Churchill’s Best Man: A Review of Geoffrey Best’s Churchill Biography

Here is another review that I wrote of Best’s biography.

Bias is everywhere.  A cursory glance at modern day pundit television proves as much.  The goal is not to avoid bias, but to overcome it.  By 2001, a considerable number of modern writings biased against Churchill were in publication.  Geoffrey Best decided to compile a Churchill biography that would set the record straight.  Best begins with Churchill’s childhood, proceeds to chronicle Churchill’s early political career in various upper Offices through World War I, and details the interwar years before spending the majority of his book on Churchill’s “Finest Hour”: World War II.  Best concludes with a tasteful description of Churchill’s final years and his posthumous global impact.  While Best does not go so far as to ignore the blemishes on Churchill’s record, it is through his defense of these faults that the reader can see: Best’s bias towards Churchill prevents him from writing a balanced assessment.

There are those who argue that Best was in fact neutral.  Best truly embraces Churchill’s failings frequently in A Study in Greatness.  Best openly asks, “was Churchill right or wrong,”[1] when he sent the message to Admiral Somerville that resulted in the death of “fifteen hundred French sailors” [2]?  First, Best writes that “there is no generally agreed conclusion,”[3] and then he himself ultimately stays neutral and never takes a side.  Best also details Churchill’s politically crippling defeat during the Dardanelles expedition.  Best describes at great length the difficulties presented by Admiral Fisher in this incident, but for this blames Churchill: “Fisher was only involved because Churchill had put him there.”[4]  Best also, at times, criticizes Churchill flat out and provides extra negative details: “Churchill actually revealed a certain prejudice regarding ordinary Australians, remarking after the parting of the ways in 1942 that they came of ‘bad stock’.”[5]

But that Best was clearly biased comes through in the chapter entitled “Empire and India.”  For five years, Churchill vigorously campaigned against Indian Independence and even against Mahatma Gandhi.  Best opens by suggesting that the views of Churchill’s contemporary opponents had little credence: “I suppose [they] had reason on their side.”[6]  He proceeds to rigorously defend Churchill’s “paternalist concern for the welfare of [Indians].”[7]  But even Best cannot hide the truth.  This paternalism coupled with sentiments of Britain’s superiority exposes Churchill’s racism.[8]  Best does well to mention so, but futilely tries to argue that to Churchill, “good governance and Empire always mattered a great deal more.”[9]  These speculations indicate Best’s bias.  Would Churchill really not have objected to being operated on by an Indian surgeon?[10]  After all, Churchill was concerned that poor Indians could not properly maintain public health without help from the superior British.[11]  In these conjectures, Best goes too far.  Churchill’s racism is clear, and Best would do better to acknowledge it as such and move on.

In the epilogue, Best openly asserts that Churchill’s “virtues and victories,”[12] must be appreciated over his “failings and failures,”[13]  This is precisely the type of assessment best left to history (and for that matter the reader).  It is not Best’s fault for having an opinion of Churchill; it is his fault for letting it sway his work.  Sure, the material is all there: Best very diligently records Churchill’s life every step of the way, discussing both the high and low points.  But the low points, epitomized by Churchill’s stance on India, are much too quickly brushed over in comparison with the lengths spent on the high points.  Best was clearly afraid of offending the memory of a man he idolizes, and in the process failed to do his biography justice.  Churchill, a man who at times brashly stated his mind, certainly preferred truth to opinion any day.

[1] Geoffrey Best, Churchill: A Study in Greatness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 246.

[2] Ibid., 246.

[3] Ibid., 246.

[4]Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 107. [underline and italics added for emphasis]

[6] Ibid., 136.

[7] Ibid., 137.

[8] Ibid., 138-139.

[9] Best, Greatness., 139.

[10] Ibid., 138.

[11] Ibid., 137.

[12]Ibid., 336.

[13]Ibid., 336.