From a New Statesman re-upping of a 2015 review by the excellent historian Richard Evans:
Churchill “was no party-pooper” according to Boris Johnson, whose self-serving biography of the wartime leader was derided by the historian RJ Evans in this review published in the New Statesman in 2014. The irony is palpable: faced with Tory defection and a rebellious media, it seems as if Johnson’s own efforts to live up to his hero’s reputation as a reveler – attending parties in No 10 while the population endured grinding lockdowns – have backfired with potentially terminal effect.
Boris Johnson, as the subtitle of this book proclaims, is a firm believer in the “great man” theory of history. Not for him the subtleties of the complex interplay of historical forces and individual personalities. Subtlety is not Boris’s strong point. Winston Churchill alone, he writes, “saved our civilisation”. He “invented the RAF and the tank”. He founded the welfare state (although Boris gives David Lloyd George a bit of credit for this, as well). All of this, he argues, confounds what he sees as the fashion of the past few decades to write off “so-called great men and women” as “meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history”. The story of Winston Churchill “is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference.”
…Anyone who has the time or energy to press a couple of keys on a computer to look up “tank”, “RAF”, “welfare state” or even “the Second World War” on Wikipedia will see Boris’s sweeping claims vanish in a cloud of inconvenient facts…
Johnson doesn’t weigh up policies and ideas with any care or penetration. If he doesn’t like them, he dismisses them as “rot”, “tripe”, “loopy”, “bonkers”, “barmy” or “nuts”; their advocates and practitioners as “loonies”, “plodders”, “Stilton-eating surrender monkeys”, and so on.
There are some truly cringe-making metaphors and wordplay in the book. Churchill, we learn, was “mustard keen on gas” as a weapon in the First World War. He was “the large protruding nail on which destiny snagged her coat”. Young Tories “think of him as the people of Parma think of the formaggio Parmigiano. He is their biggest cheese.” And Chamberlain’s “refusal to stand up to Hitler” was “spaghetti-like” (clearly Boris is rather fond of Italian food)…
In a book that involves a good deal of modern European history, Boris the Eurosceptic clearly doesn’t find it necessary to master the details. Croatia, he tells us casually, was ruled by “some Ustasha creep or other” in the interwar years (it was not), while in the same period there was a plague of “communist uprisings in eastern Europe” (there was not). The Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, he writes in his offhand way, was “originally intended for some minor offshoot of the Hohenzollern dynasty” (it was not – it was built for the crown prince, heir to the German throne)…
Present-day politics obtrude in other ways, too. Anyone who wonders why Boris has written this book need look no further than the general election that is due in a few months’ time. If the Conservatives lose, the leadership of the party will be up for grabs and Boris will be a candidate. Writing a book about Churchill might help people take him seriously. After all, Churchill, he writes, “spoke in short Anglo-Saxon zingers”. He was a “rogue elephant” in the Tory party. He made a career as a highly paid journalist. He was definitely not a “lefty-liberal Milquetoast”. “He was no party-pooper.” He was “incorrigibly cheerful” and his verbal style was both “demotic and verbally inventive”. He “incarnated something essential about the British character – and that was his continual and unselfconscious eccentricity”. Now, who is this meant to remind you of?
Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge
The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History
One rather suspects BoJo might, at least in his fantasies, admire this aspect of Churchill–an earlier post:
What the UK needed in early 2020, more than anything else, was for the pandemic to be taken seriously. We needed someone willing to look at what had happened in Wuhan and Lombardy, and make the most of the few weeks’ notice the UK had providentially been granted. Unfortunately, in Johnson it had a prime minister whose entire personality and philosophy are based on not taking things seriously. This was to have tragic consequences. In the early months of 2020, when the news about Sars-CoV-2 was emerging and getting rapidly, frighteningly worse, Johnson failed to chair five consecutive meetings of Cobra, the government’s crisis committee. It is almost unknown for the prime minister not to chair Cobra when he or she is in London. According to David King, the former government chief scientific adviser, Blair and Brown never failed to chair a Cobra meeting. Johnson failed five times in a row, always on the subject of Covid. The reason isn’t far to seek: he didn’t understand it and didn’t take it seriously. In the early months of 2020, the UK government had 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit, which Johnson was well aware lay somewhere on the spectrum between a mistake and a disaster. His private life was on the same spectrum. In the months after becoming prime minister, Johnson became the first holder of that office to get divorced, get married and have a baby, more or less simultaneously. Covid was not a priority. It’s amazing he showed up to any Cobra meetings at all.