“A Good House of Commons Man”: Robert Rhodes James

“A Good House of Commons Man”: Robert Rhodes James

Excerpt­ed from “Great Con­tem­po­raries: Sir Robert Rhodes James,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle and images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Fair and balanced

In his best-known book, Robert Vidal Rhodes James said he aimed to prove that Win­ston Churchill was human. He was imme­di­ate­ly asked: wasn’t that a super­flu­ous mis­sion? Sir Robert replied that Churchill had been almost com­plete­ly deified—so it was high time some­one brought him down to earth. Churchill: A Study in Fail­ure (1970) was a com­pre­hen­sive cat­a­logue of the great man’s out­rages, mis­cal­cu­la­tions and errors which left WSC, through the late 1930s, admired for his dri­ve and bril­liance and dis­trust­ed for his sup­posed lack of judge­ment. A Study in Fail­ure was not a pio­neer­ing work, since crit­i­cal books about Churchill had been appear­ing since the 1920s. But it was the best of them: care­ful­ly researched, deft­ly argued, ele­gant­ly writ­ten, a model.

The politician-writer

Robert Rhodes James in 1970, from the fly­leaf “Churchill: A Study in Fail­ure” (Wei­den­feld & Nicolson)

Like Churchill, Sir Robert was that rare com­bi­na­tion, a politi­cian-writer. Unlike many today, he didn’t make pol­i­tics his sole career. He clerked in the House of Com­mons, returned to All Souls Col­lege as a research fel­low, taught his­to­ry at Stan­ford and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex, and worked for the Unit­ed Nations in New York. In 1976 he stood as a Con­ser­v­a­tive in a by-elec­tion for Cam­bridge, a mar­gin­al seat. He held it despite strong chal­lenges until he retired in 1992. 

Aside from A Study in Fail­ure, Robert left a huge cor­pus for labor­ers in the Churchill vine­yard. His first book, Lord Ran­dolph Churchill (1959), was the first biog­ra­phy of Sir Winston’s father since WSC’s and Lord Rose­bery’s ear­ly in the cen­tu­ry. In 1964 he pub­lished a biog­ra­phy of Lord Rose­bery himself.

Biogra­phies fol­lowed on Prince Albert (1983) and Antho­ny Eden (1986). Like most of us, he was some­times uneven. Bob Booth­by (1991) bor­dered on hagiog­ra­phy. Booth­by, Churchill’s Par­lia­men­tary Pri­vate Sec­re­tary in the 1920s, who lat­er fell out over eth­i­cal laps­es, hard­ly puts a foot wrong in that book, which eti­o­lates Churchill. Per­haps this was because Robert and Booth­by both liked to stir the polit­i­cal pot. But most of the time, like Churchill, Rhodes James was a skilled politician-writer.

His great­est con­tri­bu­tion was Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963 (1974). It took up eight thick vol­umes, with two well-orga­nized and com­pre­hen­sive index­es. He shocked me once by con­fid­ing that he had been paid only £5000 for the whole job—55 pence per page. Out of that he had to pay his stu­dent researchers. It’s a safe bet that he derived lit­tle from the lat­er abridged edi­tions, such as Churchill Speaks. But he was proud of the effort, and smiled when told it’s among the most sought-after of the mul­ti-vol­ume Churchill works.

Rhodes James as I knew him

Rhodes James
Sir Robert Rhodes James’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion the schol­ar­ship, the mas­sive Com­plete Speech­es (1974), an indis­pens­able source for his­to­ri­ans. (Pho­to by Mark Weber)

I met him in Wash­ing­ton in 1994, where he spoke at a sym­po­sium, lat­er quan­ti­fied in Churchill as Peace­mak­er (1997). He sniffed that his hotel room lacked the bot­tle of whisky he’d enjoyed at his last sym­po­sium in Texas. He was affront­ed by America’s no-smok­ing dik­tat, then almost uni­ver­sal: “In a few year’s time every­thing in your coun­try will be ille­gal, except sex between con­sent­ing adults of the cor­rect per­sua­sion. I like smok­ing. Oh dear.” One evening the ebul­lient James Humes, after too good a din­ner, intro­duced Lady Rhodes James as “an Eng­lish rose.” Robert mur­mured, not quite sot­to voce, “Who is that dread­ful man?” 

At our sym­po­sium he griped that speak­ers had to stand up, then took on Pro­fes­sor Man­fred Wei­d­horn, who said Churchill object­ed to Hitler’s occu­pa­tion of the Rhineland. Walk­ing briskly to the podi­um after Manny’s pre­sen­ta­tion, Robert announced: “Churchill said noth­ing about the Rhineland, noth­ing at all. He was hop­ing to get into the Cab­i­net and so he kept his mouth shut.” Then bang, he sat down again. No ques­tions, thanks very much.

Nev­er­the­less we found Robert a grand per­son­al­i­ty, full of sto­ries about Churchill and Par­lia­ment. Paul Addi­son remem­bered “what fun he was to be with. Such a warm and gen­er­ous character—he sparkled with gos­sip and was full of enthusiasms.”

The Wash­ing­ton Post said Robert “could be a con­ge­nial com­pan­ion to those he count­ed as his intel­lec­tu­al near-equals.” But he “nev­er lost the supe­ri­or man­ner com­mon­ly dis­played by clerks of the House of Com­mons.” On bal­ance Sir Robert remained pro-Churchill, and hoped to write a post-1939 vol­ume enti­tled A Study in Success. 

Tory Wet

I was sure that Robert and I weren’t des­tined to become chums. He was a “Tory wet” (think RINO Repub­li­can, con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­rat). He believed in Lit­tle Britain with­in the Euro­pean Union, and regard­ed Mar­garet Thatch­er as a rather nasty aber­ra­tion. I was a right winger who had vot­ed for Gold­wa­ter and Rea­gan and Steve Forbes, and would have vot­ed Thatch­er if I could, who believed that the EU was a glob­al­ist con-job for the ben­e­fit of the Fran­co-Ger­mans. The best Great Britain could do was to revive Com­mon­wealth Free Trade and join the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Asso­ci­a­tion. (Oh dear, indeed.)

We dis­agreed about the Churchill Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy. Ran­dolph Churchill had sacked Robert from his research team of “young gen­tle­men,” and Robert nev­er for­gave him (or his dis­like of Eden). He always main­tained that the O.B. was the same “case for the defence” Sir Win­ston had already made in his own books. Robert always said exact­ly what he believed—in the most force­ful terms avail­able to a gen­tle­man. In an age of pre­var­i­cat­ing phonies of Left and Right, such a char­ac­ter is rare. Win­ston Churchill would have loved him.

Flogged then forgiven

We tan­gled over the Rhineland issue, because Churchill did and said things about it which ought to be con­sid­ered. Sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions, I argued, have no place either in a biog­ra­phy or a sem­i­nar. Robert end­ed the dis­cus­sion with a pre­emp­to­ry note. “I am one of Churchill’s strongest admir­ers, but I can­not accept claims that have no mer­it or jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. I see no point what­ev­er in con­tin­u­ing this correspondence.”

And that, I thought, was that. Yet a year lat­er he wrote to offer me a very good piece: “Myth-Shat­ter­ing: An Actor Did NOT Give Churchill’s Speech­es.” Instant­ly we renewed our cor­re­spon­dence, in which I was reward­ed with a trea­sury of keen observations.

Robert’s shrewd thoughts on Churchill and pol­i­tics, deliv­ered ad hoc with an entre nous inti­ma­cy, were a priv­i­lege to read. (I share some below, all food for thought.) He even agreed to con­sid­er what­ev­er I would write about Churchill and the Rhineland. I came to real­ize that here was a wise and opin­ion­at­ed Dio­genes, to shed a kind­ly light over my own insignif­i­cant Churchill studies.

Alas the Rhineland piece was set aside, because like most of his friends and admir­ers I expect­ed Robert would be with us a good while yet. Now if I write it, he will nev­er read it, and then ham­mer me in cor­dial debate.** He died too young, of can­cer on 20 May 1999, his sec­ond Churchill vol­ume unpub­lished. I mourned the loss of a first class intel­lect and, as Churchill said on occa­sion, “a good House of Com­mons man.”

**See “Churchill and the Rhineland: ‘They Had Only to Act to Win.'”

Robert Rhodes James on Churchillians

From cor­re­spon­dence with the author, 1995-98.

Anthony Eden 

“I do not think that WSC devel­oped ‘a cold hatred’ for Eden; cer­tain­ly their cor­re­spon­dence would belie this. But the aban­don­ment of the Suez Canal base in 1956 angered Churchill, as did Eden’s man­i­fest impa­tience with WSC’s pro­cras­ti­na­tion about retiring.”

George VI

“The rela­tion­ship between Churchill and the King dur­ing the war is impor­tant. It has been con­sis­tent­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed, and even on occa­sion ignored. It began stick­i­ly but devel­oped into the clos­est col­lab­o­ra­tion between monarch and prime min­is­ter in mod­ern British his­to­ry. The Queen Moth­er was very affec­tion­ate­ly amus­ing about WSC, as was the King when Churchill’s let­ters became espe­cial­ly flow­ery. On one occa­sion WSC enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly respond­ed to a plea for help in prepar­ing a broad­cast by the King. He sent His Majesty a speech he had com­posed spe­cial­ly. Of course, it con­tained words and phras­es the King could not get his tongue round. While splen­did­ly Churchillian, was so out of char­ac­ter for the King that it was polite­ly reject­ed. Sad­ly, his draft seems to have disappeared.”

Harold Nicolson

“His posi­tion was Par­lia­men­tary Sec­re­tary to the Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion between May 1940 and June 1941. This was a junior min­is­te­r­i­al post in the Churchill Coali­tion Gov­ern­ment. Alfred Duff Coop­er was a dis­as­ter as Min­is­ter, and Harold’s career suf­fered there­by. But as his son Nigel has frankly admit­ted, ‘he was not a fit per­son to run a depart­ment in wartime.’ Indeed, much as I loved Harold, he was mar­vel­lous­ly unfit­ted to admin­is­ter or run any­thing. When WSC, who need­ed a Labour min­is­ter to bal­ance the Coali­tion team, had to sack Harold, whom he great­ly liked and respect­ed, he made him a gov­er­nor of the BBC. This was his true métier.”

Alfred Duff Cooper

“I too thought that John Charmley’s biog­ra­phy of Duff Coop­er was much bet­ter than his Churchill book, though I thought he was undu­ly cen­so­ri­ous about Duff’s drink­ing and wom­an­iz­ing. If his wife was tol­er­ant of both, then I think we can be. I pre­fer red-blood­ed peo­ple to time-servers and syco­phants. And Duff had real guts, in war and peace. And he wrote so won­der­ful­ly, grace­ful­ly and simply—particularly on a hot sum­mer after­noon after a long lunch with beau­ti­ful women and plen­ty of cham­pagne, good wine, and brandy. But this is now ter­ri­bly unfash­ion­able and non-PC!”

Lord Randolph Churchill

“I nev­er believed the canard that he died of syphilis. When I was research­ing my Lord Ran­dolph Churchill in the 1950s I dis­cussed it with an emi­nent elder­ly spe­cial­ist in the dis­ease. He told me that, hav­ing looked at the symp­toms, syphilis was the least like­ly cause of his decline and death. He was cer­tain­ly treat­ed for it, by a physi­cian who was on pub­lic record as declar­ing that all ner­vous dis­eases were syphilitic. This, of course, we now know is non­sense. John Mather’s con­clu­sion that the treat­ment only accel­er­at­ed Lord Randolph’s men­tal col­lapse and death seems to me to be ful­ly justified.

I am rather sur­prised that some of the Churchills told you they believed the sto­ry, although Ran­dolph, ill-advised as usu­al, did. But the Churchills do like to tease. Claris­sa Avon [WSC’s niece who mar­ried Eden] once told me that ‘of course’ her father Jack was ille­git­i­mate, know­ing full well that this was non­sense, but rather chic. Jack’s son John was phys­i­cal­ly almost an exact repli­ca of his Uncle Win­ston, and with an even more for­mi­da­ble capac­i­ty for alco­hol. He lived to a much greater age than the mod­ern Puri­tans deem pos­si­ble, and was also a very good artist.”

The fol­low­ing, just resur­faced, were not in my orig­i­nal post but shed more light on the great char­ac­ter he was….

Churchill symposia

“I am glad your last Sym­po­sium went much bet­ter, and the style that I had advised was adopt­ed. The great Austin Con­fer­ence on WSC* was made mem­o­rable and enjoy­able by the pro­vi­sion of the smok­ing room in the LBJ Library, and, by a stroke of added genius by Roger Louis, a bot­tle of bour­bon for each par­tic­i­pant. No won­der it was a tri­umph. And WSC would have great­ly approved.” *Pub­lished as Churchill: A Major New Assess­ment of His Life in Peace and War, Lord Blake and William Roger Louis, edi­tors (1993).

WSC’s grandsons?

“We had a fine din­ner meet­ing of The Oth­er Oth­er Club in Madi­son. I cut down my con­tri­bu­tion dras­ti­cal­ly, as the old boys were long­ing to get at their oys­ters and Pol Roger…. I did the same at the Anniver­sary meet­ing in Zurich, where I spoke from the same podi­um as WSC had in 1946. Alas the Swiss For­eign Min­is­ter gave an inter­minable and hard­ly rel­e­vant speech, Mine went well, and there were many requests after­wards for the full text. The Swiss Press got rather con­fused and described Nicholas Soames and me as WSC’s ‘two grand­sons.’ This puz­zled the mul­ti­tude, as the phys­i­cal resem­blance is absolute­ly nil. Nicholas, of course, thought it hilarious.”

The weed

“If we have anoth­er Win­ston Churchill sym­po­sium it real­ly must recog­nise that a non-smok­ing Churchill Con­fer­ence is a con­tra­dic­tion in terms, almost as idi­ot­ic as a non-smok­ing Churchill Cab­i­net! Auberon Waugh has formed a club in Lon­don in which smok­ing is com­pul­so­ry. This may be tak­ing the counter-rev­o­lu­tion rather too far, but he is mak­ing a point against the PC fanatics.”

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