Britain and the world dearly because he had the best grasp on the world situation and a private intelligence network that was probably superior to the governments. The result was he was a voice crying in the wilderness – ignored and vilified until the incompetence of the administration and the inevitability of war became obvious. Of course the result was he was name Prime Minister and led Britain throughout WW II. However, at the conclusion of that conflict he was turned out of office and remained for the rest of his life a man admired but not liked.

Overall – a brilliant man who foresaw most of the woes of the 20th Century but could do little to stop them primarily because of his lack of tact, sensitivity, and overall arrogance based on class.

No comments: