In the same way a B-movie actor might stand next to George Clooney, hoping some of his Hollywood magic will rub off, Boris Johnson has written a biography of Winston Churchill. In The Churchill Factor, Johnson sidles up to his subject, making implicit comparisons between the former prime minister and someone else – a man who desperately wants his old position. Ring any bells?
The Churchill of whom Johnson writes had “heart” and “guts”, a spirit that transcended mere politics. Describing Churchill as overflowing with humanity, Johnson characterises detractors like Lord Halifax as desiccated, arid and elitist. Churchill, according to the author, was in contrast: “eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes – and a thoroughgoing genius”. Sounds like someone you know pretty well, Mr Johnson.
The Churchill Factor is a work of history in the same way the Beano is a treatise on moral philosophy. Johnson’s Churchill and his version of modern history are cartoonish: they bear some relationship to the actual man and real past but the lines drawn are crude. Yet, its very lack of sophistication means The Churchill Factor evokes how a particular kind of Briton – one whose main source material might be movies like The Colditz Story (1955) and Dan Snow TV documentaries – like to imagine Churchill’s role during World War II. These would have been amongst those nearly half a million BBC2 viewers who in 2002 voted Churchill to be the Greatest Briton. I strongly suspect that many of them are also to be found among members of the Conservative party. So, precisely because he has written a book that is more an application to lead the Conservatives than a biography, Johnson has produced a timely reflection on Churchill’s current place in Britain’s cultural memory.
Churchill the deity
Ostensibly, the main aim of Johnson’s book is to acquaint younger Britons with Churchill. Citing a survey that more children can correctly identify a picture of Churchill the nodding insurance dog than one of the wartime prime minister, Johnson fears the young are in danger of forgetting someone he regards as Britain’s greatest statesman and his vital role in the most glorious moment of the country’s history. He wants them to see Churchill as he sees him.
Born in 1964, Johnson recalls how he grew up obsessed with the wartime prime minister, as undoubtedly did many others born in the shadow of World War II. Indeed, according to the author, Conservatives still regard their former leader as a deity. Certainly, Churchill enjoys a special place in the hearts of middle-aged, right-wing men: UKIP has even used him to adorn election posters.
Such figures would agree with the dean of St Paul’s who officiated at Churchill’s state funeral in 1965, who hoped:
That the memory of his virtues and his achievements may remain as a part of our national heritage inspiring generations to come to emulate his magnanimity and patriotic devotion.
The dean was referring to the Churchill who in the summer of 1940 determined Britain would fight on: this is the man to whom Johnson repeatedly returns. For those uncomfortable with the confusions and complications of the present-day, it is a happy moment to mythologise. In it they see a lesson from which contemporary Britain should pay heed: according to Johnson’s account, by rejecting overtures to make peace with Germany – and what he claims was set to become a Nazified version of the European Union – Churchill “saved our civilization”.
Yet, that which Johnson calls the “Churchill brand” is now in danger. If men of the Nigel Farage stripe go misty eyed when they hear Eric Coates’ The Dam Busters’ March, then many other Britons’ cultural memory of Churchill is fading and transforming.
This process can be measured through Churchill’s dramatic depictions, for fiction plays an important role in shaping our cultural memory. Young Winston (1972) was the first time Churchill was played in a British movie and while about his early life, it began and ended with scenes from 1945. The film’s director, Richard Attenborough, was no Conservative but still he claimed:
Churchill holds a special place for me and my generation. I don’t agree with many of his political views. But those of us in World War II remember someone who said “Enough” to the Machiavellian barbarian sweeping across Europe. This man gave us our voice. He spoke for us and galvanised us into action.
Subsequently Richard Burton, Timothy West, Robert Hardy and many others played Churchill in dramas that reinforced the wartime prime minister’s status as Britain’s national saviour.
But, more recently, there’s been a change. Churchill’s heroics were mocked in the animated movie Jackboots over Whitehall, while The King’s Speech presented George VI as the man who played the decisive role in galvanising the British during the war. The movie also played fast and loose with Churchill’s role during the abdication crisis by having him befriend George, rather than his brother Edward VIII. In fact during the 1940 crisis the appeasing monarch had desperately wanted Lord Halifax– not Churchill – to become prime minister.
Even more inventively, the 2010 Dr Who episode Victory of the Daleks had the prime minister turn to the Daleks to help him defeat Hitler. Finally, in the BBC2 series Peaky Blinders, Churchill is a malevolent figure who encourages the police to commit murder. It’s 50 years after his death and nearly 75 years after 1940, so perhaps it is no surprise that the man and the war have become fair game for dramatic revision, distortion and plain fantasy. Popular understandings of Churchill’s real historical significance are as a result becoming ever more fuzzy.
Johnson’s biography is trying to reverse this cultural tide but in its futility it is an action worthy of Canute. For while Johnson claims Churchill “saved our civilisation”, the passage of time has transformed that “civilisation”; the Britain Churchill supposedly rescued from defeat is very different to the one in which most of us now live. If Johnson tries to suggest Churchill was a progenitor of our multi-cultrual society, his heart really isn’t in it.
But, if Johnson will fail to restore Churchill’s once-dominant place in our national iconography, The Churchill Factor will only help him achieve another of his aims, the one he takes more seriously than any other. For, by associating the “Churchill brand” with the “Boris brand” his book will undoubtedly appeal to the ranks of the Conservative party. There are less than 150,000 members of the partybut, significantly,more than 60% of them are at least 60 years old and they are a reactionary bunch. Ultimately it is this small number of aged, right-wing, backward-looking individuals that will decide who becomes the next Conservative leader.
Ironically, as Johnson does not quite point out in his book, without Hitler, Churchill would never have become prime minister; in some indirect way will the German dictator now help nudge Johnson towards his ultimate prize?