Thursday, March 14, 2019

Review of Winston’s War by Michael Dobbs (2002, HarperCollins)

1938. Winston Churchill is in the political wilderness and almost bankrupt. In his wake is a series of political disasters, he’s bet heavily on the stock exchange, and his anti-appeasement rhetoric is deeply unpopular with colleagues and the public. Churchill though has little time for the opinion of others; he can see another war looming and the actions of Chamberlain and Halifax are not going to divert that but rather leave Britain unprepared. Guy Burgess is a journalist for the BBC. He shares Churchill’s view and he wants to help the politician. Burgess has plenty of dodgy contacts, including a barber who cuts the hair of senior politicians and civil servants and is privy to private conversations, as well as access to money to alleviate Churchill’s debts. The two men meet on October 1st 1938. Eighteen months later Britain is at war, Churchill, despite the odds, has succeeded Chamberlain, and Burgess has burned bridges with the new prime minister. The rest is history.

In Winston’s War, Michael Dobbs tells the story of Winston Churchill’s rise to power, concentrating on the eighteen months between his meeting with Guy Burgess, later infamous for being unmasked as a Soviet spy, to when he takes office. Given Churchill’s marginal political position in 1938 and the fact that very few politicians in his own party, let alone the opposition, wanted him to become prime minister even at the point that he does (Halifax was the preferred option), that he gained control was a minor miracle. Or as Michael Dobbs portrays it, a fortuitous set of events and a lot of political skulduggery, aided by the actions of Hitler and Mussolini. Reading the book as the UK political system implodes with Brexit was interesting as there are many parallels – Britain’s relationship with Europe, bitter political infighting in the Tory party, the media throwing shapes. Dobbs’ story blends the historical record with fiction to tell Churchill’s tale, focusing on the underhand actions of both Churchill and Chamberlain as they vie for power, throwing in the role of Guy Burgess, who has been airbrushed from the history of the early years of the war. It’s a very readable and engaging tale, if a little over-long at 690 pages. As with similar books, I’m always a little hesitant about history as fiction, as it’s difficult to know what actually happened and what is pure fantasy, especially when just about every character was a real person. Nonetheless, an entertaining political story about a critical moments in British history.

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