Tariq Ali’s new account of Winston Churchill’s life is, by the author’s own admission, a somewhat unusual book. Neither a biography, nor a history, it is instead pitched as polemical interjection into contemporary debates around the life and legacy of Winston Churchill. Ali explicitly adopts this by discussing at length the state of contemporary scholarship, and more importantly, political debate. The opening chapter for example explicitly invokes the Extinction Rebellion protests, Black Lives Matter, and other movements beside.
Structurally, the book follows the rough arc of Churchill’s career, with a particular focus on his interaction with the British Empire. The content is not however strictly biographical, and interwoven with the chapters covering Churchill’s life are all sorts of digressions. These range from the helpful, such as an analysis of British colonialism in the 1920s, to the excessive. In particular Ali at one stage introduces a potted history of the entire Zionist movement, which while a succinct retelling of the material, does not improve our understanding of the narrative.
Stylistically, the book is aggressively polemical, and Ali openly criticises and attacks other writers. In particular he positions Roy Jenkins and Andrew Roberts as foils, while drawing heavily on Clive Ponting’s revisionist biography of Churchill. Indeed, the book is quite open about its sources, for example E.P. Thompson is regularly quoted approvingly.
Despite the digressions and focus on other history, Ali is also successful in establishing a massive charge sheet against Churchill directly. The book uses the biography as a backbone to build its case, slowly introducing contextual material.
The earliest material is some of the most damning, and deals well with British colonialism in the context of Churchill’s early career. In particular the book effectively contrasts Churchill’s often ebullient letters and reportage as a journalist with the grim realities of the colonial wars he is reporting from. Ali also explores some of the domestic parts of Churchill’s early career, in particular providing detailed recountings of both the Tonypandy Riots and the Sidney Street Siege.
The earliest part of the book is the section most directly focused on Churchill’s career, and seeks to develop the arguments which characterise the rest of the book; that Churchill was an enthusiast for the worst aspects of colonialism, and a reactionary agent of capital.
As the book moves on to deal with the First World War, it becomes significantly less focused. For example Ali discusses at great length, arguably extraneously, the burgeoning power of the workers movement, Lenin’s political views, and the career of Rosa Luxemburg. This part of the book is much weaker in its handling of Churchill. While significant page space is dedicated to the Gallipoli campaign, the military history is somewhat confusing, and overly reliant on secondary sources. In particular, the text leans heavily on Roy Jenkins to assert military historians consider the campaign a disaster, without properly describing it.
During the interwar section, Ali is generally at his most confident when highlighting the lesser known aspects of Churchill’s career, particularly honing in on his unfortunate support for Mussolini and Franco as bulwarks against Communism. The material covered here is generally less well known, for example Churchill’s disastrous reversion to the gold standard. There is also a fascinating account of his role in the carving up of the Middle East, and his relationship with Lord Curzon.
The book also includes two chapters which highlight Churchill’s specific interactions with Ireland and India, of which the chapter on India is the most interesting. The India chapter is a panoramic survey of Churchill’s odd relationship with the country, as well as his complicity in the Bengal Famine. However the survey of Ireland is rather less interesting. It tells us little about Churchill, and is instead mostly an idiosyncratic and ultra-compressed political history of the IRA and Irish Republicanism.
The last part of the book, covering World War II and the aftermath is the most consistently frustrating section of the book. At its best the book draws very well on extremely up to date scholarship about post-war British colonialism. For example, the coverage of both Kenya, and the 1953 coup in Iran is particularly strong, and succinctly covers recently published research.
Unfortunately the digressiveness of this part of the book becomes particularly frustrating, and the narrative lacks cohesiveness, instead covering a curious hotchpotch of subjects in a highly opinionated style. For example, Ali begins a military history of the war in Europe, but ends abruptly with Stalingrad, and there is no discussion of the later stages of the war, such as the Battle of Normandy. The book does however find time to fit in two and a half pages of material on the German Communist Party.
While various controversies in Churchill’s war are covered, the fashion is almost arbitrary. For example the area bombing campaign mounted against Germany is covered in a single paragraph and the assertion, “The punishment of civilians far outstripped the German bombing of British cities.” Given the volume of scholarship on this subject it is quite frustrating that Ali did not chose to draw on any of it.
The book’s conclusion is by far the weakest part, consisting of an extended analysis of the modern political scene that seems only vaguely attached to the book as a whole at times. Here the lack of any consistent footnotes becomes a serious problem. For example when discussing modern China, it seems difficult to square Ali’s claim that:
There is also a US-EU operation being prepared, intending to use the Uyghurs as pawns in further internal destabilisation. There are, reportedly, several thousand Uyghurs in Turkey being trained in live wars (such as in Syria).
This is an extremely bold claim, and one that would be much easier to accept if a source was actually provided. If not, then Ali is fundamentally just giving cover to crimes against humanity.
Ultimately what Ali has assembled is a disjointed, if frequently damning, history of Churchill. Individual sections are highly polished and even effective, and benefit from Ali’s gifts for crafting smooth, polemical narratives. However, all too often the book is far too digressive, and there is a sense that the author is often writing mostly about things that interest him. Ultimately there is an extent to which the book is most of all a missed opportunity. What could have been a strong case against the commemoration of Churchill becomes instead an eccentric and meandering history, that is ultimately too confusing and poorly edited to follow.