Eminent Churchillians is a 1994 revisionist history from English conservative author and historian, Andrew Roberts. The book is about the friends and enemies of Winston Churchill, focusing heavily on Churchill’s time as British Prime Minister in the beginning stages of World War II. These are a collection of essays about leaders and private people in the United Kingdom in the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond. In particular, I want to focus on two of the essays.
Lord Mountbatten and the Perils of Adrenaline
The first essay I wanted to discuss was “Lord Mountbatten and the Perils of Adrenaline”, an 81-page essay in which Andrew Roberts deconstructs the myth of Lord Louis Mountbatten. Louis Mountbatten was a member of the royal family who served as naval captain in the British Royal Navy, First Sea Lord, and Chief of the Defense Staff. Perhaps most famously, Lord Mountbatten was the last British viceroy of India. He presided over the ending of the Raj and the partition of Colonial India between the modern-day states of India and Pakistan (which in turn became Pakistan and Bangladesh). It should be noted that Lord Mountbatten was a noted liberal in his outlook, so part of Andrew Roberts’ purpose might be to poke holes in a liberal figure.
The essay begins with a discussion of Lord Mountbatten’s naval career, which (according to Roberts) involved several incidents involving recklessness–that is, running his ships faster than mandated by the Royal Navy–which caused deaths of crewmen. Despite this, Lord Mountbatten used his connections to move up the hierarchy, to the point he was a respected naval officer at the outbreak of World War II. How respected is somewhat in question. The upshot of Andrew Roberts’ argument is that Mountbatten was unqualified for the post of Indian viceroy. This led to decisions where he favored the Hindus over the Muslim residents of the Indian sub-continent. This led to a situation where the Indians wanted to retain the whole territorial expanse of the British Raj, but the Islamic peoples wanted their own state. When Lord Mountbatten got to India, he almost immediately announced a date (18 months later) when the British would leave India.
Andrew Roberts (and historical sources) argue that this announcement undercut British authority, because both sides knew they could wait out the British. It also created a scramble for power. Those holding power were willing to resort to mass murder to keep it, while those outside of power would stop at nothing to seize control of their region, thus exacerbating the situation. This led to the tragic events of August 1947, when hundreds of thousands of people on both sides were murdered. Because of Mountbatten’s recklessness, a partition became inevitable and bloodshed which could have been prevented wasn’t.
The essay goes on to cover the next 25-30 years as an attempt by Mountbatten to justify his actions, slander those who would tell the story another way, and rewrite history. To Andrew Roberts, even Lord Mountbatten’s death in a bombing by the IRA while on vacation in Ireland was his own fault. Apparently, Lord Mountbatten was warned not to take his annual vacation in Ireland, especially after having published his itinerary and location. As always, he was mindless of the advice and thus was bound to be murdered–along with the murder and maiming of several family members also on the boat.
It’s a harsh estimation of Lord Mountbatten’s career. I’m not sure that it’s entirely accurate, but it makes me want to read more on the subject. This book also convinced me to read more about the dual history of India and Pakistan, which I’ll write more about in the future.
The Tories versus Winston Churchill
In this 72-page essay on the first months of Winston Churchill’s first reign as prime minister, Andrew Roberts turns his pen against his own party: specifically the Tories who followed Neville Chamberlain. This account is better sourced, since it makes great use of the personal diaries and journals of prominent Tories of the 1940s (and their wives). This is an excellent essay, if you want an account of how the British establishment viewed Churchill when he took power in May 1940.
Andrew Roberts does a fine job of correcting the image that Churchill had the unqualified support of the British people during this period. In fact, Churchill’s position was precarious. Neville Chamberlain remained the leader of the conservative majority, which owned two-thirds of the seats. These Tories viewed Churchill as a genius, but also a wild man. They were convinced his judgment was unsound and were certain his adventures would get England in more trouble than it already was. These people also tended to believe Churchill’s time as premier would be short, when the MPs who put him there realized their mistake.
It’s worth noting that Winston Churchill himself makes reference to the fact that in his early weeks as prime minister, the Tories sat on their hands and the only ones enthusiastic about his appearances in Parliament were the Labour and Liberal MPs, though they were supposedly Churchill’s opposition. It should be mentioned that Churchill had formed a “National Government”, meaning Labour members like Clement Atlee served in the government. Also, Churchill had been a member of the Liberal party from the early 1900s to the 1920s. He had “ratted” to become a Liberal, then “re-ratted” to become a Conservative once more. No wonder the Tories didn’t trust the man, though their main complaints were his disastrous decisions in World War I (see Galipoli), his seemingly bellicose calls for rearmament in the run-up to WWII, and his criticism of the Chamberlain government over things like the Munich Agreement and the Polish guarantee.
Anyway, I found this illuminating, though I had been exposed to these attitudes before in John Lucaks Five Days in London, May 1940–which also contains chapters where you see what private citizens of the United Kingdom thought of Churchill’s ascension and the horrible news from the Battle of France, which was raging as Churchill gained the PM position.
Review of Eminent Churchillians
I found this to be a thought-provoking book, though it was enough of a polemic that I would urge anyone reading to take it less as gospel than as one piece of a larger puzzle. I’m not British and I’m not a conservative, so it’s hard to understand some of Andrew Roberts’ vitriol against Lord Mountbatten. The British were determined to get out of India at “no later than 1948”, because they were out of money. I’m certain better viceroys could have been found, the same problem would have remained: everyone knew England was getting out, and getting out soon. The British Empire was bankrupt, so they no longer had the power or the will to knock heads together in India. Maybe solutions could have been found had the British had one more year to work with and a better, more even-handed viceroy. Given the bloody nature of Indian-Pakistani politics since, I can’t assign all the blame to Lord Mountbatten.
As for the Tories in England in 1940, I view it as a study in how people can be entirely convinced, and entirely wrong. Long after it should have been obvious that Neville Chamberlain’s policies were a disaster for Britain, these people continued to believe he was the right man for the job and would be the eventual savior of the British people. Their assumptions remind me of many of the assumptions of America in the early 21st century, but that’s as close as I’ll get to that subject. My advice: read Eminent Churchillians by Andrew Roberts and compare those times to our own.