Harold Begbie: “The Man Who Did God for the Westminster Gazette”

Harold Begbie: “The Man Who Did God for the Westminster Gazette”

“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 mys­tery 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.”

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