BOOK REVIEW / How Winnie begat Maggie: Eminent Churchillians - Andrew Roberts: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pounds 20

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NOT SINCE A J P Taylor gave his legendary lectures on the origins of the Second World War a third of a century ago has a historical study given me such intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction. Andrew Roberts, of the new Right, has adopted Taylor's iconoclastic enthusiasm and ability to sustain an argument and he too writes beautifully. He employs the biographical essay style of Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians, first to throw light on the Conservative elite's reaction to Churchill between 1940, when he became Prime Minister, and 1955, when he stepped down after his second term; and then to examine Churchill's 1951-1955 goverment and the culture of decline which, Roberts claims, it engendered.

Churchill's change of fortune in 1940 was one of the most sudden and complete in British history. In the 1930s he had been widely reviled as 'a warmonger and a has-been', his career dismissed as 'a catalogue of the failures of an over-ambitious adventurer'. Yet by late 1940 he had become the nation's saviour.

This shift in the tectonic plates presented many members of the ruling elite with problems of adjustment. High on Roberts's list is King George VI, who emerges as an intellectual mediocrity, enamoured of Chamberlain and fuelled by contempt for Churchill, at least until it was clear that the war was won. Roberts claims the King played fast and loose with the careful conventions about monarchical impartiality, but so naively that his interventions had little effect.

It is generally believed that the mass of the appeasement-minded 'Radical Tendency' in the Tory party rapidly came to terms with Churchill as Prime Minister, if only because the survival of the nation was at stake. Not so. For months after Chamberlain stepped aside, leading Tories confided to each other their contempt for the 'crooks' and 'gangsters' of the Churchill administration, and their determination to frustrate it.

The author's thesis is that much of the nation - including Churchill himself - gradually came to believe most of the necessary myths created by wartime propaganda, and that these myths became appallingly destructive in peacetime. The essential propositions were that the peace could be won by the same collectivist methods which had (supposedly) won the war, and that Stalin was a benign old gent whose views and values were much the same as ours. Churchill, according to these essays, accepted the former proposition but mercifully rejected the latter.

As a result, although Churchill signalled that an Iron Curtain was falling across Europe, he appeared to accept that socialism was morally and materially better than capitalism and that hard choices were best ducked. This, no doubt, is why Walter Monckton, made Minister of Labour in 1951, was briefed to appease the unions at all costs. He never challenged inflationary wage claims or questioned the undemocratic nature of union power. Harold Wilson and Edward Heath devoted much of the next two decades to attempts to tame the mighty union giant Monckton had unleashed, and their failure led inexorably to the more robust attacks by Norman Tebbit.

Ministers in 1951 'were tired, nostalgic and in headlong ideological retreat'. This physical and moral exhaustion explains their failure (as Roberts sees it) to deal with immigration. The purpose of the most controversial essay, 'Churchill, Race and the 'Magpie Society' ', is not to show that Churchill was a racist - he talked casually of 'niggers' and 'blackamoors' - but to ask why, given his robustly Victorian attitude to race, his government made no move to limit immigration from the black Commonwealth, even though opinion polls provided unequivocal evidence of its unpopularity. The answer appears to lie in a mixture of liberal guilt, a desire not to antagonise the New Commonwealth (it enhanced Britain's claims to Great Power status) and sheer fatigue among the Tory grandees. Shortly before he retired, Churchill told Ian Gilmour: 'I think it (immigration) is the most important subject facing this country, but I cannot get any of my ministers to take any notice.' The wartime leader would not have tolerated such laxness.

As a result, Roberts contends, 'for good or ill but certainly forever, Britain . . . (became) what Churchill had feared, a 'magpie society' '. Leaving aside that peculiarly disturbing phrase, some people would see this as cause for celebration. But Roberts's point is that the imposition by default of multi-culturalism upon an unwilling nation did much to undermine the legitimacy of the upper-class Tory leaders, and so paved the way for Thatcherite populism.