BOOK REVIEW / Mediocrity and the moral misuse of power: Eminent Churchillians - Andrew Roberts: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
ANDREW Roberts is one of the ablest and, despite not having to cope with the bumbling bureaucracy that besets academic historians, the most professional of the younger historians now at work on the history of this century. His study of Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain's Foreign Secretary, was fair-minded, excellently researched, and did justice to a man who has often figured in the demonological school of British historiography.

His latest work is equally well researched and written with the clarity which is his forte. It is, however, a different kind of book. It discusses the causes of the discontent of many of his generation with the legacy of their forebears. Comparisons with Lytton Strachey, that prince of debunkers, are out of place. Roberts does not dismantle revered figures by pointing maliciously at their personal failings (Clough wrapping interminable brown paper parcels for Florence Nightingale, for example). He writes from a sense of moral outrage.

His subjects are the House of Windsor in the era of appeasement; the Tories who sniped and sneered at Churchill throughout his annus mirabilis, 1940-41, only to embed him in their pantheon once he was established as the victorious leader; Lord Louis Mountbatten's contribution to the million dead who marked the partition and handover of power in India, and his efforts to fix the historical record thereafter; Sir Walter Monckton's misguided appeasement of the unions; the Churchill government's failure to grasp the nettle of controlled immigration from the Commonwealth in the Fifties.

Roberts's theme is the moral misuse of power. The code of ethics which he applies is never completely stated; but it appears to stem from three sources. The first is the idealised code of the British Indian and colonial service officer (one, it should be said, which is gravely undervalued today).

The second, which in part follows from it, is the priority to be given to not enforcing cultural change on the governed on the sort of scale that the unrestricted immigration from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent in the Fifties involved. The third is the duty of government to 'hold the ring' among various economic, social and industrial contenders, doing nothing to discourage their competition, only to ensure that it is fair.

Underlying these are the twin concepts of honour and integrity. By Roberts's standards, Halifax, even where he can be criticised, observed these standards. Mountbatten and Monckton did not. Nor did the Conservative carpers and snipers, the Chamberlainites, whose niggling mediocrity did their idol such disservice, and contrasted so badly with the loyalty he gave to the man who had replaced him.

They were, however, characteristic of Conservative milieux in the Chamberlain era. They had rejected the Tory / Fabian ideal of national efficiency, of not tolerating the waste of Britain's greatest resource, the energy and patriotism poured out by so many in two world wars. They lived happily with restricted competition, tenders secured on the old-boy network, a them-and-us attitude to their fellow countrymen, with a rhinocerine complacency and a maximum 40 per cent commitment to their callings.

Roberts's targets were, alas, a product of, as well as an example to, the rest of British society at the time. Perhaps he could one day turn his knowledge and industry on to those men and women who listened to, supported and enabled the fossoyeurs he here pillories so effectively.