At the heart of the fantasy is a figure of magnificent absurdity, around whom the nation has built an enduring myth that contains everything it would like to believe about itself. Would a similar role have been created for Neville Chamberlain, had he stayed on and lived to win the war, or of Lord Halifax, if he had succeeded him? Probably: such is the lucky fate of victors. As it was, the romantic Winston Churchill perfectly fitted the part.
Churchill - widely regarded before the war as a washed-up, warmongering old dreamer - came to be seen as the finest embodiment of democracy the world had ever known: a man of peace who was a genius at waging war; a man of wisdom without pomposity, of patriotism without insularity, of intelligence without intellectualism; an artist with the common touch. The image of Churchill was that of a father and servant to his people, but also that of a cuddly, lovable and even naughty infant, the nation's adored favourite child. Press photos of the wartime leader in a boiler-suit and stories of him tucked up in bed with Cabinet papers strewn over the eiderdown like a jigsaw fed the public sense of him as a cosseted son.
This happy myth, which Churchill himself did so much to encourage, has continued to provide a rich, heraldic backcloth to British political life. Historians have long since criticised aspects of Churchill's behaviour, but the sense of a symbol of our national identity has remained and every leading politician has invoked his name. The biographers of Churchill, unauthorised as well as official - William Manchester, Henry Pelling, Martin Gilbert - have done nothing to tarnish the image and, indeed, by adding reverential detail, have done much to enhance it.
It is therefore high time that a scholarly attempt should be made to carve through the legend. That is what the historian John Charmley attempts to do in his Churchill: The End Of Glory. Despite the sub-subtitle, A Political Biography, this is not biography in the normal sense: the account stops abruptly in 1945, 10 years before Churchill ceased to lead his party, and 20 before his death.
Although Churchill was first elected MP for Oldham in 1900, and was continually prominent thereafter, approximately half the book is devoted to the seven years that followed the Munich settlement in 1938. Thus, in re-considering the Churchill myth, Charmley's main concern is to assess his achievement as a war leader. Given the furore the book has aroused (largely because of Alan Clark's mischievous review), the publishers must be kicking themselves for not producing it at an affordable price in time for the Christmas market.
In truth, the book is neither reckless nor ridiculous - though it does actively seek to tread on corns. Carefully researched on the basis of mainly published material, it is cautious in its opinions and does not say anything dramatically new. To some extent, it can be described as a devil's advocate's codification of existing criticisms and indictments, blended together wittily and with considerable panache.
Where others have started from an assumption of Churchill's regal greatness, Charmley approaches the wartime premier with a cocky republicanism. He assumes the worst about human motivation generally, not just that of Churchill. He tells us, Freudianly, that the Fabian reformer Beatrice Webb 'concealed and constrained her passions by channelling them into social investigation and good works', while the Labour politician Philip Snowden was 'a crippled Yorkshireman, whose withering contempt embraced most of mankind'.
Charmley's similarly withering contempt for Churchill is at times so indiscriminate that it builds resistance in the reader. Yet it is the job of the effective iconoclast not to mince his words. Charmley's Churchill is a sort of upmarket Jeffrey Archer: a word-spinner and careerist of enormous energy and gall, a fantasist who won through on ebullience, manic optimism and what F E Smith called 'a quality which is almost feminine in its caressing charm'. In this account, Churchill appears as a loner with little ability to communicate with his peers, except those drawn to the candle-flame of his gigantic ego. 'Immensely self-absorbed,' claims Charmley, 'Churchill appeared to have no time for the feelings of others.' What he did possess was a manipulative skill which enabled him to get his own way more often than was good for the nation's health.
Sometimes the result was disaster, as over the Dardanelles in the First World War or over Narvik in the Second. In both cases, according to the author, Churchill's indifference to evidence and inflated faith in his own judgement encouraged the taking of foolish risks. It is, indeed, hard to disagree with Charmley's forensic indictment of Churchill's blustering role in the Norwegian operation.
The author's assessment of the official records of War Cabinet discussions following the fall of France is shakier. Here, he seems anxious to show that Britain came close to negotiating a peaceful settlement with Hitler; he presents Lord Halifax as a serious advocate of exploratory talks and argues that Churchill was not just the major, but almost the only, obstacle to such an approach:
At his trial the French collaborationist leader Pierre Laval excused his actions in June 1940 by asking who, in their right minds, could then have believed in anything save a German victory? The answer was Churchill. It was by this margin that Britain stayed in the war; and despite the later mythology, it is plain that there was a good deal of support for the idea of at least opening talks to find out what Hitler's peace terms might be.
In fact the margin was much greater: though there was some support for putting out feelers, it was weak and confused and never came close to determining the Government's position.
That a discussion of options took place on 26 and 28 May has long been known, but at that moment of panic many ideas were aired without ever being seriously contemplated. Far more important was the mood in Whitehall and Westminster, as well as in Downing Street, which was the reverse of defeatist. Charmley goes on to suggest that, pursuing the slogan 'Victory at all costs', Churchill was casually indifferent to what those costs might be. He alleges that 'one of the most searing indictments of Churchill's shortcomings as a war leader' was his failure to meet popular demands for Beveridge-style reforms; another was to pay too little attention to the economy. As a result, he lost not just the 1945 election, but also the British Empire, which it had been his express intention to save, but which a penniless nation could no longer sustain.
By the conclusion of the fighting, the author maintains, it had become 'hard to argue that Britain had won in any sense save that of avoiding defeat'. Well, it might be said in reply, that was a little more than nothing. Charmley does not argue that Britain was wrong to prosecute the war and he pays his own tribute to Churchill. It is, however, a muted one, which does not fully take into account what was at stake: magnanimity, after all, was not a notable aspect of Adolf Hitler's style and the crowds in Trafalgar Square on VE Day may therefore be forgiven their jubiliation.
But so may Charmley be forgiven his spirited attempt at a warts-and-all portrait, the first since Graham Sutherland's famous painting, which appropriately illustrates the jacket. This is not the definitive study of Churchill, but it is readable, clever (if sometimes too clever) and challenging nonetheless.
'Churchill: The End of Glory, A Political Biography' is published by John Curtis/Hodder at pounds 30Reuse content