“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” – Marcus Antony (Julius Caesar)
Shakespeare’s quote probably rings true for many figures in history, but it has never applied to the man who defeated him in a 2002 poll to become the ‘greatest ever Briton’. In this case, the very opposite is true: Winston Churchill’s good has lived long after him and his evil has seemingly been interred with his bones. He famously declared that history would be kind to him, for he intended to write it: and he succeeded in painting himself in such a dazzling light that future generations are now blind to his severe and plentiful sins.
The defacement of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square by Black Lives Matter protestors now presents us with an opportunity to remedy this, and to sensibly discuss and re-evaluate not only of the man’s character and deeds, but of Britain’s ongoing identity crisis.
A brief overview of Churchill’s career should be enough to convince anybody that whoever vandalised his statue was merely stating the obvious. At the turn of the 20th century, Churchill enthusiastically involved himself in one of Britain’s most brutal imperial conflicts, the Second Boer War, which saw the army utilise scorched earth tactics and concentration camps against the people of Transvaal in South Africa. He would later support Jan Smuts in establishing Apartheid white-minority rule in the region. As Home Secretary, Churchill wrote that ‘the unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled… with a steady restriction among… superior stocks, constitutes a… race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate’.
As Colonial Secretary in 1920, he was responsible for the use of chemical weapons against what he called the ‘uncivilised tribes’ of Iraq who were revolting against British rule. In the same year, he deployed the Black and Tans against the Irish during their war of independence: brutal police constables whose terrorising actions against civilians bares eerie resemblance to the behaviour of American police officers a century later.
He would also play a key role in the displacement of Palestinians, whom he called ‘barbaric hoards’, from their homeland. In 1937, he declared that ‘I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger… I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race… has come in and taken their place’.
We remember the casting of Churchill into the political wilderness in the 1930s as the result of his courageous anti-appeasement stance, but in truth, it was his reactionary views that landed him there. Unlike most MPs, he refused to countenance the possibility of Indian independence, later declaring that ‘I hate Indians’ and labelling them a ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’. He was, perhaps, the Jacob Rees-Mogg of the 1930s: a relic of the past who was widely regarded as not to be trusted with any real power or influence. Churchill’s attitude towards the people of India neatly illustrates the futility of the argument that his racism was merely due to him being a product of his time. His colleague in cabinet, Leo Amery, was so shocked by his attitude that he wrote that he could not distinguish Churchill’s views on race from Hitler’s.
As Prime Minister, Churchill oversaw the Bengal Famine in 1943. Blaming the famine on Indians ‘breeding like rabbits’, Churchill made the decision- despite the fact that 2.5 million Indians volunteered to fight for Britain – to divert food supplies away from India and towards already well-supplied British military posts in Greece and Yugoslavia. Around three million Indians died. In 1952, during his second spell as Prime Minister, Churchill reacted to the Mau Mau uprising against British rule in Kenya by declaring a state of emergency, and used concentration camps to detain hundreds of thousands of the Kikuyu people, where forced labour, rape and torture- including electric shocks, burnings and mutilations- were used to suppress the rebellion.
The defence of Churchill against the charge of racism rests on his contributions towards the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it isn’t a flawless one: his determination to war against Hitler was less the result of moral imperative than of a recognition that the Third Reich posed a greater threat to British imperial interests than the Soviet Union. The British government has never used force overseas for altruistic reasons and the Second World War was no exception.
Churchill was no ideological foe of fascism: he sought to forge alliances with Mussolini and Franco, and infamously ordered the massacre of Greeks who had fought the Nazis while raising up Nazi collaborators in their place to prevent a potential communist revolution.
While we should, therefore, recognise his important role in Britain’s war effort, the deification of Churchill is neither healthy nor appropriate. He was certainly not as beloved in his day and age as he is today: the soldiers who did the bloody work of defeating fascism on the battlefields voted him out in favour of a socialist government in the election of 1945.
Empires have always created myths and narratives to justify themselves. Rome had the story of Romalus and Roma, the United States has its founding fathers, France had Charlemagne and Napoleon. The story of Churchill was, perhaps, the final myth of the dying British Empire, one that continues to poison our attempts at understanding our own society and creating a meaningful post-imperial national identity.
By ‘getting in first’ in publishing a major history of the war, Gordon Corrigan argues, Churchill ‘ensured that his interpretation of what happened… became the accepted version, and anyone who disagreed was written off as an appeaser, a time waster, timorous or incompetent’: and this historically inaccuracy has endured. Some of the bizarre reactions towards the Black Lives Matter protests prove that racialised imperial narratives still thrive in Britain today. We have lost our colonies but not our colonial mentality: according to YouGov, a quarter of Britons wish we still had the empire, and half of Conservative voters think that our former colonies benefited from our rule.
The sight of fascists giving Nazi salutes to the boarded-up statue of the man they say ‘saved us’ from fascism was a cruel but not unsurprising irony, served up by our historical illiteracy and unwillingness to confront the reality of the empire. For me, the outburst of rage among certain sections of the white population to the Black Lives Matter protests is symptomatic of unresolved trauma. Trauma in our culture is intergenerational; and the whitewashing or denial of the crimes of our past have the same effect on our collective psychology as a man with a brutal history, holding on to immense guilt and the pain of others but refusing to ever talk about it. Now is the time to change that, now is the time to have this conversation. Only then will Britain be able to proceed with something resembling peace of mind.
Edited by Ellie Muir, Essays Editor