In his youth, Winston Churchill was variously seen as a genius or a freak, an over-privileged upstart or a brilliant grafter, someone to be nurtured and promoted or a figure to be mocked and despised. What is undoubtedly true, as Michael Shelden's welcome account of the early years of Churchill's career makes plain, is that he was someone of formidable talent, but was also in the early years naïve, impetuous and, that worst of political sins, unlucky.
Yet unlike today's generation of political leaders, Churchill benefited from the decades of tough political and personal apprenticeship prior to finally becoming prime minister, aged 65, in 1940. He failed at Harrow and never attended university but was tried and tested in great offices of state from the Board of Trade to the Treasury via the Home Office and the Admiralty – as well as in the fallow fields of opposition. He had known failure and what it felt like. But he made his worst mistakes early on and, unusually, stuck around long enough to learn from them.
Compare that to the flimsy CVs of today's political elite. What had David Cameron and George Osborne (the youngest person to become Chancellor of the Exchequer since Churchill's own father, Lord Randolph, in 1886) run before taking over a country in crisis in 2010? Churchill's long wait for power contrasts with our 21st-century obsession with the freshness of youth. At 44 when he took office, Cameron was the youngest PM since Lord Liverpool in 1812, but the inexperience has shown time and time again.
By the time Churchill was 40, he had built a modern navy, introduced astonishingly radical social reforms, survived various death threats, fallen in love several times, become a husband and father, made many powerful enemies and a few loyal friends, delighted and annoyed two British monarchs, ridden by the side of the Kaiser while inspecting German military manoeuvres, trained as a pilot, sent 42 people to the hangman's noose and survived political disgrace, acute depression and even the Western Front. He had learned to see beyond his aristocratic upbringing, and how to inspire loyalty and get things done. Over time, he changed his mind a few times, and his party twice. What is remarkable is that his drive, his belief in his destiny, and his sheer energy and talent went the distance from controversial Edwardian reformer to mid 20th-century global leader. Patience was indeed, in his case, a virtue.
Churchill believed in the sheer force of "personality" making things happen, so it would be fascinating to know his views of the current colourless members of the Cabinet. "We live in an age of great events and little men," he bemoaned as a young politico at the end of the Victorian era. So much has changed in the world since he started his extraordinary career, but sadly Churchill's observation of more than a century ago is arguably just as true today.
Sonia Purnell is the author of 'Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition'
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