December 12th, 2010

I finished Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins today.

Churchill is probably the most famous English politician in the world. This thousand page book is a complete examination of his life. By the end of it, you won't be under illusions about his life.

As I said, this is a thorough book. It is also strange -to me at least. Churchill is probably as close to a beatified politician (in England at lease) as it is possible to get (though I suspect that William Wilberforce might push him close if people were more aware of him). I'm not sure why, but I expected this to borne out by this book. I'm not sure it was.

The book is divided into 3 parts. The first 40% deals with his pre-war days. The next 40% deals with World War II. The last 20% looks at what happened after he lost the 1945 election.

The first part presents him as someone who has little impulse control. He didn't think he'd live all that long (a family history of death at a comparatively young age was to blame for this), and as a consequence he seems to have wanted to live his life to the full before entering parliament.

The two war phases of his life were the most interesting parts of the book. I was surprised quite how much he screwed up during World War I. I know this is written with the benefit of hindsitght, but I found it quite stark when Jenkins was describing Churchill as making "statesmenlike decisions" in World War II.

The last part of the book was most depressing. Churchill was clearly past his best during many periods of it, and though he made many strong speeches (the "Iron Curtain" speech for example), I got the feeling he was in a downward spiral during this stage, even if he made several accurate predictions about the future.

At the end of the book, Jenkins claims that he was a great leader. I have no doubt that his was. I didn't get a sense from the book that there was anyone else who could do what he did. But I'm not sure he was a great man. As an example, he drank like a fish, and he tended to get locked onto some palpably daft ideas (like refusing to grant Indian independence), which made you want to yell at him on occasions, and I found that rather sad to be honest.

All this having been said, I think that the fact that we saw the "whole Churchill" is a strength of the book. We get to see Churchill the man as a rounded individual, warts and all, and I think we're better off for knowing that about him.

I also finished "The Downing Street Years" by Margaret Thatcher today.

I am very much a product of the 1980s. The first political act I remember was Wilson's resignation as Prime Minister in 1976 and Jim Callaghan's rise to power in his wake. Consequently Callaghan's subsequent loss to Thatcher is the first election I remember.

This book looks at the decade plus that she was in power. It's an interesting book, because she talks about the things that drew me to student politics in the late 1980s. But anyone who reads it now will find it reads more like a historical treaties than it does anything else. I say this because much of what she writes about have become settled facts that everyone agrees on.

I can remember the arguments that she had with Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Hows, the "wets" in her cabinet and the like. I also remember the heated discussions people had over the miner's strike, EMU, student loans, the poll tax and so on, but remember folks these arguments happened a quarter of a century now, so much of what she talk about feels like it happened a long long time ago, in a place that feels like, but isn't quite, England.

That isn't to say that what she wrote wasn't interesting or didn't made me smile. As an example, her certainty that they'd seen off the Labour party as a party of "prolonged government" had to make me laugh, while her concerns about how a unified Germany might destablise Europe has to make you doubt her judgment.

In short, this book is interesting because the "blessed Margaret" helped Britons redefine how they was themselves, but I'd say that people should read it as a piece of self-justifictory history now because, as I said earlier, much of the arguments she discusses became "settled historic facts.