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In a wearyingly carping exercise in Lytton Strachey--like iconoclasm, British freelance journalist Roberts (The Holy Fox, 1991, not reviewed) exposes the heroes of the period of Britain's imperial decline as grandiloquent fools and knaves, appeasers and apologists for various forms of authoritarianism, and purblind racists. In the summer of 1940, when Winston Churchill--previously regarded as a political failure--assumed leadership, parliamentary Conservatives continued to distrust him. The extent of their distrust, and the lengths to which Churchill had to go to propitiate those who regarded him as unfit to lead the nation, tend to be widely forgotten today. Roberts delights in showing Churchill's feet of clay, from his often sensitive relationships with pro-Chamberlain Conservatives to his embarrassingly overt racism (a fault, after all, that he shared with many contemporaries who, like him, were ardent British imperialists). In addition, Roberts assembles a small rogues' gallery of contemporary figures who in his view presided over Britain's decline with incompetence, indifference, and outright villainy. Among these are Lord Mountbatten, who emerges as a posturing, egocentric humbug whose love of swift and adventurous action, first as a commander in WW II and then as Britain's last viceroy of India, resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths; the Nazi apologist and anti-Semite Sir Arthur Bryant; and Walter Monckton, the minister of labour whose industrial policies left Britain in thrall to rapacious trade unions. Even King George VI is characterized as an unimaginative and hidebound appeaser. In his thoroughgoing revisionism, Roberts makes some arresting historical arguments (he contends that Mountbatten's socialist views and pro--Congress Party stance resulted in a tragically mishandled transition of power during the 1948 birth of India and Pakistan). But too often, Roberts's text reads like a mean-spirited attack on the personal foibles of some dead men; it does nothing to diminish the stature of Britain's magnificent Last Lion.

Pub Date: July 7th, 1995
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster