Empire of the sons
Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist, by Laurence James, and Disraeli: or The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
Benjamin Disraeli. Photograph: W. & D. Downey/Getty Images
Winston Churchill, in 1941: Photograph: Yousuf Karsh
Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist
Weidenfeld & Ncholson
In 1897, on his way to India, Winston Churchill wrote to his mother asking for the collected speeches of Benjamin Disraeli. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, had been a fan of Dizzy, so the request was not especially surprising, but it reminds us that Winston, born in 1874, was essentially a Victorian not just in spirit but also in fact. Indeed, perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of reading these fine new books on two of Britain’s greatest prime ministers is that they almost seem to be in the wrong chronological order. For while Churchill was always a blast from the Victorian past, it is Disraeli who appears the model of a modern statesman.
At first sight these two politicians seem as unalike as possible. Churchill was born the grandson of a duke amid the splendour of Blenheim Palace. His father was chancellor of the exchequer. Throughout his life he was able to take advantage of connections and access to advance his career.
Disraeli, on the other hand, was the son of a Jewish intellectual, whose father took the practical decision that the best thing he could do to help his son get on in life was have him baptised into the Church of England. Anti-Semitism would dog Disraeli throughout his life, and his ability to move beyond it provoked admiration in the highest circles. But even though he ended up with the glittering prizes of the premiership, an earldom and the order of the garter, Disraeli remained an outsider in English society.
For all their difference in social status, Disraeli and Churchill shared a number of important characteristics. Both showed great tenacity in overcoming deep suspicions in parliament and society – Disraeli as a Jew, Churchill as his “mad” father’s son. Neither was university educated. Each came to the premiership at an advanced age: Disraeli was 69 when he finally won an election, in 1874; Churchill was 65 when he became prime minister in 1940. They also shared two other traits, which Douglas Hurd and his regular collaborator Edward Young identify as the critical ingredients in political greatness: courage and imagination.
Any new book by Lawrence James, the author of many successful works, including The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, is always a treat. Still, Churchill and Empire gets off to an uncharacteristically sticky start. James claims on page 1 that “this book is about a subject that has been overlooked or discreetly sidelined in Churchillian literature: his ardent and unswerving faith in the British empire”. James is too good a historian to believe that, but, thankfully, once he gets going, he’s quickly back on top form.
All the narrative drama, colour and insight that we have come to expect is once again on irresistible show in Churchill and Empire. He makes a convincing case that empire was never far from Churchill’s mind and that the great conflicts of the 20th century in which he was involved were essentially imperial in character.
That throws up some interesting perspectives, not least that Churchill’s first World War campaign at Gallipoli, which ended in humiliation, was essentially an attempt to counter Turkish-German efforts to begin an Islamic jihad among the millions of Muslims in the British Empire.
“Al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 and similar outrages before and after have demonstrated the jihad’s potential as an instrument of war and its magnetic spiritual appeal to sections of the Muslim world, in particular the young,” James writes. “In 1914 such knowledge was restricted to a small number of officials and soldiers with first hand experience of India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Churchill was one.”
This playing out of the eastern question is a scenario that would have been familiar to Disraeli, not least because an earlier phase in that geopolitical problem had given him one of the great triumphs of his career. His performance at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, where he played a cunning game of brinkmanship mixed with shameless self-promotion, led the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck to exclaim in admiration: “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann!” (“The old Jew, he is the man”).
Hurd and Young have an easy style, making good use of their sources and acknowledging those who have prepared the way, not least the magnificent scholarly achievement of the edited Disraeli letters emanating out of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. The result is a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking book that convincingly makes the case that the real Disraeli is even more extraordinary than his myth.
Part of Disraeli’s great achievement was to shape the imperial mindset of a generation, including the likes of young Winston Churchill. That included, by travelling to Berlin in person, the unmistakable sense that diplomacy was too important a game to be left to anyone except the principal players. “There is no gambling like politics,” Disraeli wrote, “but when you have to deal only with emperors and high chancellors, and empires are on the main, the excitement, I suppose a little increases.” Churchill at Tehran and Yalta with Roosevelt and Stalin would hardly have disagreed.
Disraeli differed from his predecessors not only in taking up the reins of diplomacy himself but also in thinking of Britain less as a European country than as an imperial one. “The key to success in this world of empires was the protection and accumulation of prestige,” write Hurd and Young. “To Disraeli, prestige was a solid asset. It conferred authority; it provided security; indeed it was the true currency of international relations.”
That was why Disraeli sensationally bought nearly half the shares in the Suez Canal Company for Britain and made Victoria empress of India. Each action increased Britain’s ability to impose its will on the world stage because, Hurd and Young note, “a country which enjoyed high prestige would prevail in any contest where otherwise the scales were balanced”.
National prestige was one of the reasons that Churchill clung to empire until the very end. On April 4th, 1955, he celebrated his final day in office with a visit from Queen Elizabeth II to 10 Downing Street. They emerged together afterwards on to the front step with Churchill resplendent in full court dress, proudly wearing the medals he had won for the Malakand Campaign and the Battle of Omdurman, at the end of the 19th century. “The imperial sentiments that had stirred his imagination on these battlefields,” writes James, “had remained with him.” Churchill was the last of Disraeli’s Victorian imperialists.
Richard Aldous’s books include The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli