BOOK REVIEW / Into the field of human conflict: D C Watt finds Dr Charmley's controversial biography of Churchill anything but meticulous. 'Churchill: The End of Glory' - John Charmley: Hodder & Stoughton, 30 pounds

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The Independent Culture
DR CHARMLEY has had, God knows, more than enough publicity for his self-styled 'revisionist' attack on Sir Winston Churchill. Most of the criticism already voiced has struck two notes. On the one hand, Dr Charmley has been praised for his 'meticulous scholarship'; on the other hand, his attack on Churchill has been largely set aside on the grounds that Churchill is not to be diminished or debunked - at least not the Churchill of 1940-45.

Alan Clark's effort to hijack Dr Charmley into supporting his own indictment of Churchill - for not making peace in Hitler in 1940 or 1941 and leaving him and Stalin to destroy one another - has caused this element in Dr Charmley's book to be rather more stressed than the balance of the book deserves. But both Mr Clark and Dr Charmley share an unreadiness to concede any merit or reality to Churchill's picture of his relationship with President Roosevelt. Both talk of him 'crawling' to the President. Both blame his reliance on the United States for the 'loss of the British Empire'.

This reviewer does not share the general admiration for Dr Charmley's scholarship. While not wishing to denigrate him, I am not inclined to describe as meticulous scholarship which is so effectively limited to English political sources as is Dr Charmley's. I find nothing scholarly or meticulous in a discussion of Anglo-American relations which never mentions Britain's financial dependence on American money, American oil and American industrial productivity in two world wars; and which ignores the consciousness of this dependence shared, and brought to their tasks in the Second World War, by all who had held office in the First World War.

Much the same could be said of the discussion of 'the Empire' which never contrasts the reality of the Commonwealth in the 1930s and 1940s with the very different views of their strategic interests held by Australia, Canada and South Africa. Nor does it describe the turn-of-the-century vision of the Queen Emperor's dominion over palm and pine, which is all Dr Charmley seems to encompass with his use of the word 'empire'. One would never think that the British Colonial Service, let alone the government of India, had been moving their charges through nativisation, indirect rule, local initiative, and local self- government towards self-governing status within the Commonwealth from the 1920s onwards. After all, the first completely Indian-officered regiment in the Indian Army dates from 1928.

Much of the general outrage over Dr Charmley's views has, no doubt, been heard from those whose tribal myths have been challenged, but it would be wrong for the lay public cynically to assume that all they hear is the noise of historians refusing to rethink their lecture notes. The serious opposition to Dr Charmley's views comes rather from those professional historians who have been engaged in revising the Churchillian version of the Second World War for the last 25 years or more, greatly aided by the release of the relevant public records from 1970 onwards.

Critics of Churchill's strategy were already active before this date, but the real burden of criticism concentrated, from the early 1970s onwards, on Churchill's neglect of the Far East before 1942. They also examined the very different nature of the Anglo-American relationship in the Far East by comparing it with the integrated command structures in the Mediterranean and North West Europe. Twenty years ago, at least, attention was called to the fate of Sir Robert Craigie's final report on his embassy in Tokyo, and his argument that a different policy could have avoided bringing the Japanese to bay at possibly the worst time for Britain to have to face a new enemy - December 1941.

The reader will look in vain, in Dr Charmley's index, for Craigie's name; and he will also look in vain for any indication that the Chamberlain government offered President Roosevelt bases in the West Indies for nothing in 1939, when a year later, in 1940 Roosevelt was willing to give arms and destroyers in return.

Dr Charmley has already written three biographies. Each was distinguished by his clear lack of empathy with his subject, and by the clear evidence that Dr Charmley looked at little outside his subject's own papers. His study of Churchill is equally flawed. Both it, and much of the public discussion, is marred by the parochialism and Anglo-centricity of English historical writing. The concentration on English sources and no others leads, paradoxically, to an inability to assess those papers in English archives which can only make sense if considered alongside those from other, non- Anglophone archives.

Dr Charmley is a professed admirer of the late A J P Taylor. But he seems to have learned only from Taylor in decline, the man who loathed America and argued that Britain's participation in two European wars was a mistake. It is sad to see such genuine historical talent, such facility with language coupled with such obvious self-satisfaction invested in so semi-finished, so parochially conceived and so unworthy a rejoinder to Churchill's six volumes and Martin Gilbert's eight. It has been suggested that Dr Charmley, not having been alive in the Second World War, can write with more freedom about it than older historians now poised on the edge of decrepitude. This nonsense is resurrected to hide the emergence of a young fogeyism which was out of date already in the 1930s.

(Photograph omitted)

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