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  • Writer's pictureNeil Datson

Boris Johnson: how one man failed history

Seeking to understand Boris Johnson’s behaviour in March 2020 I set about reading his biography of an earlier Prime Minister: The Churchill Factor: How one man Made History.


While it reads easily enough I found it a tiresome book. It's low on information, high on facile opinion. In the opening chapter Johnson declares: ‘I am not a professional historian . . .’[1] That much is abundantly clear. He’s apparently not even a professional journalist, failing to check the most easily verified of facts. Who knew before that HMS Belfast – the museum ship that is anchored in the Pool of London – was armed with ‘12-inch guns’?[2] The problem with a cavalier approach to what, in context, may be seen as trivia, is that it immediately calls everything else into question. And much should be questioned. For example, that it was his hero who ‘invented the RAF’ and ‘pioneered area bombing even in the First World War’, apparently in order to ‘save life’.[3] While I am aware that many of Churchill’s ideas about how Britain should fight her wars were inept, I won’t have him blamed for the Royal Air Force, although he did play a major part in inventing its corporate mythology. There was neither area bombing in World War I nor any evidence that he advocated it before 1940. On 21 October 1917, when he was Minister of Munitions, he did propose bombing German air bases and other infrastructure with the surplus of aeroplanes that were supposedly going to become available the following year, which he imagined would hasten an end to the war. In the same memorandum, however, he clearly stated: ‘It is improbable that any terrorization of the civil population which could be achieved by air attack would compel the Government of a great nation to surrender.’[4]


The pivotal point of Churchill’s premiership, for Johnson, were the events in the House of Commons on 28 May 1940 when firstly he chaired a meeting of the War Cabinet and afterwards addressed the rump of his Cabinet, who were assembled together for the first time. That occasion was described by Martin Gilbert as ‘one of the most extraordinary scenes of the war’.[5] Churchill made a highly emotional – but none the less sincere  – speech, in which he outlined his views of the country’s plight. He offered no solace. Almost without exception the Cabinet responded with acclamation, and swung firmly behind his view: that regardless of the imminent collapse of France, despite the obvious perils and dangers, Hitler’s Germany had to be fought, ruthlessly, with all the strength that the British nation could summon up.


While I do not demur from Gilbert’s opinion, that it was an extraordinary scene, I cannot agree with Johnson’s, that it was pivotal. While Churchill was obviously the key figure in the transformation of British war aims and methods between 10 May, the opening of the German assault in the west, and 3 July when a French fleet was bombarded in the naval base of Mers-el-Kébir, I believe that there was such mutual incomprehension between Nazism and British democracy that peace, on terms that both could have accepted, was never a realistic possibility, and that Halifax and Chamberlain weren’t the incipient quislings that Churchill’s champions have tended to portray them as. But that opinion, like much of Johnson’s book, is only speculation, not history.


To draw any comparison between the events of 1940 and those of 2020 seems, at first glance, to be in poor taste. World War II was man-made, just as the Covid pandemic and its aftermath was man-made, but compared with the war we have been living through an amateur clown-show rather than a Hamlet or Lear. Nevertheless it is surely appropriate to take Johnson’s broadcast of 23 March 2020 as the closest his prime ministership can throw up to put alongside Churchill’s speech to the Cabinet on 28 May 1940, especially as it seems likely that the thought was at the back of his mind at the time. Wishing to emulate one’s heroes is a common human instinct. He opened by drawing a comparison with – unspecified – history: ‘The Corona virus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades. And this country is not alone.’[6] Having then explained that emergency legislation was being used to close down most public services and strip the people of many of their civil rights he closed with the order that they were to: ‘Stay at home. Protect our NHS. And save lives.’[7]


Johnson, like any layman in such circumstances, was out of his depth. He wasn’t capable of processing the scientific and public health advice he was receiving. That was only to be expected. There isn’t the least reason why any Prime Minister should be able to process every detail of information, good or bad, true or false, on which public policy is based; his job is to take decisions. Obviously, we can’t know exactly what advice he was receiving at the time but – as far as the general public were concerned – only one fact about the virus was of immediate value: Covid is airborne and can no more be controlled by lockdowns and mask mandates than a compass be made to point south by witchcraft. If that was made clear to him he should have passed the knowledge on, rather than ordering people to stay at home. The public could then have been left to themselves to decide just how much risk they were prepared to take for themselves and those dear to them. What we actually got was authoritarian government by fearporn.


Given Johnson’s recognised preference for liberty over authoritarianism it seems likely that he was not told how Covid is spread. It wouldn’t be in the least surprising to find that the crucial information is to be found somewhere in the documents, but that rather than being headlined at the top of a page it is buried deep in an appendix. Government advisory bodies – like all institutions in all circumstances – are likely to take the Circumlocution Office as their model: their primary aim is to create work for themselves.


A good example of how this can work in practice can be seen in the witness statement submitted to the Hallett Inquiry by Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. In the section headed ‘Testing Clinical and Non-Clinical Interventions’ Paragraph 108 reads as follows:


‘In any pandemic there will inevitably be pressure to introduce interventions that are not supported by proper clinical evidence (for example proposals to introduce Vitamin D for the whole population in the hope this would increase protection against Covid-19, or to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin for treatment). It is vitally important that such pressure is resisted and that proposed pharmaceutical interventions are tested in well-designed clinical trials. History tells us that many interventions that appear useful in small trials or anecdotes turn out not to be effective or even to be harmful when tested in larger scale trials.’[8]


Obviously, a scientific adviser in Vallance’s position has to be cautious. He would certainly have been aware of the risk that his advice would be taken out of context, its significance and certainty exaggerated, and the wrong conclusions arrived at by those who hadn’t grappled with the relevant caveats. No doubt Paragraph 108 puts across a proper, scientific, point of view. But, first glancing aside to wonder whether anybody has carried out proper clinical trials of Vitamin C as a preventative against scurvy and, presuming not, whether Vallance would argue on those grounds that it can’t be recommended for long sea voyages, I must be allowed to respond as a mere foot soldier, one of the poor bloody infantry. Firstly, the benefits of taking supplementary Vitamin D in winter – especially for some ethnic groups – are commonly agreed on. Does Vallance dispute them? In which case, wouldn’t it help if he made his position clear? Secondly, on 3 April 2020 the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issued guidelines which recommended the use of morphine and midazolam for those hospitalised with Covid.[9] After that date their use spiked dramatically, as did mortality. Had I been so unfortunate as to become ill with Covid in April or May 2020, or any time since for that matter, I would rather a doctor had experimented on me with HCQ or ivermectin than eased my passing with an end of life cocktail. Thirdly, I do wonder how a nation’s healthcare system can be manipulated into vigorously endorsing an experimental vaccine while failing to advertise the benefits of Vitamin D, and refusing its clinicians permission to use therapeutic drugs with established safety records. Such may be how science advances. It may, or may not, be how medicine advances. It is certainly not how society advances.


Just like March 2020 there was no shortage of expert advice in May 1940. It is instructive to examine just how bad it was. On 12 May Cyril Newall, the Chief of Air Staff, told the Chiefs of Staff Committee that: ‘. . . it was possible that the land operations in Belgium and Luxembourg were subsidiary to the operations in Holland, which country the Germans intended to seize at all costs so as to gain air bases from which they could launch an intensive air attack on Great Britain.’[10] That suggestion was endorsed by Edmund Ironside, the Chief of Imperial General Staff. Others, including Churchill, thought it plausible and he seconded Newall’s theory in his own comments to the War Cabinet the following day. On 15 May the War Cabinet eased Bomber Command’s rules of engagement. Thereafter a higher risk of killing civilians was accepted. In consequence, München Gladbach became the first city in Germany to be targeted since November 1918. Ironside recorded the event in his diary: ‘I never saw anything so light up as the faces of the R.A.F. when they heard that they were to be allowed to bomb the oil-refineries in the Ruhr. It did one good to see it.’[11]


Looking back at those events it now seems laughable that Newall and his colleagues thought that sending their Wellingtons and Whitleys out to the Ruhr with bombs instead of leaflets might halt the German advance in the west. Nevertheless, it was so. Their belief in their own theory of war was as certain as it was groundless.


Churchill learnt of the breakthrough at Sedan on the evening of 13 May. The news did not alarm him unduly and he refused to consider the French call for the RAF’s assistance in checking it. It was only when he flew to Paris on 16 May that he became concerned about it, and even then he took the problem to be one of French morale rather than military realities. There is, of course, no value in arguing that if only the British hadn’t been so obsessed with strategic bombing in 1940 the Germans could have been checked, Paris and France saved, and Dunkirk avoided. The point is that in May 1940 the military advice that the government was receiving – at least from Newall and the RAF’s leadership – was rotten. Ever since the early 1920s the British had been listening to the RAF’s theories about bombing. Faith in them wasn’t confined to the RAF, it was almost universal. It was shared by most politicians, including Churchill. That faith served the purposes of the RAF, the nation’s experts, but not those of the nation itself. It may have been honestly held but ultimately it helped nobody but themselves. Like far too much advice it was self-serving.


For Hitler, Mers-el-Kébir was a moment of revelation, the point at which he knew that the negotiated peace which he wanted was out of his grasp. It seems unlikely that Churchill had such a moment, as throughout the period he was convinced that Hitler’s underlying aim was to make war on Britain. It may well be that he never understood Germany’s war aims just as he never understood where Britain’s strategic advantages lay, or how to exploit them. But there was a significant change in May 1940, as the nation, collectively, aligned itself with his vision. At the time the expert advice was bad and the Prime Minister was mistaken but he took decisions: for better or worse. Johnson might have coped better in March 2020 had he known the history of May 1940, rather than its popular mythology.


Amidst all the glib mythologising there are a few passages in The Churchill Factor in which he stumbles towards what made Churchill a great man, despite his human failings. It is most pithily expressed in his chapter on the Cold War: ‘Churchill knew instinctively what was wrong with communism – that it repressed liberty; that it replaced individual discretion with state control; that it entailed the curtailment of democracy, and therefore that it was tyrannous.’ [My italics.][12] And not only communism. Although he was initially taken in by Mussolini’s bluster and at least once wrote admiringly of Hitler’s rise to power he was never tempted by totalitarianism as far too many of his contemporaries were. He invariably championed democracy in Britain and other western, developed, societies, at a time when far too many didn’t.


Across Europe as a whole the most significant season since 1945 has to be the autumn of 1989 when the Iron Curtain was breached by civilian protestors and democracy extended its benign tentacles into Eastern Europe. Sadly it seems that since that autumn democracy has been in retreat; at least in the United Kingdom. In this country free speech has been curtailed, opinions are routinely vilified and some unfortunate individuals are so lambasted on social media as to be ‘cancelled’. Even our nominally free media is censored by quasi-official ‘fact checkers’. Democracy cannot flourish in such an atmosphere, without vigorous and open debate, and personal freedom. It cannot depend on experts – in any field – to make its decisions. Churchill understood as much. If his heirs want to be remembered for their achievements they should open up debate, trust the people and not, like Johnson, retreat behind advisers.

[1] Boris Johnson. The Churchill Factor: How one man Made History, p 4.

[2] Ibid, p 264.

[3] Ibid, p 5 and 187-88.

[4] Extract from a memorandum by the Minister of Munitions, 21 October 1917, 'Munitions Possibilities of 1918’. Eugene M Emme. The Impact of Air Power: National Security and World Politics, p 38.

[5] Martin Gilbert. Finest Hour, Winston S Churchill, vol 6, 1939-1941, p 419.

[6] Boris Johnson. Broadcast from 10 Downing Street, 23 March 2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] UK Covid-19 inquiry. Witness Statement of Sir Patrick Vallance, 11 April 2023, p 34.

[9] Dr John Campell. YouTube, 14 February 2023.

[10] War Cabinet: Confidential Annex, 12 May 1940. Martin Gilbert. The Churchill Documents, vol 15, Never Surrender, p 17.

[11] Roderick Macleod and Denis Kelly (eds). The Ironside Diaries, 1937-1940, p 309.

[12] Boris Johnson. The Churchill Factor: How one man Made History, p 292.


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