Roy Jenkins: The exuberant humanity of Winston Churchill

From a lecture by the former Cabinet minister and biographer of Winston Churchill, given at the Guildhall, London
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Why did I decide to write Churchill? When it was first suggested to me, I was deeply sceptical. No, no, I said, not my subject, and already over-written about. But gradually the idea began to grow on me. After Gladstone, I suppose, in a way, I wanted another big subject. A medium-grade one would have been like trying trying to get excited about an amble up Snowdon. But only Churchill, clearly the greatest Prime Minister, the most dominating personality of the 20th century, could hold a candle to Gladstone, the greatest of the 19th century.

Once embarked on it, I never regretted my choice. As I got deeper into Churchill, I found that, presumptuously, I came to identify with him somewhat more than with Gladstone.

The outstanding feature of them both was, of course, their phenomenal energy. In Gladstone's case it was physical as well as mental. In Churchill's case it was not very physical. He played his last game of polo, the only ball game that ever remotely interested him, in 1927, when he was just over 50. He did a bit of brick-laying subsequently, but apart from that he did not much move. But he did have this phenomenal mental energy so that whenever he was not doing anything else he worked and dictated either great memoranda of government or great articles or parts of a book, with a remarkable diligence and fluency. I also found his sense of humour more sympathetic than Gladstone's.

I was also increasingly struck by Churchill's extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure, even for self-indulgence. I found that combination rather attractive. On the evening of 1 November 1940, at the very height, or depth is probably the more appropriate, of the Blitz, Churchill drove down to Chequers with his favourite private secretary, John Colville, and as they approached Chequers, he said "What I would now like to do is to go and have dinner in Monte Carlo, and then afterwards go to the casino and gamble.'' Of course it was a pure fantasy, but that was what he said on 1 November 1940.

But four years later, when he and, even more, his family, were looking forwards to a Chequers Christmas, late on the evening of 23 December1944, he immediately announced that he proposed to fly to Athens (no easy journey in those days) at midnight on Christmas Eve, and eat his Christmas dinner not in the Buckinghamshire countryside but in the air, between Naples and Athens. By so doing he probably saved Greece from falling behind the Iron Curtain.

It was partly his high sense of duty, sometimes jostling with his liking for pleasure, but when the conflict was unavoidable, almost inevitably coming down on the dutiful side. But it was also his desire always to be at the centre of events, his preference for danger over boredom. It is simply impossible to imagine Roosevelt or Stalin flying off on such a mission after midnight on Christmas Eve.

I end, as I did with the last paragraph of my book which said: "I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being who ever occupied 10 Downing Street.''

No, this does not mean that I have cast aside the grand old man, Gladstone, of the Victorian age. It is a narrow contest, one half ahead, perhaps, of the other. And anyway it is, in a sense, like saying, 'Was Verdi or Mozart the greatest opera composer? Was Rembrandt or Vermeer the greatest painter?' We are rather lucky to have all four of them. We were lucky to have two – Gladstone and Churchill – with Churchill, I think, just ahead.

Taken as examples of exuberant humanity, with many sides, they were unique among the 40 prime ministers in this country. I doubt whether we shall see their like again.