Mr. Churchill

Isaiah Berlin defends Churchill against the charge that his writings are windy and self-aggrandizing

This kind of systematic "historicism" is, of course, not confined to men of action or political thinkers: the great Roman Catholic thinkers see life in terms of a firm and lucid historical structure, and so, of course, do Marxists, and so did the Romantic historians and philosophers from whom the Marxists are directly descended. Nor do we complain of "escapism" or perversion of the facts until the categories adopted are thought to do too much violence to the "facts." To interpret, to relate, to classify, to symbolize are those natural and unavoidable human activities which we loosely and conveniently describe as thinking. We complain, if we do, only when the result is too widely at variance with the common outlook of our own society and age and tradition.

Mr. Churchill sees history—and life—as a great Renaissance pageant: when he thinks of France or Italy, Germany or the Low Countries, Russia, India, Africa, the Arab lands, he sees vivid historical images— something between Victorian illustrations in a book of history and the great procession painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Riccardi Palace. His eye is never that of the neatly classifying sociologist, the careful psychological analyst, the plodding antiquary, the patient historical scholar. His poetry has not that anatomical vision which sees the naked bone beneath the flesh, skulls and skeletons and the omnipresence of decay and death beneath the flow of life. The units out of which his world is constructed are simpler and larger than life, the patterns vivid and repetitive like those of an epic poet, or at times like those of a dramatist who sees persons and situations as timeless symbols and embodiments of eternal, shining principles. The whole is a series of symmetrically formed and somewhat stylized compositions, either suffused with bright light or cast in darkest shadow, like a legend by Carpaccio, with scarcely any nuance, painted in primary colors with no half tones, nothing intangible, nothing impalpable, nothing half spoken or hinted or whispered: the voice does not alter in pitch or timbre.

The archaisms of style to which Mr. Churchill's wartime speeches have accustomed us are indispensable ingredients of the heightened tone the formal chronicler's attire, for which the solemnity of the occasion calls. Mr. Churchill is fully conscious of this: the style should adequately respond to the demands which history makes upon the actors from moment to moment. "The ideas set forth," he wrote in 1940 about a Foreign Office draft, "appeared to me to err in trying to be too clever, to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake."

His own narrative consciously mounts and swells until it reaches the great climax of the Battle of Britain. The texture and the tension are those of a tragic opera, where the very artificiality of the medium, both in the recitative and in the arias, serves to eliminate the irrelevant dead level of normal existence and to set off in high relief the deeds and sufferings of the principal characters. The moments of comedy in such a work must necessarily conform to the style of the whole and be parodies of it; and this is Mr. Churchill's practice. When he says that he viewed this or that "with stern and tranquil gaze," or informs his officials that any "chortling by them over the failure of a chosen scheme" will be viewed with great disfavour by me," or describes the "celestial grins" of his collaborators over the development of a well-concealed conspiracy, he does precisely this; the mock heroic tone—reminiscent of Stalky & Co.—does not break the operatic conventions. But conventions though they be, they are not donned and doffed by the author at will: by now they are his second nature, and have completely fused with the first; art and nature are no longer distinguishable. The very formal pattern of his prose is the normal medium of his ideas, not merely when he sets himself to compose, but in the life of the imagination which permeates his daily existence.

Mr. Churchill's language is a medium which he invented because he needed it. It has a bold, ponderous, fairly uniform, easily recognizable rhythm which lends itself to parody (including his own) like all strongly individual styles. A language is individual when its user is endowed with sharply marked characteristics and succeeds in creating, a medium for their expression. The origins, the constituents, the classical echoes which can be found in Mr. Churchill's prose are obvious enough; the product is, however, unique. Whatever the attitude that may be taken towards it, it must be recognized as a large-scale phenomenon of our time. To ignore or deny this would be blind or frivolous or dishonest. The utterance is always, and not merely on special occasions, formal (though it alters in intensity and color with the situation), always public, Ciceronian, addressed to the world, remote from the hesitancies and stresses of introspection and private life.


The quality of Mr. Churchill's latest work is that of his whole life. His world is built upon the primacy of public over private relationships, upon the supreme value of action, of the battle between simple good and simple evil, between life and death; but above all, battle. He has always fought. "Whatever you may do he declared to the demoralized French ministers in the bleakest hour of 1940, "we shall fight on for ever and ever and ever," and under this sign his own whole life has been lived.

What has he fought for? The answer is a good deal clearer than in the case of other equally passionate but less consistent men of action. Mr. Churchill's principles and beliefs on fundamental issues have never faltered. He has often been accused by his critics of inconstancy, of veering and even erratic judgment, as when he changed his allegiance from the Conservative to the Liberal Party, to and fro. But with the exception of the issue of protection, when he supported the tariff as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Mr. Baldwin's cabinet in the twenties, this charge, which at first seems so plausible, is spectacularly false. Far from changing his opinions too often, Mr. Churchill has scarcely, during a long and stormy career, altered them at all. If anyone wishes to discover his views on the large and lasting issues of our time, he need only set himself to discover what Mr. Churchill has said or written on the subject at any period of his long and exceptionally articulate public life, in particular during the years before the First World War: the number of instances in which his views have in later years undergone any appreciable degree of change will be found astonishingly small.

The apparently solid and dependable Mr. Baldwin adjusted his attitudes with wonderful dexterity as and when circumstances required it. Mr. Chamberlain, long regarded as a grim and immovable rock of Tory opinion, altered his policies—more serious than Mr. Baldwin, he pursued policies, not being content with mere attitudes—when the party or the situation seemed to him to require it. Mr. Churchill remained inflexibly attached to first principles.

It is the strength and coherence of his central, lifelong beliefs that has provoked greater uneasiness, more disfavor and suspicion, in the central office of the Conservative Party than his vehemence or passion for power or what was considered his wayward, unreliable brilliance. No strongly centralized political organization feels altogether happy with individuals who combine independence, a free imagination, and a formidable strength of character with stubborn faith and a single-minded, unaltering view of the public and private good. Mr. Churchill, who believes that "ambition, not so much for vulgar ends but for fame, glints in every mind," knows with an unshakable certainty what he considers to be big, handsome, noble, and worthy of pursuit by someone in high station, and what, on the contrary, he abhors as being dim, gray, thin, likely to lower or destroy the play of color and movement in the universe. Tacking and bending and timid compromise—may commend themselves to those sound men of sense whose hopes of preserving the world they defend are shot through with an often unconscious pessimism; but if the policy they pursue is likely to slow the tempo, to diminish the forces of life, to lower the "vital and vibrant energy" which he admires, say, in Lord Beaverbrook, Mr. Churchill is ready for attack.

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