“Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge”, Winston Churchill.
Resolute and calculating, his stern expression masking any weakness, the British Bulldog eyes his opponent with respect but also from a position of authority. Winston Churchill’s image first appeared on the five-pound note in 2016, but he surfaced in textbooks much earlier, as the symbolic stalwart boulder of defiance against Nazism during World War II. Indeed, his name has frequently been invoked since then in times of chaos and uncertainty, encouraging us to draw on his strength and determination to stand fast against adversity. With such celebration of his unwavering demeanour, as well as his career, it is no surprise then that people have tried to project similarities between our current Prime Minister and Churchill to arouse support for the Conservative Party.
It is also not a surprise that such widespread criticism and anguish has therefore accompanied the defacement of his statue in Parliament Square earlier this week. Churchill was a masterful orator, and no doubt an important role in Britain’s defence against the German onslaught, but he was a lot of other things too, including a white supremacist. Now more than ever have we seen people really challenge the relevance of Churchill and Churchillian values in the 21st century. We should try to analyse Churchill in all his complexity, rather than selecting this convenient hero narrative or damning him completely. Such an examination reveals much about racism in Modern Britain, as well as the legacy of a national history fraught with global violence and exploitation.
The Bengal famine of 1943 rarely receives publicity and is generally consigned to the margins of public interest. Yet, it claimed more than six times the amount of British military and civilian deaths during the entirety of World War II. Its architect, according to many of Churchill’s critics, was our famed bulldog. Whilst still a British possession, Churchill chose to divert food away from Bengal to other countries such as Greece. This coincided with the effects of an already worsening drought ultimately resulting in the deaths of over three million Indians – although some argue that even this horrific figure is too conservative. His role was therefore central to the disaster, with Indian Politician Shashi Tharoor arguing in 2017 that Churchill was one of the “worst genocidal dictators” of the 20th century.
Further to that, many have attributed the famine to Churchill’s own personal dislike of Indians. He is quoted as saying that they “breed like rabbits”, and that “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”. Moreover, this feeling of animosity and superiority was not just confined to the people of India. In 1937, he told the Palestine Royal Commission that: “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 to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” Truly a white supremacist; perhaps an apt comparison then to a prime minister who once referred to Africans as “Piccanninies” and having “watermelon smiles”.
Of course, this racism should be balanced with Churchill’s own criticism of the slave trade, and his willingness to sign the 1941 Atlantic Charter, asserting ‘the right of all peoples to choose the form of Government under which they will live’. Likewise, Arthur Herman, author of Gandhi & Churchill, argued that the famine could have been worse had Churchill not eventually intervened once he realised its true extent. Certainly, Churchill was not a ‘Hitler’ and direct comparisons would be inappropriate.
Nevertheless, we see all too often that people downplay or overlook Churchill’s racism, preferring that he represent the British ‘stiff upper lip’ rather than the complexity of British history and its relationship with racism. But this polarisation is particularly dangerous: by downplaying his white supremacy, we reinforce systemic racism within Britain since Churchill then epitomises how Britons choose to ignore racism, and even celebrate those who are racially prejudiced. Britain is therefore in an uneasy position, challenged with renegotiating its relationship with a violent past but also trying to justify its heroes. One should note that Aimé Césaire, a politician and negritude writer from Martinique, made the observation that Hitler was not an anomaly, rather he reflected the rampant xenophobia found throughout Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, in his position of saint, Churchill remains a figure of racial oppression in the UK, and the defacement of his statue a powerful step in the battle for racial equality.
Indeed, this binary understanding of history is not just limited to people’s appreciation of Churchill but is endemic within the spheres of primary and secondary education. Studying the British Empire as a twelve-year-old we learnt that its position as a global power could be owed to the discovery of coal; taking the moral vanguard, it led the battle to abolish slavery among the other European nations; the colonies were economic backwaters and full of oriental superstition. This is of course a very narrow understanding of the British Empire, its relationship with slavery, as well as the peoples it colonised. Renowned historian Thomas Piketty has commented that the British isles only stayed afloat during its period of industrialisation due to its global exploitation of resources and labour.
Similarly, abolition in 1833 was caused by a combination of factors, where moral virtue was battled alongside politicians adopting the dogma of economist Adam Smith: he argued that slaves would be more productive if free, since they would want to work for reward and the ability to own property. Lastly, the alleged cultural superiority of Britain in relation to its colonies is a much more nuanced topic, and one which should not be portrayed as straightforward. These were and remain complex places, with complex customs which cannot be easily deciphered by the casual observer. Of course, it should be noted that these processes were yet more intricate than those I have described, and an esoteric explanation of the formation of the British Empire goes beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, if children grow up with such simplistic narratives about Britain’s historic relationship with racism, how can we expect people to understand the moral complexity of figures such as Churchill, and the controversy surrounding them?
Perhaps if we were taught to appreciate a more nuanced take on history, figures such as Churchill could be seen for who they were: neither absolute hero nor absolute villain, but complex characters who should be both lauded as well as criticised, and their misdoings not repeated. Certainly, we need to avoid binary narratives which are too easily open to misinterpretation and may be weaponised. However, understanding Churchill in all of his flawed complexity does not mean absolution for his actions. The whole of society should hold him accountable for that which he has done, both good and bad: if society hopes to progress to greater equality, we must recognise the pain he has caused. We must also remember that History is rarely so polarised as to have such clear depictions of heroes or villains.
Image by Cecil Beaton. Available on Wikimedia Commons under IMW Non Commercial Licence