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.