One evening in 1906, shortly after the election that brought Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberals into power, an understandably nervous Eddie Marsh, a middle-ranking civil servant in the Colonial Office, paid a social call on the Dowager Countess of Lytton. The previous day Marsh had gone through a tricky first meeting with the new number two in the department, and it had been a surprise to him on going into the office that morning to hear that he was wanted as his private secretary. ‘Desperate, Marsh begged the dowager countess for guidance,’ writes Michael Shelden in his Young Titan:
She had known Winston and Jennie for many years… She had also been acquainted with Lord Randolph. So she understood Marsh’s concerns, but she gave him some good advice while they sat and discussed his future. ‘The wfirst time you meet Winston, you see all his faults,’ she said, ‘and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.’
The dowager countess was right. ‘Pray for me,’ Marsh wrote that evening before beginning a rich, 24-year stint at Churchill’s side — and Marsh’s story is in miniature the story of Britain’s relationship with its greatest wartime leader. There were always those who saw the greatness in Churchill before there was much in the way of hard evidence for it, but if you had stopped the clock at any point in his early political career — at, say, the moment he crossed the floor of the House to join the Liberals or in the wake of the Dardanelles fiasco in 1915 — you would not have found many takers for the proposition.
There is nothing new in this picture of his long, controversial career, but at the core of Shelden’s Young Titan is the belief that it is the Churchill of these early years and not the Churchill of the Blitz and the wartime speeches who is in some way the ‘real’ Churchill. He is prepared to concede that the older man had acquired a toughness of character that served the country well, but if one is looking for political imagination and daring, for originality, energy and application then, Shelden argues, one needs to look to the Churchill who ‘died’ with the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and his humiliating dismissal from the Admiralty, and not to the ageing Titan of national mythology.
It is a difficult line to carry off — there are not many people who could get on the wrong side of both Lord Charles Beresford and Fisher, or who could outrage both duchess and Gaiety Girl, colleague and opponent, Liberal and Tory, patrician and miner, general and admiral, king and commoner in quite the way that Churchill did. But what Shelden as well as Con Coughlin, in Churchill’s First War, both vividly capture is Churchill’s absolute single-mindedness. For those who had to live and work with him, the political U-turns were the stuff of betrayal, but if you start, as Churchill did, from the premise that you are made for greatness, then regiment or party or department become simply the vehicles for a sense of destiny for which the word ambition is wholly inadequate.
Given the restless, impatient energy that Churchill brought to everything he did, it was just as inevitable that when he played the soldier he played the warrior as it was that when he turned Liberal he turned radical; but these were only means to an end. From the very start Coughlin shows that Churchill saw military fame and glory as a passport to political success, and he was as quick to abandon his messmates in the 4th Hussars to the boredom of cantonment life in southern India as he was Balfour’s Tory party when its day was done.
Was he the ‘Young Titan’, then, of Shelden’s title, or just the ‘egomaniac’ of ‘staggering conceit’ that Balfour faced across the floor of the House? A born soldier of natural courage, or the medal-hunting, ‘insufferably bumptious self-advertiser’ his fellow subalterns suspected? Visionary, or Beresford’s ‘Lilliputian Napoleon’? A man of party, or ‘a party all by himself’? His country’s saviour in waiting, or the ‘REAL DANGER’ that Jackie Fisher denounced at the Admiralty during the Great War?
Nobody could agree at the time and nobody can agree now, but either way Churchill always made sure that everything he did was great copy; and between them Shelden and Coughlin have covered all his early career with the exception of Omdurman and South Africa.
The two books neatly complement each other too. Shelden’s partisan case for the ‘Young Titan’ might be more compelling if it did not involve belittling almost everyone else in Edwardian political life — but the result is still a fast-moving and readable account of the extraordinary 15 years that took Churchill from the Tory backbenches to the Liberal Home Office and Admiralty. And if Coughlin’s sobering analysis is as much about Britain’s long, ghastly and unchanging history in Afghanistan as it is about Churchill’s brief campaign with Sir Bindon Blood, it still vividly underlines the risks that the young Churchill was prepared to take to get where he wanted in political life. ‘Financially it is ruinous,’ he wrote of the Forward Policy that had first taken Britain into Afghanistan 60 years earlier; ‘morally it is wicked, militarily it is an open question and politically it is a blunder’ — but it had more than served his own particular purpose.
‘Who’s that bloody fool on the grey?’ a colonel famously asks in the opening shots of Richard Attenborough’s Young Winston ‘Someone who wants to be noticed, I imagine,’ comes the answer. ‘He’ll be noticed,’ says the colonel. ‘He’ll get his bloody head blown off.’ Not, perhaps, the traditional route to Downing Street; but in the age of the drone — military and political — it is good to be reminded again how very lucky we are that he didn’t.