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Churchill has never lacked for critics, including some fine historians — Maurice Cowling, Corelli Barnett, John Charmley, among others — but of course he has his champions too. For many years one of the most eminent Churchillians has been Andrew Roberts. He has now produced a full-scale biography that builds on the prodigious work of the late Martin Gilbert, the official biographer, but also uses material that has only recently become available. Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, £30) is a stupendous achievement: lucid, erudite, intelligent, but also inspiring. Roberts catches the imperishable grandeur of Churchill’s life as no other historian has done. Roberts does full justice to Churchill’s superhuman range of activity — he wrote more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined, travelled hundreds of thousands of air and sea miles in wartime keeping the Allies together, in constant danger of being shot down or torpedoed, and smoked half a million cigars (though he seldom inhaled).

Armed with this evidence, it is possible to refute at least some of the claims made by Hitchens. His critique of the Anglo-American Special Relationship, which remains one of Churchill’s most enduring legacies, is almost wholly misconceived and clearly fuelled by his hostility to more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States has never been a disinterested party to its alliance with Britain, but what makes the relationship “special” is precisely that it transcends in depth and breadth the normal calculus of power politics. Hitchens argues that the “Atlantic Charter” (as the joint communiqué issued by the British and American governments after the Churchill-Roosevelt summit at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, was dubbed by the Daily Herald) amounted to “a time bomb, possibly an accidental one, which would blow up under what was left of the British empire”. But far from being a blueprint for dismantling the British Empire, the Atlantic Charter documents the transition from an imperial to a civilisational mindset. The text agreed by Churchill and Roosevelt on board the Prince of Wales sets out their global priorities after the putative Axis defeat. It is true that Stalin — who was never party to the Charter — would later trample underfoot several of the “common principles”: no territorial aggrandisement, no territorial changes without the consent of those affected, and, thirdly, the restoration of sovereign rights and self-government. This third principle also stated: “They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” Roberts finds Churchill’s readiness to agree to this “astonishing”, adding “such was the imperative of establishing common purpose with the United States”. Hitchens points out that Gandhi, a bitter enemy of the British Empire, was quick to seize on this principle in a letter to Roosevelt. But he omits to mention that it was not Churchill’s coalition that decided to give India self-government, but Attlee’s Labour government. In August 1941, that decision lay far in the future. If Churchill had won the 1945 election, it is far from certain that he would have persisted in his pre-war determination to keep India in the empire; but he would almost certainly have taken longer to withdraw, perhaps thereby avoiding the bloodshed that accompanied Partition.
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Lawrence James
October 7th, 2018
9:10 AM
An excellent article which says all that needs to be said on World War II: Hitchens's polemic is selective and can be ignored whilst AJP Taylor wrote when large swathes of evidence were not available. Churchill's post-war remarks on an united Europe must be taken in context, for they were made when he was sure that the British Empire would survive for the foreseeable future. It did not and, by 1970, it was clear that Britain would have to to seek compensation by an alignment with what was then the Common Market.

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