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Book review: The Churchill Factor tells us little about Churchill, but lots about Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has followed in the footsteps of a long line of politicians writing political biographies. Johnson chose Churchill, not because Churchill needs another biography – or even a hagiography – but because Johnson is desperate to cast himself as Churchill’s spiritual heir as he positions himself for Tory party leadership (which, by the vagaries of the British constitution, would also make him Prime Minister.)

The book itself is annoying in the way that Johnson is annoying. It bumbles about. It talks directly to the reader. If Johnson doesn’t like something put forward by an amorphous group he calls “the anti-Churchillians”, he tends to say that he doesn’t agree, and leaves it at that.

Johnson covers Churchill as a person, rather than Churchill’s life as a chronological narrative. We jump between his relationship with his father, his desire for glory, his role in the foundation of the modern Middle East (including coining the phrase) and his political beliefs. In a revealing section, Johnson evaluates Churchill’s actions not by their outcomes, but by whether he meant well. For Johnson, acting with good intentions seems to be a get out clause par excellence.

Johnson unashamedly draws parallels between Churchill and himself. Both were journalists. Both are distrusted by the party establishment. Both manage to get popular support from the working class despite being posh. Johnson traces Churchill’s political tradition back to his father, Randolph Churchill, and from Randolph back to the great nineteenth century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Johnson says the Disraelis and Churchill have a lot in common: “the journalism, the love of show, the rhetorical flourishes, the sense of history, the imperialism, the monarchism, the slight air of camp and the inveterate opportunism.” Yes, Boris, we know you think you are like your hero, too.

The Churchill Factor becomes more interesting when you stop reading it as history – which is isn’t. Johnson espouses the Great Men school of history which believes that history is driven by the great deeds of exceptional individuals and despises modern historical thought which prizes an understanding of long term social, political, economic and technological above the idolisation of heroes. “I think the story of Winston Churchill is a withering retort to all that malarkey”. Johnson is obsessed by the waves; historians care about the tides.

If instead you read The Churchill Factor as the political manifesto of a British Prime Ministerial candidate, you can discern much about the character, politics and electoral positioning of Johnson. He credits his hero with many actions designed to improve the lot of the working classes: the minimum wage (first introduced in 1908 for garment workers), contributory unemployment insurance (the precursor of today’s Jobseeker’s Allowance), tea breaks and more. He describes Churchill, again and again, as being above party politics. He was disloyal (moving from Tory to Liberal and back again as the parties’ political fortunes waxed and waned) but he believed in “the promotion and protection of Britain and the empire and the promotion and the protection of the welfare of the people, and that the second would help advance the first.” Johnson paints Churchill not as a great warmonger or adventure seeker (despite being the only British Prime Minister to have killed men personally on four continents), but as an honourable warrior, resolute in warfare but magnanimous in victory, with a soft side that would blub at the slightest opportunity.

On Europe, Johnson paints Churchill as a pro-European, who believed in a united states of Europe, but who believed Britain would be better outside rather than inside. Although he also suggests Britain’s best interests would be served by continuing to be able to influence the shape of the European Union, which might be rather harder to do from the outside.

Overall, Churchill comes across as a ambitious populist politician with a great turn of phrase and a lot of harebrained ideas who, by circumstance and force of will, became one of the most influential men in the history of the twentieth century. He managed this despite the distrust of much of the establishment, a number of significant political and military disasters and an eccentric public persona.

I fear that Johnson sees himself as cast in the same mould.

Nicholas Lovell