History gets a handbagging from Thatcherite scholars: John Charmley caused a stir with his criticism of Churchill. Brian Cathcart explores why attacks come from the Right

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The Independent Online
FEW ACADEMICS these days would openly regret the passing of the British Empire or wish that it had survived. Even Enoch Powell, writing last week, said it was 'destined to evaporate'.

John Charmley is different. 'If you look at what's happened to British Africa, for example, I think that's a frightfully uncaring view,' he says. 'The British Empire vanishing has had a very deleterious effect on the Third World. Look at Uganda under the British and look at it now. And you didn't get famines quite so frequently in Africa then as you do now.'

Dr Charmley is the historian whose book Churchill, The End of Glory, has caused such a stir that the publishers were reprinting it last week, even before it had been officially published. One of the chief charges he lays at Churchill's door is that his war policies reduced Britain to such a sorry state that in the years that followed, it was incapable of holding on to its colonies. Churchill, in other words, threw away the Empire.

He also argues that Churchill, by neglecting the home front and allowing Labour to make its mark in the wartime coalition, ushered in the socialist government in Britain that he had dedicated himself to preventing.

Many, even in the Conservative Party, might have said that the Attlee government did much that was overdue to change Britain. Again, not Dr Charmley. 'They meant very well, perhaps, but they loaded Britain with a lot of the things that led to the disasters of the 1970s,' he says. 'They said they wanted to hand the country over to the people; instead they handed it over to the bureaucrats.'

Dr Charmley's strong views on the Empire and Attlee help to explain one of the apparent oddities of this latest and most vigorous attack on Churchill: that it comes from his own side, from the right. To be precise, it comes from the Thatcherite right (although, ironically, Lady Thatcher is a keen admirer of 'Winston', as she cosily calls him). Historians, it is often said, reinterpret the past in the light of the present; here is the war hero seen through a Thatcherite lens.

For most of the past 45 years, history has been kind to Churchill. That is how he arranged it. His own chronicle of the Second World War, volume after volume of noble prose, all of them best- sellers in their day, generously underpinned his heroic reputation.

There have always been critics, but the popular consensus has been that this was the statesman who led his country from the shame of appeasement and defeat, through the desperate years of standing alone, to total victory over Nazism. He undoubtedly had many faults, but his vigour, wisdom and oratorical gifts exactly met the need of the hour.

In recent years, as more and more archives have opened up, offering alternative views of his actions and words, Churchill has been treated increasingly roughly by historians. Now he is the victim not just of rough treatment but of grievous bodily harm.

The first blow was struck by Alan Clark, the historian, former Conservative minister and ardent Thatcherite, who declared in the Times that Churchill led the country to ruin by throwing away the opportunities he had to make a peace of some sort with Hitler and get out of the war early.

Mr Clark, who once chatted with civil servants about sending immigrants back to 'bongo-bongo land', likes to shock, and was rewarded with the response he sought. Indignant historian-peers raged at the notion of making peace with Hitler. Careful readers of Mr Clark's article noticed in the penultimate paragraph that it was a book review, and the book in question was Dr Charmley's. In fact, Dr Charmley is not quite as categorical as Mr Clark on making peace with Hitler, but there is still plenty in his work to upset.

His introduction speaks of the 'failure' of Churchill's leadership, which was 'barren and led nowhere', and his conclusion, 650 pages later, explains: 'Churchill stood for the British Empire, for British independence and for an 'anti-socialist' vision of Britain. By July 1945 the first of these was on the skids, the second was dependent solely upon America and the third had just vanished in a Labour victory.'

This criticism is heartfelt, for the man who wrote it also stands for the British Empire, for British independence and for an 'anti- socialist' vision of Britain. To him, Churchill's failures are a betrayal.

Dr Charmley is a man of the right with a highly developed sense of mischief. 'Don't ask me about monetarism and all that,' he says, 'but if you ask me whether Mrs Thatcher was the greatest prime minister since Churchill I say yes. She was wonderful, and she still is wonderful.' He likes nothing better than to provoke Bateman-like scenes of horror in liberal university common rooms by proclaiming these views during lulls in conversation.

Usually, the common room where he practises this is at the University of East Anglia, but at the moment he is a visiting academic at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Since this is an institution dedicated to the memory of Winston Churchill, who made his 'Iron Curtain' speech in Fulton, it is a good place for a man who likes to shock.

Dr Charmley, however, is no crank, nor is he an extremist historian like David Irving, or a provocateur like Alan Clark. He is highly regarded by his colleagues both as a teacher and a scholar. He does not shock, he says, for the sake of shocking, but to provoke argument. The opening quotation of his previous book came from Blake: 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.'

That book was about Neville Chamberlain, a prime minister whose social policies he likens to Lady Thatcher's. It was a defiant defence of the appeasement of Hitler, the policy so execrated in Churchill's own account of events and so generally despised since the war. It follows naturally that he should have difficulty with Churchill's own policies. With his new book, his approach has been to begin at the other end of the war, at Britain's desperate economic straits and its strategic dependence on the United States after victory in Europe.

'In that sort of situation,' he asks, 'what does it mean to say that we won the war?' Orthodox opinion, he says, insists that Churchill's 'victory at all costs' was the only road that Britain could have taken in the war. 'But far from that road being right and inevitable, there were plenty of alternatives we could have taken. There was no inevitability, but there was human fallibility.'

'Glib speculation. Preposterously unrealistic,' says the Cambridge historian Correlli Barnett.

'This is writing history backwards,' says Richard Overy, author of The Road to War. 'It has become fashionable, now that communism has been discredited, to redraft the history of the past 50 years in ways which fit the ultra-right agenda.'

'He is torturing the evidence in favour of what he is trying to show,' says Piers Brendon, a biographer of both Churchill and Eisenhower. 'What he represents is the philosophy of the Thatcherite Eighties, insofar as there was such a philosophy.'

Dr Charmley is often described as a revisionist, grouping him with other youngish, Tory- minded historians intent on shaking up a historical world that has long been dominated by liberals and the left. Often, their approach is to emphasise the vital role of individuals and high politics in events, at the expense of social forces deemed all-important by others. John Adamson in Cambridge and Jonathan Clark in Oxford have been applying this approach to the 17th century.

But while there may be a common, dry-Conservative character to their work, there is no revisionist club. Dr Charmley is, in the words of one of his colleagues in Norwich, 'a man of his own construction', and in more ways than one.

He is the son of a Birkenhead docker who won a scholarship to Oxford and swapped his northern accent for a posh one and his Methodism for Anglicanism. He wears tweeds and dickie-bows and bubbles with clubland mannerisms. A fogey? 'Fogeys seem frightfully serious,' he says. 'With me the fun keeps breaking out. History is just too much fun.'

(Photograph omitted)

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