OPINION: Why can’t Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill?

– The Guardian. UK.Wed 17 Mar 2021 11.00 GMT

Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to tarnish the national myth – as I found when hosting a Cambridge debate about his murkier side

Winston Churchill speaking at Wolverhampton football field in 1949
Winston Churchill speaking at Wolverhampton football field in 1949. Photograph: Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
A baleful silence attends one of the most talked-about figures in British history. You may enthuse endlessly about Winston Churchill “single-handedly” defeating Hitler. But mention his views on race or his colonial policies, and you’ll be instantly drowned in ferocious and orchestrated vitriol.             

In a sea of fawningly reverential Churchill biographies, hardly any books seriously examine his documented racism. Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to complicate, let alone tarnish, the national myth of a flawless hero: an idol who “saved our civilisation”, as Boris Johnson claims, or “humanity as a whole”, as David Cameron did. Make an uncomfortable observation about his views on white supremacy and the likes of Piers Morgan will ask: “Why do you live in this country?

Not everyone is content to be told to be quiet because they would be “speaking German” if not for Churchill. Many people want to know more about the historical figures they are required to admire uncritically. The Black Lives Matter protests last June – during which the word “racist” was sprayed in red letters on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, were accompanied by demands for more education on race, empire and the figures whose statues dot our landscapes.

Yet providing a fuller picture is made difficult. Scholars who explore less illustrious sides of Churchill are treated dismissively. Take the example of Churchill College, Cambridge, where I am a teaching fellow. In response to calls for fuller information about its founder, the college set up a series of events on Churchill, Empire and Race. I recently chaired the second of these, a panel discussion on “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill”.

Even before it took place, the discussion was repeatedly denounced in the tabloids and on social media as “idiotic”, a “character assassination” aimed at “trashing” the great man. Outraged letters to the college said this was academic freedom gone too far, and that the event should be cancelled. The speakers and I, all scholars and people of colour, were subjected to vicious hate mail, racist slurs and threats. We were accused of treason and slander. One correspondent warned that my name was being forwarded to the commanding officer of an RAF base near my home.

The college is now under heavy pressure to stop doing these events. After the recent panel, the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, which is influential in government circles – and claims to champion free speech and controversial views on campus – published a “review” of the event. The foreword, written by Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, stated that he hoped the review would “prevent such an intellectually dishonest event from being organised at Churchill College in the future – and, one might hope, elsewhere”.

No 10 takes relaxed view as Biden removes Churchill bust from Oval Office

It’s ironic. We’re told by government and media that “cancel culture” is an imposition of the academic left. Yet here it is in reality, the actual “cancel culture” that prevents a truthful engagement with British history. Churchill was an admired wartime leader who recognised the threat of Hitler in time and played a pivotal role in the allied victory. It should be possible to recognise this without glossing over his less benign side. The scholars at the Cambridge event – Madhusree Mukerjee, Onyeka Nubia and Kehinde Andrews – drew attention to Churchill’s dogged advocacy of British colonial rule; his contributing role in the disastrous 1943 Bengal famine, in which millions of people died unnecessarily; his interest in eugenics; and his views, deeply retrograde even for his time, on race.

Churchill is on record as praising “Aryan stock” and insisting it was right for “a stronger race, a higher-grade race” to take the place of indigenous peoples. He reportedly did not think “black people were as capable or as efficient as white people”. In 1911, Churchill banned interracial boxing matches so white fighters would not be seen losing to black ones. He insisted that Britain and the US shared “Anglo-Saxon superiority”. He described anticolonial campaigners as “savages armed with ideas”.

Even his contemporaries found his views on race shocking. In the context of Churchill’s hard line against providing famine relief to Bengal, the colonial secretary, Leo Amery, remarked: “On the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane … I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.”

Just because Hitler was a racist does not mean Churchill could not have been one. Britain entered the war, after all, because it faced an existential threat – and not primarily because it disagreed with Nazi ideology. Noting affinities between colonial and Nazi race-thinking, African and Asian leaders queried Churchill’s double standards in firmly rejecting self-determination for colonial subjects who were also fighting Hitler.

It is worth recalling that the uncritical Churchill-worship that is so dominant today was not shared by many British people in 1945, when they voted him out of office before the war was even completely over. Many working-class communities in Britain, from Dundee to south Wales, felt strong animosity towards Churchill for his willingness to mobilise military force during industrial disputes. As recently as 2010, Llanmaes community council opposed the renaming of a military base to Churchill Lines.

Critical assessment is not “character assassination”. Thanks to the groupthink of “the cult of Churchill”, the late prime minister has become a mythological figure rather than a historical one. To play down the implications of Churchill’s views on race – or suggest absurdly, as Policy Exchange does, that his racist words meant “something other than their conventional definition” – speaks to me of a profound lack of honesty and courage.

This failure of courage is tied to a wider aversion to examining the British empire truthfully, perhaps for fear of what it might say about Britain today. A necessary national conversation about Churchill and the empire he was so committed to is one necessary way to break this unacceptable silence.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/19/2021 at 1:46 am

    NOT His Finest Hour: The Dark Side of Winston Churchill

    By Johann Hari | The Independent UK

    Winston Churchill is rightly remembered for leading Britain through her finest hour – but what if he also led the country through her most shameful hour?

    What if, in addition to rousing a nation to save the world from the Nazis, he fought for a raw white supremacism and a concentration camp network of his own?

    These questions burn through Richard Toye’s new history, Churchill’s Empire, and is even seeping into the Oval Office.

    George W Bush left a bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with the war leader’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It is not hard to guess why:

    His Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.

    Donald Trump returned the bust of Churchill to the White House. President Joe Biden had it removed.

    Can these clashing Churchills be reconciled?

    Do we live, at the same time, in the world he helped to save, and the world he helped to trash?

    Toye, one of Britain’s smartest young historians, has tried to pick through these questions dispassionately – and he should lead us, at last and at least, to a more mature conversation about our greatest national icon.

    Churchill was born in 1874 into a Britain that was washing the map pink, at the cost of washing distant nations blood red. Victoria had just been crowned Empress of India, and the scramble for Africa was only a few years away. At Harrow School and then Sandhurst, Churchill was told a simple story:

    The superior white man was conquering the primitive, dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilisation. As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”.

    In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, a crack of doubt. He realised that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill”.

    Churchill gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, destroying houses and burning crops. He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages”.

    The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When concentration camps were built in South Africa, for white Boers, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering”. The death toll was almost 28,000, and when at least 115,000 black Africans were likewise swept into British camps, where 14,000 died, he wrote only of his “irritation that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men”. Later, Churchill boasted of his experiences there:

    “That was before war degenerated. It was great fun galloping about.”

    Then as an MP he demanded a rolling programme of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”. There seems to have been an odd cognitive dissonance in his view of the “natives”.

    In some of his private correspondence, Churchill appears to really believe they are helpless children who will “willingly, naturally, gratefully include themselves within the golden circle of an ancient crown”.

    BUT WHEN THEY DEFIED THIS SCRIPT, CHURCHILL DEMANDED THEY BE CRUSHED WITH EXTREME FORCE.

    As Colonial Secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tan thugs on Ireland’s Catholic civilians, and when the Kurds rebelled against British rule, he said: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes … [It] would spread a lively terror.”

    Of course, it is easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic.

    Didn’t everybody think that way then? ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING FINDINGS OF TOYE’S RESEARCH IS THAT THEY REALLY DIDN’T:

    Even at the time, Churchill was seen at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was warned by Cabinet colleagues not to appoint him because his views were so antediluvian.

    Even his startled doctor, Lord Moran, said of other races: “WINSTON THINKS ONLY OF THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN.”

    MANY OF HIS COLLEAGUES THOUGHT CHURCHILL WAS DRIVEN BY A DEEP LOATHING OF DEMOCRACY FOR ANYONE OTHER THAN THE BRITISH AND A TINY CLIQUE OF SUPPOSEDLY SUPERIOR RACES.

    This was clearest in his attitude to India. When Mahatma Gandhi launched his campaign of peaceful resistance, Churchill raged that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”

    As the resistance swelled, he announced: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” This hatred killed. To give just one, major, example, in 1943 a famine broke out in Bengal, caused – as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proved – by the imperial policies of the British. Up to 3 million people starved to death while British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the region. He bluntly refused. He raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. At other times, Churchill said the plague was “merrily” culling the population.

    Skeletal, half-dead people were streaming into the cities and dying on the streets, but Churchill – to the astonishment of his staff – had only jeers for them. This rather undermines the claims that Churchill’s imperialism was motivated only by an altruistic desire to elevate the putatively lower races.

    HUSSEIN ONYANGO OBAMA IS UNUSUAL AMONG CHURCHILL’S VICTIMS ONLY IN ONE RESPECT:

    Obama’s story has been rescued from the slipstream of history, BECAUSE HIS GRANDSON ENDED UP AS PRESIDENT OF THE USA. Churchill believed that Kenya’s fertile highlands should be the preserve of the white settlers, and approved the clearing out of the local “blackamoors”. He saw the local Kikuyu as “brutish children”. When they rebelled under Churchill’s post-war premiership, some 150,000 of them were forced at gunpoint into detention camps – later dubbed “BRITAIN’S GULAG” by Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Professor Caroline Elkins. She studied the detention camps for five years for her remarkable book BRITAIN’S GULAG:

    The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, explains the tactics adopted under Churchill to crush the local drive for independence. “Electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire,” she writes. “The screening teams whipped, shot, burned, and mutilated Mau Mau suspects.” HUSSEIN ONYANGO OBAMA NEVER TRULY RECOVERED FROM THE TORTURE HE ENDURED.

    MANY OF THE WOUNDS CHURCHILL INFLICTED HAVE STILL NOT HEALED:

    You can find them on the front pages any day of the week.

    Churchill is the man who invented Iraq, locking together three conflicting peoples behind arbitrary borders that have been bleeding ever since.

    Churchill is the Colonial Secretary who offered the Over-Promised Land to both the Jews and the Arabs – although he seems to have privately felt racist contempt for both.

    Churchill jeered at the Palestinians as “barbaric hoards who ate little but camel dung,” while he was appalled that the Israelis “take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience”. Rule Britannia became Cruel Britannia.

    Was Churchill’s moral opposition to Nazism a charade, masking the fact he was merely trying to defend the British Empire from a rival?

    The US civil rights leader Richard B. Moore, quoted by Toye, said it was “a rare and fortunate coincidence” that at that moment “the vital interests of the British Empire coincided with those of the great overwhelming majority of mankind”.

    BUT THIS MIGHT BE TOO SOFT IN ITS PRAISE. If Churchill had only been interested in saving the Empire, he could probably have cut a deal with Hitler.

    No: Churchill had a deeper repugnance for Nazism than that. He may have been a thug, but he knew a bigger thug when he saw one – and we may owe our freedom today to this wrinkle in history.

    This, in turn, led to the great irony of Churchill’s life. In resisting the Nazis, he produced some of the richest prose-poetry in defence of freedom and democracy ever written.

    It was a cheque Churchill didn’t want black or Asian people to cash – but they refused to accept that the Bank of Justice was empty. As the Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah wrote:

    “All the fair, brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.”

    Churchill lived to see democrats across Britain’s dominions and colonies – from nationalist leader Aung San in Burma to Jawaharlal Nehru in India – use his own intoxicating words against him.

    Ultimately, the words of the great and glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the darker-skinned peoples of the world.

    The fact that we now live in a world where a free and independent India is a superpower eclipsing Britain, and a grandson of the ”savages” is the most powerful man in the world, is a repudiation of Churchill at his ugliest – and a sweet, ironic victory for Churchill at his best.

    ‘Churchill’s Empire’ is published by Macmillan (£25). To order a copy for the special price of £22.50 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit http://www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

    • kamtanblog  On 03/19/2021 at 4:33 am

      Simple Simon suggests
      If we dig deep enough we will find enough evidence to “execute” many !
      In War friends are few ….enemies many.
      In civil War everyone is the enemy.
      Not unlike Hitler, Churchill craved war
      …military mentality. Both history today
      best forgiven not forgotten.
      History is usually written by the victors
      Re-written today depending on “opinion
      beliefs”….decisions made during a conflict
      (Wars) are usually very erratic but neccessary
      evil ! In peacetime much more acceptable.
      We should all accept that differences do
      exist “good v evil” and our decisions must reflect the differences.
      Will get off my soap box
      Allowing others the opportunity to express
      opinions.

      Que sera sera

      K

  • Kman  On 03/19/2021 at 1:59 pm

    Britain cannot handle the because he was a white man. Pure and simple, nothing else!

  • wally n  On 03/19/2021 at 5:42 pm

    Useful to know your history….I think that today it is more important to understand human behavior. Locations change, situations change, people remain the same.
    Some people make a very good living comparing history of one country against another, forgetting the strings were pulled, by humans initially. Conclusion History is interesting, people are more important.

    • kamtanblog  On 03/19/2021 at 6:29 pm

      Agree history is interesting but people are also more interesting. Also people change !

      IMO

      K

  • wally n  On 03/19/2021 at 6:35 pm

    Almost agreed until “people change” bastards never do, true personality comes out under pressure, much to the dismay….

  • Clyde Duncan  On 03/20/2021 at 2:40 am

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