“Harold Begbie” is excerpted from an article for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. To view the original, click here. To SUBSCRIBE for fresh articles weekly from the Churchill Project, reaching 60,000 readers worldwide: Click here, scroll to bottom, enter your email address in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is never given out and will remain a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
“The hand of destiny”
The Hillsdale College Churchill Project’s updated bibliography of works about Churchill has produced gratifying interest in early biographies. Parker H. Lee wrote us about the very first, Winston Spencer Churchill by Alexander Maccallum Scott, in 1905. Scott produced an expanded edition in 1916 and a modern reprint is available. “The remarkable thing about the book,” Mr. Lee writes, “is that Churchill’s political future was predictable to MacCallum and others around that time.” One those others was Harold Begbie—of whom more anon.
“It’s easy enough to see things like that today,” Mr. Lee observes—“but in 1905?” When Maccallum Scott updated his book in 1916, Churchill looked like a busted flush. He’d gone to fight on the Western Front after six idle months with no voice in the war, having been cashiered from the Admiralty over the Dardanelles disasster.
In 1988, Sir Alistair Cooke spoke about his perception as a young man of Churchill in those years. Cooke turned 21 in 1929, just as Churchill began another period as a rejected politician. “Of course his own account of his going ‘into the wilderness’ is dramatic,” Sir Alistair said. “Churchill is nothing if not a dramatic writer. But the political Churchill was not dramatic. If anybody asked us then, ‘Where’s Winston Churchill?,’ we would say: ‘In the House of Commons, but not doing very much, because he’s had his day.’”
Begbie: “Gentleman with a Duster”
Standing athwart the general perception was Harold Begbie’s The Mirrors of Downing Street in 1921. Its byline then was “Gentleman with a Duster.” Few people knew the author’s real name. Alistair Cooke described Begbie as “the man who did God for the Westminster Gazette…. His character sketches had an intensity and eloquence of a kind I don’t think we see today. He wrote this, astoundingly for the time—yet it could also have been written ten years later”…
Begbie called Churchill “perhaps the most interesting figure in the present House of Commons. There still clings to his career an element of promise and also of unlimited uncertainty.”
Churchill was then 47. Begbie was hedging his bets a little, because when he wrote that, Churchill had somewhat rehabilitated himself. Since 1917 he had held four offices of State in the Lloyd George government. He was then redrawing the map of the Middle East and negotiating the Irish Treaty. But few beside Begbie would believe this man might one day be prime minister.
“He would eat out his heart in Paradise”
Let us look a little more deeply into what Harold Begbie saw:
From his youth up, Mr. Churchill has loved with all his heart, his soul, his mind and strength three things: war, politics and himself. He loved war for its dangers, he loves politics for the same reason, and himself he has always loved for the knowledge that his mind is dangerous. Dangerous to his enemies, to his friends, to himself. I can think of no other man who would so quickly and so bitterly eat out his heart in Paradise.
Alistair Cooke said of the late Duke of Windsor, “he was at his best only when the going was good.” Churchill was at his best when the going was terrible. He was not, as William Buckley once said, “a peacetime catastrophe.” But in peacetime, Begbie wrote, Churchill lacked
the unifying spirit of character which alone can master the antagonistic elements in a single mind. Here is a man of truly brilliant gifts, but you cannot depend upon him. His love for danger runs away with his discretion. I am not enamoured of the logic of consistency; on the other hand, who can doubt that one who appears this moment fighting on the left hand and at the next moment on the right creates distrust in both armies? His power is the power of gifts, not character. Men watch him, but they do not follow him.
“That sounds today rather savage,” said Sir Alistair. “It wasn’t really, but it does sum up the way people of all parties felt about him.”
“He must be carried away by some great ideal”
Begbie suggested that Churchill’s faults were the result of “a forcible and impetuous temperament.” Then he wrote, with extraordinary prescience:
All Mr. Churchill needs is the direction in his life of a great idea. He is a Saul on the way to Damascus. Let him swing clean away from that road to destruction and he might well become Paul on his way to immortality. This is to say, that to be saved from himself. Mr. Churchill must be carried away by enthusiasm for some great ideal.
Harold Begbie died in 1929, eleven years short of that great ideal. Professor Warren Kimball, a scholar of Churchill and Roosevelt, understands what Begbie foresaw: “A Hitler dominated Europe provided that enthusiasm. Churchill wasn’t Prime Minister in 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany. But it was his d war from then on. I’d suggest that the great ideal was as Lord Palmerston always advised: having a genocidal sociopath as the enemy was an invaluable asset—though not the only one.”
Harold Begbie concluded:
At the present Mr. Churchill is in politics as a man is in business, but politics for Churchill, if he is ever to fulfill his promise, must have nothing to do with Churchill. It must have everything to do with the salvation of mankind … It is not to be thought that Mr. Churchill is growing a character which will emerge and create devotion in his countrymen.
So history proved. All Churchill needed was a cause that had “everything to do with the salvation of mankind.”