“Churchill in the House of Commons”. A charcoal drawing of Sir Winston Churchill by Gerald Scarfe capturing him in his final appearance in Parliament in July 1964.
The figure of Winston Churchill has for long stood high among those persons considered by his countrymen to be among the greatest ever produced by England. For many, he is the embodiment of the “bulldog spirit”, a peculiar but formidable brand of tenacity that characterises British resolve and valour. His dexterous use of the English language is viewed as having conveyed both wisdom and poeticism. That his words inspired a nation and its empire to successfully resist the threat of Nazi domination is to his defenders beyond doubt. In short, in the collective imagination of a preponderance of his people, Churchill is the greatest ever Briton.
But there is dissent.
Churchill, of course, has always had his detractors. During the earlier period of his career as a politician, he earned the unenviable reputation of a political turncoat and opportunist. He was also widely perceived as a warmonger. And his personal flaws of being prone to drink and depression, as well as having a tendency towards misogyny are acknowledged even by his most ardent supporters.
It goes further. For some, the sins of Winston Churchill are innumerable: the Bengal Famine, the firestorm that consumed Dresden and the brutality meted out by colonial enforcers against the indigenous populace during the Mau Mau insurrection are often put forward as evidence of his crimes against humanity.
To critics, his racism was evident by his admission that genocide against non-whites such as the Australian aboriginals and the indigenous American nations was justifiable because white people by possessing a “higher form of culture” were doing the killing. He also admitted that the exploitation of Persian oil helped the British ruling classes live very comfortably during the 1920s.
What is more, far from hailing him as the man who did most to preserve and protect Britain from foreign conquest, some adamantly hold him to be responsible for the loss of empire and the extension of Soviet power into eastern Europe.
Those who challenge long-held assumptions about Churchill speak from different ideological perspectives: some as modern anti-racists and anti-imperialists, some as socialist pacifists, some as conservative realists and some as white identitarians. Others proclaim themselves as being fueled not by an ideological agenda but by the need to necessarily recalibrate contemporary perspectives as a result of objective historical inquiry.
Sometimes there is a coalescence of critique, albeit that there is divergence in motive and rationale. It was while writing as a humanist and self-proclaimed socialist that the actor Richard Burton in 1974 excoriated Churchill in a written piece for the New York Times as a genocidist who once threatened to wipe out every Japanese man, woman and child. Those on the extreme right, as well as new converts to white racial identity politics consider the Dresden bombings to have been a holocaust perpetrated by one white nation against another which served little end. It is from this school of thought that Churchill as the perpetually indebted servant of “Jewish interests” helped bring about an unnecessary war with Germany when both ought to have stood together against the menace posed by Soviet Bolshevism. Germany, they remind had offered a peace pact with Britain through which it could keep its empire while giving Hitler a “free hand” in eastern Europe.
But what of the argument of presentism? His defenders see Churchill as a man who is being judged according to modern standards, that his racial, gender and imperialistic attitudes were simply a reflection of the prevalent mores of the times in which he lived. There is of course a great deal of truth to this. Yet, so far as his lust for war and interventionism is concerned, his record can be set against those of his contemporaries and be seen as one which nonetheless stands apart from others.
From the time of his early adulthood to his mature years, Churchill would consistently and enthusiastically advocate the violent approach in extending British influence and in putting down the aspirations of liberty held by millions of native peoples who lived under British rule. Domestically too, he promoted the use of authoritarian methods to deal with civil disobedience.
It is clear that these less flattering traits and deeds of Churchill need airing. And they need not be part of a wider “culture war” or ideological dispute. Many of his critics will willingly admit to admiring his strength of character and strategic vision, a far cry from the lightweight politicians who permeate the national and international stage today. Addressing this point, a few years ago the veteran journalist Robert Fisk reminded an interviewer that in 1941, prior to the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union, when Britain was still the sole European nation fighting Nazi Germany and still under the threat of German occupation, Churchill set up a government committee to organise the post-war occupation of Germany.
Oliver Cromwell arguably had a greater personal impact on the evolution of Britain; a span encompassing the political, military and social spheres. His triumph over the King against whom he sanctioned an act of regicide provided the basis of Parliamentary sovereignty which forms the dominant pillar of Britain’s constitutional system. A man with limited or no actual military experience prior to the English Civil War, he rose up the ranks to become a general who contributed to key victories against the monarch, transforming a rag-tag band of peasants into the formidable New Model Army. He also brought about an unprecedented measure of religious liberty to the country. Yet, to many Britons, Churchill’s perceived role in salvaging a nation imperilled by Nazi conquest automatically trumps the achievement of any Briton before or after.
There is a logic to this thinking which continues to assure Churchill’s place among the pantheon of Great Britons. But to downplay or otherwise dismiss factual evidence of the man’s flaws does a great disservice to the need to constantly subject history and its main players to warranted scrutiny. It should not be a question of marking Churchill’s legacy as being solely that of a racist and imperialist villain on the one hand or an awe inspiring and decisive war-time leader on the other.
Both views are true and need not obviate the other.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.