Churchill and Son

What did the leaders of the ‘Big Three’ superpowers during the Second World War have in common? Well, Franklin Roosevelt’s five children went through 19 marriages between them. Meanwhile, Stalin laughed off his son’s suicide attempt and chronically neglected his daughter.

But it is Winston Churchill who is the topic of this fascinating new book, and in particular his relationship with his only son, Randolph, whom he smothered. As Josh Ireland says, ‘Randolph was trapped in a cage built by his father.’

A gilded cage, that is. Winston was determined to spoil his child, partly because his own father, also Randolph, had always thought young Winston a disappointment, keeping him at arm’s length until his death in 1895, aged 45.

Fearing he’d die prematurely too, Winston urged Randolph to do big things and ‘carry on the family name’, particularly after his many blunders – like the Dardanelles and the Gold Standard – left Winston in the political wilderness.

There were two problems. First, Randolph was emotionally warped. Carrying with him ‘a whiff of sulphur’, he made a scene wherever he went, exploding with rage at the smallest inconvenience or slight. And that was either because, or simply in addition to, him being a womanising, alcoholic, boorish, sneering wastrel.

The second problem was Hitler. After so many years in the wilderness, the appeasement crisis of the 1930s gave Winston a fresh lease of life just as twenty-something Randolph’s career was supposed to be taking off. And when his father became Prime Minister in 1940, Randolph – once Winston’s tireless cheerleader and right-hand man – was left out in the cold.

To his credit, Randolph, occasional ‘journalist’ that he was, had met Hitler as early as 1932 and realised then what a grave threat the Nazis posed.

But once the war was under way, his role was humiliatingly peripheral. Joining the army at a junior level, he was shocked to learn his famous surname did not allow him to transcend the ranks of military hierarchy. His expanding weight was an issue, too. As his father had gently told him at one point, ‘parachuting becomes much more dangerous with heavy people.’

What little action he saw, mucking around mostly in Yugoslavian backwaters with the likes of Evelyn Waugh, is pathetic to read about. And infuriating as well, considering how many men and women of less fortunate backgrounds were being slaughtered daily while Randolph played at being a soldier.

He had made it into parliament by that time, but lost his Preston seat in the 1945 Labour landslide. Both father and son were stunned that the country could chuck them out so brutally.

But with Winston now a ‘titanic, glorious’ figure, Randolph was irrelevant, and his life fell to pieces. As a result of his affairs and behaviour, his marriage to Pamela Digby came apart, and his son by that relationship grew up barely knowing him. While Winston’s decision to allow him to write his biography was a boost, Randolph’s declining health ensured the mammoth task was never completed. In 1968, he died aged 57, just three years after his father.

Ireland depicts Randolph as a fairly unpleasant figure, but you can decide if he is deserving of any sympathy. His failure to ‘take off’ was partly down to Winston’s smothering love, which left him indifferent to the many opportunities he had been given. But it was also because of historical events.

Had there been no Hitler and no appeasement, it is conceivable that Winston would never have made it to Downing Street. Randolph may have found his way there instead. But if had he done so, being such a lifelong mediocrity, his family name – the name on which he traded for his entire life – might now have a very different meaning.

Review by Calum Henderson.
Churchill and Son, Josh Ireland, John Murray Press, £20 (hbk), ISBN 978-1529337754.