The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

the-churchill-factorCredit to BoJo- this is a very engrossing book. I’d say it’s probably a better book to read if you have some foreknowledge of modern European history- otherwise blanket statements- some of which I agreed with and others I did not- may seem contentious. However, if you know even a little, it will not take you aback when he skims over, say, the origins of the First World War.

One interesting thing about this book that you will not get in a lot of biographies is that it delves in a little counterfactual history and asks the question what would the world have been like without Churchill? And let’s be honest the picture he paints is not pretty and conclusion he reaches is pretty dark: “With their superstitious habit of imputing justice and rightness to the course of history, human beings would have absorbed a dismal lesson: that the gods had smiled on the tyrannies, and that tyranny was therefore what our incompetent species required”. Now having seen such justifications for tyranny in modern regimes, I would contend Johnson’s vision of a fascist Europe is accurate. It’s not hard to imagine what Nazis would have done in peace given what they were able to do in war. That’s why the story of Winston Churchill is so important. It is the story of how one man can remake history.

churchillEvidently, this post could easily become more devoted to Churchill than the book. And I am prepared to admit that my admiration for the man knows no bounds. As Johnson said, “He had the gift of language to put heart into people and to breathe some of his courage into others”. His words resonate with us still. Yet while this is mostly a positive view of the man, there were some hard things to read- namely about Bolsheviks being compared to monkeys. Such an injustice to monkeys! But no- in all seriousness, Johnson doesn’t gloss over the attack on Mers-el-Kébir and Churchill’s uglier role in the war. This book in no way tries to hide from Churchill’s complexities as a human being. He was the man that was capable of making the difficult decisions to win the war- and yet he was the man who cried when everyone else saw it as a victory.

This journey through history gets to the complexities of the man. It humanises him, talking of his difficult relationship with his father and loving partnership with his wife. More than that- the duality that is within all of us is brought to light. One can see this in the two sides of Churchill’s character- his bombastic pride and his insecurity that he would never live up to his family’s name. More than that, Johnson shows the contrast between the Churchill who argued against war in 1914, and the Churchill who knew they had to fight in 1939. Too often Churchill is painted as a warmonger by people who would rather praise the appeasers- and yet clearly he was not a man who hungered for war, he was a man who had seen too much of it. No one could argue with this knowledge that Churchill relished these decisions- but none could argue that he made the wrong choice.

boris-johnson1What’s most interesting about this book is how revealing it is of Boris Johnson. This is not just biographical, but also autobiographical. Johnson is a politician and like any politician he spends an awful lot of time defending and condemning Churchill, in equal measure, to our modern sensibilities (not often the practice of historians)- it is this obsequiousness that makes me think BoJo does not have what it takes to be a great statesman. He admires the man but constantly feels the need to justify it. Even in this he is playing the political game. It is most revealing then how he describes Churchill of being constantly aware of how he might be perceived- for this is Johnson’s method in politics.

Overall, I’d say this is a great biography of Churchill and easy to read if biographies, or even history, aren’t your usual cup of tea.

Rating: 5/5 bananas


So will you be giving this a go? Let me know in the comments!

25 thoughts on “The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

  1. I must check this out. I collect books on Churchill… and Churchill’s own. He was such a great man. The fact that it’s possible to write books on his cigars or on his dining habits (both of which I have and thoroughly enjoyed) underscores his dimensionality.

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    1. Ah that’s amazing!! haha very true- Johnson did mention that at one point- for that alone Churchill was an incredible man!! Agree he’s such an impossibly complex man- but I bet you know a lot more about it than I do- can you recommend me your favourites? I’m dying to read more

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      1. My faves are: Stephen McGinty ‘Churchill’s Cigar’ (McMillan, 2007) – a short and rather entertaining account of his smoking adventures; Cita Stelzer ‘Dinner with Churchill: policy-making at the dinner table’ (Short Books, 2012) – a heavier-weight account of his dining habits and how he used dinners to smooth ruffled feathers with Stalin and Roosevelt; and David Reynolds, ‘The Command of History’ (Penguin, 2005). This last is an atomic-powered academic tome about how Churchill ensured history would be kind to him, because he would write that history…and he did. It’s a thoroughly brilliant expose of how historians can manipulate perception by skilful writing – in this case, his six-volume ‘History of the Second World War’. Brilliant, brilliant stuff, if a bit abstruse to the extent that you need a bit of an understanding of historiographical technique to really get the full depth of what Churchill was doing (and he knew VERY WELL what he was doing, the sly old cigar-smoking, Pol Roger swilling, fine-dining sot that he was…) 🙂 I think he was actually the greatest Englishman that ever lived – complex, multi-faceted, far from perfect… and the right man to save Britain when the crunch came. Arthur was supposed to come back in Britain’s darkest hour: they got Churchill.

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        1. Wow thank you so much for all of these recommendations- I’m definitely going to try and read all of these (though it may/will definitely take me a few years to get through them).Haha I bet he did- there’s a part in this book where it goes into how Churchill was aware all the time of how he was being perceived (doubly intriguing because it gives some insight into how Johnson is always aware of how to use PR spin so he can be perceived positively by the media)- it makes logical sense that Churchill would do the same for recording how he would be remembered in the future. I one hundred percent agree with you there- wonderfully put!! Absolutely perfect way to say it!!!

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  2. Churchill was a wonderful example of someone who, while certainly being human, was able to rise above the petty desire for personal power and see the need for what had to be achieved for the whole world – and, yes, this is no easy feat. I remember shortly before we left England Boris Johnson had just been elected Mayor, and to say I was shocked was an understatement. I totally agree with your view that Johnson is a decent Mayor, but doesn’t have what it takes to be the type of statesman that Churchill was. Not by a long shot. 😛 BoJo has done a pretty good job as Mayor, but I also don’t think in 100 years anyone will remember his name – unlike our dear Sir Winston.

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    1. One hundred percent agree with you there. He was an incredible figure in history and a great example to us all. Yes- it was a little surprising given how London tends to lean more to the left, but given who he was up against (the increasingly unpopular Livingstone) and his own ability to unite people from across the political landscape, it makes sense. Yeah he was a decent mayor and he’s a good politician- but for all his posturing he’s not upto Churchill’s standard- and given his virtue signalling in this book (the only downside) I’d say he never will be. Churchill was, above all, a moral person who did and said what he thought was right- Johnson’s virtue signalling is the sign of a weak moral compass. Agree!

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  3. This is a very good article, a very good read. I am going to reblog this article for you so that others may get a chance to read it also. Hopefully this will lead to getting you a few more followers also. I hope you have a great week.

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  4. Great review! This sounds like an interesting read. I confess to not knowing a lot about Churchill, but he’s always interested me and I’d love to learn more about him. I’ve added this to my TBR, although it will probably take me quite awhile before I read it 🙂

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  5. I love memoirs, but I struggle with biographies for some reason. I wonder if this one would intrigue me more if only due to the speculative aspect of it? I find that often authors of biographies give us a very detached view into their subject. But, BoJo sounds like he has an almost personal connection with Churchhill. Which, well, makes sense, as he is a British politician!

    I’ll definitely be recommending this to my little brother, the WWII History PhD candidate. 😉

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    1. Yeah it was very interesting with it being written by a current politician- and well worth a read just for that reason. It was also really well written and I did like the speculative element to it! Ah awesome- hope he likes it 😉 Very impressive that he’s a PHD candidate!

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