© unsplash.com / Vincent Creton
With his bronze statue in London’s Parliament Square getting daubed in some uncomplimentary (but to be honest, accurate) graffiti during the anti-racism demonstrations on June 8th, and then being unceremoniously closed up inside a giant box to protect it from further protests, and then being the subject of a scurrilous and rabble-rousing campaign by the Daily Mail whereby people were urged to sign a petition to stop it being removed – as if there was actually one iota of political willpower in Britain to get rid of it – Winston Churchill and the question of whether he was a good guy or a bad guy are back in the news. In fact, Churchill and all things relating to the British experience of World War II seem more prominent than ever with the death on June 18th of wartime ‘Forces’ Sweetheart’ Dame Vera Lynn. With impeccable timing, Dame Vera died 80 years to the day that Churchill delivered his ‘finest hour’ speech.
Therefore, it seems timely to dust down and repost this blog entry about Churchill, which first appeared here in January 2019 while a high-profile bust-up about Churchill’s moral standing was taking place between Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament Ross Greer and Good Morning Britain presenter / gobshite Piers Morgan.
I know it’s wishing for way too much, but it’s a pity there hasn’t been less heated and more nuanced debate about Churchill, about the opinions he held and decisions he made, and about the influence he’s had since his death. This is especially so as Churchill has seemingly become a totemic figure for the half of the British electorate who in June 2016 voted to leave the European Union. Indeed, in this era of all-pervasive social media, when everybody seems to have a twitter and Facebook account, if not a website and a blog, I suspect there’s been more written about the man since the Brexit vote that was ever written about him before it.
So what to make of Churchill? A hero? A villain? Or something in between? Well, here are the facts as I see them for the prosecution and the defence. Those for the prosecution are numerous and varied. Those for the defence are brief, but weighty.
In his correspondence as a young man attached to the Malakand Field Force, which fought Mohmand rebels in the Swat Valley in Northwest India in 1897, Churchill comes across as racist and bellicose. He said of the Pashtun tribespeople: “in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.” Admittedly, the tribespeople were brutal towards anyone who antagonised them, but the British more than matched them for cruelty. In a letter in September 1897, Churchill wrote approvingly that: “After today we begin to burn villages. Every one. And all who resist will be killed without quarter.” Later, in his autobiography, he noted how “every tribesman who was caught was speared or cut down at once.”
A decade later, when he was British Home Secretary, one of Churchill’s more alarming enthusiasms was for eugenics. He wrote about his fear that the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes… constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate” and advocated sterilization as a solution. Writing in a departmental paper in 1910, he suggested the solution of labour camps alongside that of sterilization: “I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race.”
Predictably, Churchill’s views on sexual equality were no more enlightened. Of the suffrage movement, he once commented: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise. I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance.”
From britishbattles.com / painting by Charles Dixon
Churchill saw World War I, when he was in charge of the British Admiralty, as an opportunity for glory: “I have it in me to be a successful soldier,” he boasted. “I can visualise great movements and combinations.” Unfortunately, the great movement he visualised – sending the fleet up the Dardanelles and grabbing Constantinople and the waterways that linked the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, thus enfeebling the Ottoman Empire, improving access between the Allies and Russia and drawing Greece, Romania and Bulgaria into the war on the Allies’ side – resulted in the bloody, nine-month stalemate of Gallipoli in 1915. This ended with a death toll of 65,000 Turks, 26,000 Britons, 8,000 French, 7,800 Australians, 2,445 New Zealanders and 1,682 Indians. Churchill stayed unrepentant about what he’d tried and failed to achieve at Gallipoli: “The Dardanelles might have saved millions of lives. Don’t imagine I am running away from the Dardanelles. I glory in it.” However, the site historyextra.com gives his scheme a damning assessment: “…far from being a brilliant, potentially war-winning strategy, it was a piece of folly that was always likely to fail.”
One thing I’ll give Churchill credit for. After the Gallipoli fiasco, he joined the British Army, became a battalion commander and served with the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers. According to his Wikipedia entry, this included 36 ventures into No Man’s Land. If only every politician who made a military blunder was forced to pay for it by becoming a soldier in a warzone. There’d surely be fewer military blunders by politicians. In fact, there’d be a hell of a lot less military adventurism by them in the first place.
1917 saw the Russian Revolution and no sooner had the 1918 Armistice been signed than the British establishment had something new, Bolshevism, to worry about. Churchill was dismayingly inclined to blame this on a Jewish conspiracy: “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders… Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews ever whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing.”
In February 1919, the fear that Britain was on the cusp of a workers’ revolution helped Churchill, as Secretary of State for Air and War, and his cabinet colleagues decide to send 10,000 troops into Glasgow to deal with striking workers. Churchill already had form in this area. As Home Secretary in 1910 he’d sent in troops to deal with striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales. Unsurprisingly, today, Churchill is not quite as widely revered among the Scots and Welsh as he is among his fellow Englishmen. His disdain for the labour movement hadn’t abated by the time of the General Strike in 1926. While the Prime Minister Lord Birkenhead tried to reach agreement with the Trade Unions, he was strongly opposed by Churchill, who was desperate for an all-out fight with them.
Elsewhere on these islands, Churchill is not remembered with much affection in Ireland. In 1920, he oversaw the deployment in Ireland of the Black and Tans, the police force who soon became notorious for their unrestrained brutality and whose memory poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for decades afterwards. Churchill ignored warnings that the damage that the Black and Tans were doing. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson commented: “I warned him again that those Black and Tans who are committing very indiscriminate reprisals will play the devil in Ireland, but he won’t listen or agree.” As for the Tans’ habit of killing suspected troublemakers without bothering to arrest them and put them on trial, Wilson said, “Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.”
Unsurprisingly, Churchill is better thought of among the pro-British Protestant community of Northern Ireland. But this wasn’t always so. It’s said that in 1912, when he visited Belfast, thousands of Protestant workers from the Harland and Wolff shipyard lined the streets wanting to pelt his car with rivets, on account of his support for Irish Home Rule. And though Ulster Protestants often express pride about Northern Ireland taking part in the UK’s war effort from 1939 to 1945 while southern Ireland opted to remain neutral, it must rankle that Churchill offered Eamon De Valera a united Ireland if he agreed to bring his country into the war on Britain’s side.
Churchill also found time to leave his mark on Iraq: not in a good way. As convener of a conference in Cairo in 1912 to draw up the boundaries of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandate, he unwisely lumped together three warring factions, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, within the borders of the new country. And when Shiites and Sunnis rebelled against British colonial rule there in 1920, Churchill ordered military oppression and retribution on par with what he’d seen in the Swat Valley 23 years earlier – villages burned, civilians as well as combatants killed – and employed some deadly new technology too. He approved the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, having opined earlier: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes… It will cause great inconvenience and spread a lively terror.”
Also causing great inconvenience and lively terror was his use of ‘aerial policing’, i.e. getting the RAF to bomb Iraqi villages. Unsurprisingly, these bombings, still within living memory, didn’t put the Iraqi population at ease when in the early 2000s British troops arrived again in their country thanks to the actions of Tony Blair and George Bush Jr.
Churchill also sent planes and chemical weapons to attack Bolsheviks in northern Russia in 1919. Again, he was unrepentant about waging chemical warfare: “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell that makes the said native sneeze? It is really too silly.”
The biggest stain on Churchill’s record is surely his role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed three million or more lives. Let me quote the Indian writer and politician Dr Shashi Tharoor: “Not only did the British pursue its own policy of not helping the victims of this famine which was created by their policies. Churchill persisted in exporting grain to Europe, not to feed actual ‘Sturdy Tommies’, to use his phrase, but to add to the buffer stocks that were being piled up in the event of a future invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia… Ships laden with wheat were coming in from Australia, docking in Calcutta and were instructed by Churchill not to disembark their cargo but sail on to Europe. And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life all he could do was write peevishly in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”
Another charge against Churchill during World War Two is that in 1944 he basically threw the Greek resistance movement, i.e. the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the National Liberation Front (EAM), under the bus. Previously, they’d fought alongside the British, against the Nazis. However, afraid of the Communist Party’s influence within the resistance, and wanting to restore the monarchy and general pre-war status quo in Greece, he opted to abandon the partisans and place British support behind elements who’d collaborated with the Nazis. These included officers in the Security Battalions and SS-affiliated Special Security Branch and they were soon incorporated into the post-occupation army, security forces and judiciary. The result was the gunning down of unarmed protestors in Athens on December 3rd, 1944, which marked the beginning of the five-week conflict in the city known as the Dekemvriana; which in turn helped lead to the three-year Greek Civil War, estimated to have cost some 158,000 lives.
Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 but returned for a second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955. It was on this watch that he responded to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in a characteristically sledgehammer manner. By the uprising’s end, it was calculated that colonial forces had killed 10,000 Africans, roughly four times the number killed by the Mau Mau. Indeed, if you were a white settler in Kenya, you stood a better chance of dying in a road accident than at the hands of the rebels. The techniques employed by British troops for dealing with the Mau Mau included mass arrests, mass trials, mass hangings, torture, whippings, mutilations, the burning of villages, ‘free fire zones’ where any African person could be a target, forced labour and huge detention camps where disease and maltreatment were rife and conditions were scarcely any better than they’d been in German and Japanese camps a decade earlier.
It’s no surprise that when Barack Obama became US president in 2008, a miniature act of statue removal was carried out in the Oval Office. Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had been among those arrested and tortured during the Mau Mau uprising, saw it that Churchill’s bust disappeared from his workplace.
That’s a damning charge-sheet. What’s to be said in Churchill’s defence? Well, it’s a trite observation, but though the man’s opinions and decisions were frequently rotten, they weren’t as rotten as those offered by the opposing side between 1939 and 1945. No doubt Churchill’s idea of utopia was a British Empire where the sun never set. There’d be a catastrophic famine here, and a bloodily put-down insurgency there, but he’d regard that as the regrettable but unavoidable price of the White Man having to shoulder his civilising burden… And the White Man continuing on the side to fill his pockets with the trade and plunder of his colonies. Among the Empire’s ‘subjects’, life for many would be humiliating and wretched, and for some pretty hellish. But compare that with Adolf Hitler’s idea of utopia, which frankly doesn’t bear thinking about.
And he was in possession of good qualities – courage, determination, intellect, a rhetorical flair – that enabled him to galvanise the British population to make a stand against Nazism and prevent all of Western Europe from falling under Hitler’s influence. Of course, saying he won the war for Britain is different from saying he won the war full stop, which is what many of his modern-day fans in Britain seem to believe he did.
As the saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man. That the man happened to be an asshole in most other ways doesn’t denigrate his achievements during the hour itself. I’d like to think that if I’d lived in Britain during World War II, and I’d known about Churchill what I know about him now, I wouldn’t have let the old git into my house. But I’d have been secretly and grudgingly relieved that he was running the country at the time.
A while ago, the Times columnist Alex Massey penned an article on the subject. Though I find Massey a bit right-wing and fogeyish, I agree with his article’s title: CHURCHILL WAS A GREAT BRITON, NOT A GREAT MAN. I don’t, however, agree with some of Massey’s sentiments. He claims that it’s wrong to apply the value judgements of the 21st century to a historical figure whose views were typical of and acceptable among the British ruling class of his time. But in fact, there were plenty of people alive when Churchill was alive who detested him too. However, they tended to be Indians, Kenyans, Greeks, Irish, Iraqis, etc. People whose opinions rarely get much coverage in British history books.
Come to think of it, Britons would find it enlightening if they got their history from sources in a wider and more international pool than they do now. In these Brexiting times, unfortunately, with World War II the only bit of history that many British people seem to care about, and with British politicians talking misty-eyed about creating a trading ‘Empire 2.0’ after withdrawal from the EU, I don’t think British awareness of history is going to get any wider.
It’s going to get even narrower, which won’t be good for Britain’s future place in the world.
© unsplash.com / Arthur Osipyan