Churchill and the King

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The private meetings between Monarch and Prime Minister continue to this day. It remarkable that Queen Elizabeth II herself held such audiences with Winston Churchill, and its seems very unlikely that David Cameron will be her last Prime Minister to maintain the tradition.

However such meetings are very much more than a ‘tradition’. They are the formal circumstances that compel the creation of a uniquely important personal relationship.

Kenneth Weisbrode examines probably one of the most significant Monarch and Prime Minister relationships in history. In doing so he throws important light on the significance of one of the least documented aspects of Britain’s ‘unwritten’ constitution. And offers new insights into two fascinating characters who played pivotal roles during the war.

The following exclusive extract is by kind permission of the publishers:

Churchill’s mind was “a powerful machine,” in the words of Lloyd George, “but there lay hidden in its material or make-up some obscure defect which prevented it from always running true.” The real defect was authority. There was something just slightly too unusual with Churchill; the superiority of his talent was, in the British setting, almost exotic.

His tie to the king served to ground him, to temper his nature, or at least to diminish his tendency to incapacitate those around him. Their alliance, then, was about refining and selling each other’s character as much as it was about duty and prerogative, or about clarifying each other’s thinking. Churchill’s propensity to immerse himself in the tiniest details has been noted often, yet less understood perhaps is the critical role his regular meetings with the king played in helping him to settle, clarify, and order the many details in the form of a familiar tutorial or briefing.

Churchill liked variety but not unfamiliarity. He had trouble with strangers or opponents and resisted them. With such people he “sidles away from one … looks down as he talks,” and “seems to contract, suddenly to look smaller and his famous charm is overclouded by an angry taurine look.” If demanding endless details from his subordinates was a means for expending great energy, then releasing it through recitation in the presence of the king must have performed a similar function within the familiar bounds of official duty.

Doing so helped each man conquer long-standing and debilitating defects in his character, not least of which was a depressive tendency that was kept well hidden. Each man when with the other was seen to some degree as working against his own faults on behalf of the other. If true, it would go a long way toward explaining how they could strip their personal relationship down to the bare essentials in order to rebuild it with an armature of knowledge and trust.

That was their mutual invention. It and the partnerships discussed above served a critical purpose for each man that spread in turn by way of their cumulative enhancement of a combined character. They, as was said about Churchill, did not “tilt at windmills . . . [or] embrace lost causes, but sought rather the very roots and sources of power, gauging with sure insight the hidden springs.” This showed that adversity’s silver lining must be polished constantly and reciprocally “till it shone after its fashion.” Nobody can be whole on his own.

That was the special role of each man for the other. For Britain already had a permanent ruler with a role to perform. The evidence suggests that most of their Tuesday “picnics” — their weekly lunches, which began in September 194O — were filled with discussions of operations, the kind of talk the king craved. Mastering the brief brought satisfaction. Churchill’s self-condence in facts and presentation must have rubbed off. The exchange may have served an additional purpose in forcing their individual and collective minds to set the best priorities possible, as an obsession with details may do for some people who use it to tame the imagination, adjust perspective, and prevent panic over complexity.

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