Boris Johnson as the next Winston Churchill: not necessarily a complement

Boris JohnsonThe Brexit victory has brought forward its leading light in Boris Johnson. Many now expect him to become the next Tory leader with Cameron having announced his resignation. Against that it must be said that the Tory party does not always forgive the slayer of its previous leader: Michael Heseltine never became leader; though Thatcher herself did.

Boris Johnson elicits adulation amongst many of the grass roots. He is perceived despite his very posh roots as somehow a man of the people. To an extent this may have some validity and he seems able to reach out to al sorts of people from all sorts of social groups: had Remain won I had intended to characterise him as a Tiberius Gracchus figure (not a perfect analogy but maybe evidence that a bit of historical training has some use whatever certain university Vice Chancellors might say).

Rather with Brexit’s victory Boris is no doubt eyeing following his hero and is adopting something of a Churchillian air. Johnson has always cultivated his tousled hair bonhomie persona but many who have observed him have suggested this is in large measure a façade: a part of a deeply cunning, desperately ambitious and not especially pleasant individual who is a shameless opportunist.

No doubt if Johnson becomes leader and manages to pull of a successful exit and prosperous UK he will try to present himself as a visionary man of principle. In a couple of generations few will remember the self serving ambition and rank opportunism.

All of the above could make him very Churchillian but that is by no means a complement.

Winston Churchill was born into an extremely aristocratic family. He was a descendent of one of the greatest British generals John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough and was born in the house built by the First Duke – Blenheim the grandest stately home in England.

Churchill’s early life involved a relatively unsuccessful career at school followed by a moderately successful military career which he also wrote about. His real break came in the Boer War where he was a celebrated reporter. During all these episodes there was a feeling that his writing although very good was as much as anything about himself and his exploits.

As a politician before and in the early part of the First World War he was First Lord of the Admiralty (confusingly this was a political not naval appointment). There he was involved with Jackie Fisher in the production of the Queen Elizabeth Super Dreadnoughts which helped win / draw the Battle of Jutland and a generation later in the Second World War helped Britain gain control of the Mediterranean. His other decisions were, however, rather less successful and he left office (to go back to the army) after championing the disaster of Gallipoli. Prior to the war he had managed to start in the Conservative Party before defecting to the Liberals. After the First World War he continued his opportunism by returning to the Conservatives.

Back in the Tory Party he may have proposed using the army against the General Strike of 1926 (that is slightly unclear) and oversaw the disastrous return of the UK to the Gold Standard as chancellor. During this time as chancellor he also presided over reduced military spending on the grounds that war in the foreseeable future was most unlikely.

Churchill’s star waned in the 1930s (his wilderness years) and he took up writing (at which he was highly talented – he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953). Having supported reduced military spending he U turned to support increased spending in the 1930s, warning against German rearmament.

When the Second World War came he was vindicated and returned to the Admiralty before becoming Prime Minister in 1940. Even as a war time Prime Minister his successes were not as universal as they are now regarded. He repeatedly demanded his military chiefs be more aggressive and Britain’s successes tended to come after he allowed the professional military leaders to do as they, not he, chose. Nowhere is thus better illustrated than in the western desert where Claude Auchinleck halted the Germans but refused to go onto the offensive until he had adequate resources to be fairly certain of victory. Churchill sacked him and his replacement Montgomery essentially then implemented Auchinleck’s plan; refusing Churchill’s demands to attack too early.

By the end of the war Churchill’s dominance had waned and he was replaced by Clement Attlee as Prime Minister after the Labour landslide between VE and VJ days.

Churchill then wrote the first great account of the Second World War: a six volume work. After the First World war in the 1920s he had written a book about that war entitled “The World Crisis” which was variously described as: Winston has written an enormous book about himself, and called it “The World Crisis” and separately by Arthur Balfour as “Churchill’s autobiography disguised as a history of the universe.”

In all of this Churchill whatever his undoubted political talents was a showman and an opportunist who was in the right place at the right time. One could go on about Churchill’s other failings, U turns and opportunism as well as his brilliance at great length but that is for a longer piece than a blog.

That of course brings us rather neatly back to Boris Johnson: an opportunist who’s time may have come though probably not to the level of greatness Churchill achieved.

If Johnson does become Prime Minister it is to be hoped he does not achieve that greatness through a war. To quote Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List:

Oskar Schindler: In every business I tried, I can see now, it wasn’t me that failed. Something was missing. Even if I’d known what it was, there’s nothing I could have done about it because you can’t create this thing. And it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure.
Emilie Schindler: Luck?
Oskar Schindler: [Schindler kisses his wife’s hand and smiles] War.

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