Boris: What Churchill Would Do, Part 13,783

by Richard M. Langworth on 25 October 2014

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Mayor John­son

Lon­don Mayor Boris John­son has dis­obeyed the Lady Soames Com­mand­ment: “Thou shall not say what my father would do today.” The fleas of a thou­sand camels may infest his pyjamas.

Dur­ing a Daily Tele­graph read­ers Q&A to launch Johnson’s new book, The Churchill Fac­tor, Tele­graph Head of Books Gaby Wood asked the Mayor what “we could take from Churchill today” and whether [Islam­o­fas­cism] was an equiv­a­lent threat to the Nazis.

Although John­son said he did not know whether Churchill would get involved in Iraq, he added: “I think he would have been in favour of air power. I think air strikes but not boots on the ground is my hunch on where he would have been because he wasn’t obsessed with for­eign entanglements.”

Well, he was obsessed enough to demand for­eign entan­gle­ments (France, Rus­sia, USA) when his coun­try was in dan­ger in the 1930s. But Mr. Johnson’s the­ory does have some basis in ear­lier his­tory. Dur­ing the 1920s Churchill favored air power not troops to quell rebel­lious tribes­men in Iraq. Of course, air power and “boots on the ground” were rather more prim­i­tive oper­a­tions ninety years ago, and the sit­u­a­tion is not at all congruent—which is why Mary Soames always empha­sized her Commandment.

If you want to con­sider what Churchill thought then, you are cor­dially invited to do so. Whether it has any appli­ca­tion now you’ll have to decide for yourself:

There is some­thing very sin­is­ter to my mind in this Mesopotamian entanglement….[We seem] com­pelled to go on pour­ing armies and trea­sure into these thank­less deserts….Week after week and month after month for a long time to come we shall have a con­tin­u­ance of this mis­er­able, waste­ful, spo­radic war­fare, marked from time to time cer­tainly by minor dis­as­ters and cut­tings off of troops and agents, and very pos­si­bly attended by some very grave occur­rence. (Unsent let­ter to Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George, 31 August 1920.)

We are pay­ing eight mil­lions a year [£200 mil­lion today] for the priv­i­lege of liv­ing on an ungrate­ful vol­cano out of which we are in no cir­cum­stances to get any­thing worth hav­ing. (Ditto, 1 Sep­tem­ber 1922.)

If you want a bit of gen­eral Mid­dle East phi­los­o­phy that might be worth con­sid­er­ing, I rec­om­mend my per­sonal favorite, to his Pri­vate Sec­re­tary in 1958:

The Mid­dle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has estab­lished firm influ­ence and shown that it would main­tain its will. Your friends must be sup­ported with every vigour and if nec­es­sary they must be avenged. Force, or per­haps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all bet­ter recog­nise it. At present our friend­ship is not val­ued, and our enmity is not feared. (Long Sun­set, by Anthony Mon­tague Browne, 166-67.)

Col­or­ful politi­cians are rare prizes and Mr. John­son is cer­tainly one. But pub­lish­ing a book on Churchill doesn’t con­vey the right to judge what he would do about things today. The answer his late daugh­ter always gave when peo­ple said that was: “How do you know?”

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