Racist Or National Saviour? On Winston Churchill, Everyone Is Right

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I see we are arguing about Winston Churchill again.

Twitter has lit up once more with claims he was a racist or a saviour after Green MSP Ross Greer labelled Churchill a mass murderer. Phrases like ‘white supremacist’ and ‘you’d all be speaking German’ are bouncing around social media like so many doodlebugs.

Churchill is so very now. Everywhere you look, up pops Churchill, whether it’s trying to rule, wreck and partition Ireland in the 1920s, standing ‘alone’ (with India, Australia, Canada) against Nazi Germany in 1940 or creating, then rejecting, the idea of European co-operation in the 1950s.

Without sounding overly like I’m breaking up a fight at a toddlers’ party, everyone is right. Churchill was a racist. According to Andrew Roberts, Churchill was so outspokenly racist in the 1920s that he shocked fellow Conservative Cabinet members. I can’t quite imagine what it is you’d say to upset a Conservative Cabinet minister in the 1920s but it would have to pretty bad. He was also a dyed in the wool imperialist from the cavalry charges of his youth to his presiding over Britain’s very own gulags in Kenya in the 1950s.

What’s more, his racism and imperialism had terrible consequences. There’s not much wriggle room in a phrase like “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” that he wrote in an official document. The great marks against him flow directly from his racism. The Bengal famine of 1943 was worsened when, instead of sending aid as his Viceroy pleaded him to do, Churchill felt starving Indians could ‘tighten their belts’(though this is disputed). Countries still feel the effects of his actions, from famine in India to the Black and Tans in Ireland.

Recently, Churchill’s reputation has been dragged down because every fascist in the world seems to want in on his reflected glory. Trump visited Blenheim Place, Churchill’s birthplace. Brazil’s new far right president, Jair Bolsonaro, claimed he couldn’t be a fascist because he’d read all six volumes of Winnie’s war memoirs. It’s a strange defence. I’d say, tentatively, that claiming to have read all six volumes makes him a good reader. It also puts him in a group that includes (for one time only) myself and John Lennon, who both made similar claims about having read them. However, it doesn’t stop him being a fascist. I’ve got bad news for you sunshine: Hitler read books too. My simpler definition of whether you are fascist, ‘do you do and say fascist things?’, puts Bolsonaro very firmly in the fascist camp. Along with Trump.

However, and here’s where it goes complicated, Churchill was also a national saviour. For those months between May 1940, when Britain stood ‘alone’ (with two million Indian troops), and June 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, he symbolised resistance, supported, unswervingly, by Labour’s Clement Attlee. He won over doubters in his Cabinet and convinced Hitler that Britain was still capable of doing Germany harm (which he did by sinking his ex-allies’ ships and killing French sailors). He also referred to Hitler as ‘Corporal’ Hitler because he knew his low rank riled him. Stalin, not one to give compliments over the winning of the Second World War, spoke of how Churchill had bought vital ‘time’ (he added that the Soviet Union supplied the blood).

Confused? Well, you should be. Judging democratic leaders is a tricky business and full of contradictions. Do we judge Tony Blair for bringing peace in Northern Ireland, or war to Iraq? Clement Attlee gave us the NHS but also left the world with conflicts in Palestine/Israel and Kashmir. If we blame Churchill, as we should, for the Bengal famine, what about Attlee and partition?

Reputations, as George Harrison once sang, are changeable. Churchill got double lucky. He was lucky, first, because his ‘walk with destiny’ in 1940 threw into the shade all he did before and what came after, from famine to gulags. It’s very hard to see around the phrase ‘he helped rid the world of Nazism’, which is lodged in the popular imagination, at least in Britain. If Nazi Germany had invaded Britain, having to speak German would have been the least of our problems.

He was also lucky because he wrote the history books that defined the Second World War. His six volume memoirs of World War Two are wonderfully written tomes, from his claim he slept well on being appointed prime minister because “he was in control of events” to his telling off of Stalin for his mass murder of the Kulaks (other sources have Churchill weeping in the back of the car after being appointed prime minister, convinced that it was too late).

Churchill could probably teach Theresa May a few things. He too survived votes of confidence and lost elections to supposed left-wing extremists. Most of all, Churchill’s lesson is that May’s only chance to save her reputation is to buy herself some biros and a pukka pad and write a good memoir.

The Curse of the Takeover Prime Minister

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The curse of the ‘takeover’ Prime Minister has struck Theresa May. Most Prime Ministers who take over from another leader rather than win an election have short, unhappy times in office. To give you a flavour, here’s the list of post-war takeovers:

  • Anthony Eden (1955–57)
  • Harold Macmillan (1957–63)
  • Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64)
  • James Callaghan (1976–79)
  • John Major (1990–97)
  • Gordon Brown (2007–10)
  • Theresa May (2016–?)

With probably one exception, this is not a list of successful or happy Prime Ministers. Most do badly in leadership rating polls. In fact, it looks pretty much like a list of failed leaders, with at least one name that should make you shout ‘who’?

As you can see, most of them didn’t spend long in Downing Street. If success is about staying put, then few of them did. Alec Douglas-Home (‘who’?) only managed 364 days. Most struggled to get past the three-year mark, with Macmillan and Major as exceptions.

Of course, judging what makes for a successful or failed leader is tricky. Assessments and reputations change over time. Four of them did do what Prime Ministers are supposed to do and actually went on to win a general election: Eden in 1955, Macmillan in 1959, Major in 1992 and May, of course, in 2017. But did winning do them any good? It didn’t bring Anthony Eden or John Major much comfort – and John Major bitterly regretted the narrowness of his win, which kept him trapped by a group of what Philip Hammond would call extremists. May’s ‘win’ in 2017 was probably the worst victory of all – a win that was very much a loss.

But the curse runs deeper than that. Only Harold Macmillan really stands out as a leader who went on to govern pretty successfully for six years, famously telling everyone they had never had it so good (unless you were an immigrant, in which case he passed a law limiting immigration because some Teddy Boys attacked some immigrants, which was an odd reaction).

One study of John Major spoke of how he became trapped in a ‘downward spiral’. In fact, this pattern fits most of the others, who hit similar spirals of the three Ps: problems, party and popularity. Problems seem to come in multitudes for takeover Prime Ministers. Of course, the very fact they had to assume power meant there was a problem. Most of the leaders either inherit a crisis, or walked quickly into the path of one. Callaghan hit the mid-1970s IMF crisis, Major faced Black Wednesday and Brown the banking crash. Even Macmillan had to manage the fallout from Suez. Many of them are remembered as crisis leaders trying, and often failing, to cope.

Their parties made things worse. Politically they often inherited divided or unhappy parties, sometimes after long-serving, powerful leaders who cast a long shadow. Major’s party was torn apart on Europe; Brown’s over Iraq. Recent takeovers illustrate Anthony King’s point that British politics is an ‘over the shoulder’ democracy, where leaders must watch their backbenchers behind them, not the ones opposite. Engulfed by crisis and splits, a leader’s popularity often plummets, with Major described as ‘so unpopular, if he became a funeral director people would stop dying’.

So, as things get worse, along comes a fourth P, plots. John Major faced a leadership election in 1995, after telling his party critics to ‘put up or shut up’. He won on paper but was even more undermined in practice: his not-quite-enough victory encouraged his enemies rather than shut them up – something May should note. Gordon Brown fought off at least three leadership plots but lost authority each time he did.

John Major describes candidly in his autobiography how this all felt, expressing his regret at how defensive he was:

‘I shall regret always that I rarely found my own authentic voice in politics. I was too conservative, too conventional. Too safe, too often. Too defensive. Too reactive. Later, too often on the back foot…. I made only a beginning and it was not enough.’ (Major 1999, xxi)

This appears to be exactly where May is now, seemingly trapped in a downward spiral. This is not to say she is the victim of events – she could easily have taken on the ERG and opted for telling the truth about what Brexit meant. May decided to pretend Brexit was do-able, and could be done in a way that suited everyone and kept the UK and her party together. Brexit isn’t very do-able and so far has kept no one together, triggering or worsening at my count four constitutional crises. All her victories seem to be Pyrrhic ones, from the general election to the December 2017 backstop and now her leadership election: wins that are just temporary retrieves. Her gender makes it all the more difficult – the media never focused on David Cameron crying.

Perhaps her only saving grace is Brexit. Brexit is the cause of her downfall but also protects her, in a curious way. Many MPs are wary of removing her and even more wary of who will replace her. It has also distracted from a host of other failures. I’d hope that in ‘normal’ times a government that sent British Windrush citizens to other countries, where 11 of them died before ever seeing their homes again, would resign in shame at its failure to care, failure to heed warnings and failure to help.

Not all takeovers share unhappy fates. David Lloyd George in 1916 and Winston Churchill in 1940 both took over during world wars and were and are fêted as ’great’. However, for all May tried to remind us of Churchill with her ‘finishing the job’ comment when faced with the vote of no confidence, it is another takeover premier she most resembles.

Most Prime Ministers want to be Winston Churchill and try to avoid being Neville Chamberlain. This is not to make a summer of 1940 point – we’ve had far too many of those already. Unfortunately for May, there are some eerie parallels with Chamberlain, who has become a byword for failure. Both were diligent and hard-working with a ‘narrow sharp edged efficiency’. They were also aloof, secretive, obstinate and given to narrow thinking, with an unwillingness to back down: happy, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘to strive continually in the teeth of facts’. She can only hope that she won’t have to repeat Chamberlain’s remarkable admission of failure in September 1939: ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. See also the paper by Ben Worthy, (2016) ‘Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916–2016’ available here.