Winston Churchill Was Not Your Friend

Winston Churchill has become all but deified in modern Britain. But in his own lifetime, Churchill was often recognized for who he really was: an unrepentant imperialist and racist, a foe of trade unions and women’s rights, and a defender of elite privilege.

Winston Churchill before his eighty-second birthday in 1956. (Keystone / Getty Images)

Winston Churchill has become a burnished icon whose cult has long been out of control. Interestingly, during his life, it was a relatively low-profile cult. Even at the height of the Blitz it was nothing like what it would later become in the hands of Tory politicians and a layer of conservative and liberal historians.

A brace of movies in 2017 was preceded by numerous biographies. There are currently more than sixteen hundred books on Churchill. Several shelves are devoted to him in the biography section of the London Library — even more in the British Library — and that is excluding his own prolific output.

Who and what was Churchill? Was he anything more than a plump carp happy to swim in the foulest of ponds as long as his own career and the needs of the Empire (in his own mind there was no difference between the two) were fulfilled? A little more, perhaps, but not too much. What accounts, then, for his elevation to a cult figure?


The cult proper, with all its excesses, long postdates World War II. Anthony Barnett, in his sharp polemic against the Falklands/Malvinas war waged by Margaret Thatcher in 1982, suggested that the birth of “Churchillism” was linked to the propaganda need to secure acceptance of that conflict. It was eagerly and embarrassingly promoted by Michael Foot, the Labour leader at the time. As Barnett writes:

Churchillism is like the warp of British political culture through which all the main tendencies weave their different colours. Although drawn from the symbol of the wartime persona, Churchillism is quite distinct from the man himself. Indeed, the real Churchill was reluctantly and uneasily conscripted to the compact of policies and parties which he seemed to embody. Yet the fact that the ideology is so much more than the emanation of the man is part of the secret of its power and durability.

One could add that the manufactured love for Churchill, and the uses made of him, came to embody the nostalgia for an Empire that was long gone, but that had been supported by all three political parties and the large trade unions. The “glory days” of the past have become embedded in the historical subconscious of the British.

And when it was needed — such as in 1982, when the reality that the United Kingdom was little more than a few North European islands was difficult to accept — his name was invoked. Thatcher’s successful war gave her another term of office and projected her as the leaderene. She even began referring to Churchill as “Winston,” as if to suggest she had known him personally.

The social historian Paul Addison concurred with Barnett on the importance of the Falklands conflict in relaunching Churchill. He suggested that the cultural and political regression could be traced to the failure of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath to modernize the country in the 1960s and ’70s: “In spirit at least, Churchill has outlived them, taking his place again in British politics as one of the household gods of Mrs Thatcher.”

Nevertheless, Addison further argued that those same decades had brought with them a refreshing breeze to clear the cobwebs:

The patriotic epic, except in the debased and self-destructive form of the Bond films, was an offence to the spirit of the age. The old military-imperial spectaculars were acceptable only when infused with anti-war feeling and social satire, as in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade.

When, in 1974, Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play opened under Richard Eyre’s direction at the Nottingham Playhouse, it was applauded by audiences and welcomed by most critics. The play opens at Churchill’s funeral. The uniformed men carrying the coffin hear rumblings from inside the catafalque. They look at one another in horror:

MARINE: He’ll come out, he’ll come out. I do believe that of him. Capable of anything that one. [Fiercely] To bugger working people. [He coughs. Recovers. Fiercely] We’ve never forgiven him in Wales. He sent soldiers against us, the bloody man. Sent soldiers against Welsh mining men in 1910.  . . He was our enemy. We hated his gut. The fat English upper-class gut of the man. When they had the collection, for the statue in front of Parliament . . . All over Wales town and county councils would not collect. . .

PRIVATE: But ’e won the war. ’E did that, ’E did that.

MARINE: People won the war. He just got pissed with Stalin. . .

CHURCHILL [From within his coffin]: England! Y’ stupid old woman. Clapped out. Undeserving, Unthankful. After all I did for you, You bloody tramp!

CHURCHILL bursts out of his coffin, swirling the Union Jack. The Churchill actor must assume an exact replica. His face is a mask. He holds an unlit cigar. The SERVICEMEN turn round and back away, rifles at the ready.

Anglophone Nostalgia

In the United States the success of the Churchill industry, which has promoted the man as the “Yankee Marlborough,” has been relative to shifting priorities on the academic and cultural fronts. In the mid-1980s, the Thatcher–Reagan economic consensus required a political and cultural remodeling and a psychological reconditioning in tune with the start of a new world order. New stories were needed for a global Anglophone marketplace.

As a result, numerous British documentaries, serials, and films were geared for adoption by the larger market. As far as the British culture industry was concerned, what the US public wanted to watch were Jane Austen adaptations, each one cruder and more dumbed down than the last, and costumed soaps glorifying the pre-1945 ruling classes. Churchill became the daily fibre for this staple diet.

The British actor Robert Hardy even played him in three separate movies: Churchill: The Wilderness Years, War and Remembrance and Churchill: 100 Days That Saved Britain. The living Churchill always understood the importance of history and, not least, his own part in it. His witty boast that “I have not always been wrong. History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself,” was only half a joke. That is what he did from his early years, producing further self-justificatory accounts across the succeeding decades.

Now, early in the twenty-first century, Churchill’s deification as the imperial warlord par excellence is being challenged by a small but effective minority of decolonizers. They are demanding his statues be removed and have actively engaged in disfiguring at least one of them. Nothing too unusual there, if one takes the long view. As the historian of the ancient world, Mary Beard, pointed out, this was the fate of not a few Roman Emperors during the existence of that empire.

It was a tradition emulated in later European empires. One of the worst criminals Europe ever produced was Leopold of Belgium, whose ownership of and brutalities in the Congo led to the deaths of several million Africans. His statues in Belgium fell in the spring of 2020, during protests triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

Whether the toppling of statues is just a spasm, and things will return, as they so often do, to post-imperial conformity, remains to be seen. Despite his enormous talent as a self-publicist, a source of much irritation to his liberal and conservative colleagues, Churchill did not in the end need to “write the history myself.” He would have been delighted not only by the diligence of his epigones in burnishing his image, but also by the weightless attacks of his few critics.

Imperial Mission

With a keen eye on book sales, Churchill did not particularly mind a little negative publicity if it helped shift a few copies. Money was always in short supply. This tolerance, however, would perhaps not have stretched to encompass assaults on the British imperial mission, whether leveled against him in critiques by colonial subjects in the past, or launched on his statue by protesters on English campuses today.

Imperialism was Churchill’s true religion. He was never ashamed of it. Even before he became its High Priest, he worshipped at its altar. The British Empire, then possessor of the largest chunk of colonies the world had ever seen, was for him an awe-inspiring achievement.

With this view came a belief in and promotion of racial and civilizational superiority. But the maintenance and defense of the Empire was the prism through which Churchill viewed this and almost everything else at home and abroad. Race faded into the background when the enemies of the British Empire were white and part of the same “civilization.”

Churchill admired the fierceness demonstrated by the Boers in Southern Africa, but not that of the Pashtun tribes resisting the British on the northwest frontier of India; he appreciated the Gurkhas’ capacity to fight in Nepal, but only because they had been trained by the British as imperial auxiliaries. The Third Reich might be awful, but it was not as unacceptable as the hateful Japanese, who became hateful only after they attacked British colonies in Asia.

Empire so dominated Churchill’s political thought that no adventure was too risky, no crime too costly, no war unnecessary, if British possessions, global hegemony, and trade interests were at stake. Domestic upheavals and conflicts that threatened the status quo would also be dealt with harshly. Churchill might have changed political parties at will to enhance his own career, but this rarely affected his politics.

Virtually any reactionary cause that emerged could rely on him for support. He may not have been opposed to middle- and upper-class women bicycling or playing tennis, or, in the case of married women, having their own bank accounts or slashing their evening skirts. What he strongly objected to was the extension of democracy. Women’s suffrage, he argued,

is contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states . . . only the most undesirable class of women are eager for the right — those who discharge their duty to state — viz marrying & giving birth to children are adequately represented by their husbands . . . I shall unswervingly oppose this ridiculous movement.

The militant suffragette movement, in particular, angered him. He assumed, like many other men and women, that granting women the right to vote would double the electoral strength of the working class. Votes for women challenged the male monopoly of politics and a great deal else. His views on this were never hidden during either his Liberal or his Conservative days.

Toy Soldier

In many ancient religions, there were sacred figures who performed specific functions. The most important of these was the role of binders: almost everything was bound to and linked through them. Politically, Winston Churchill never played such a role during his lifetime, except for a limited period at the height of the war.

Even then, critics who defied or challenged him were rarely silenced. “Idolatry is a sin in a democracy,” Aneurin Bevan, the left-wing Labour MP, had shouted when the flattery became too intense. In style, Churchill was often impulsive, always discursive, sometimes chaotic but also possessed a peculiar dynamism that made him, despite his class, quite down-to-earth.

He was equally at home at Blenheim Palace as in the murky corridors of the political underworld. He became prime minister at a time when Britain faced an existential crisis, with the country’s elite and its citizens seriously divided on the dangers posed by the Third Reich. Till then, he had been little more than a clever politician engaged in career building and desperate to climb as high as he could.

To which end he was prepared to get his hands dirty. Very dirty. This aspect of him was aired in the popular BBC drama, Peaky Blinders, where Churchill is portrayed giving support to a Special Branch officer tasked with killing Sinn Féin supporters in the Midlands. His pre-war career — glorifying colonial atrocities abroad, suppressing working-class revolts at home — dwelled in the memory of his opponents among the populace.

In “A Safe Job,” a short story published in the New Reasoner in the late 1950s, Peter Barnes brought back to life a Labour activist in London’s East End, where mainly Jewish and a sprinkling of non-Jewish migrant workers had given the area a strong reputation for radical politics. The opening paragraph conveys a flavor of the times:

My Uncle Nathaniel was the man who threw a brick at Churchill in 1929. He always regretted that he had missed. It happened when Churchill was making a campaign speech in the East End. The crowd got out of hand and tried to charge him. Beating a hasty retreat to a waiting car, the politician was helped on his way by jeers, catcalls, and a badly aimed brick. My Uncle threw it. He had been an active Socialist all his life. This story was one of his favourites. . .

Stories of this nature were not uncommon, even amidst the great dangers of the war years. The eminent geographer David Harvey recalls:

My grandma would only shop at the co-op and when I was 8 or 9 (in 1943–4) I often spent Saturdays with her. One time we went somewhere to get her “divvy” and we ended up in some queue where she pontificated rather loudly to the effect that Churchill was a rotten bugger, enemy of the working people. I was banned from using such language at home so I probably remember it because it was quite shocking to hear her going on in that vein in a public setting. Quite a few people were getting upset and defended him for leading the fight against Hitler to which my grandma replied that Hitler was a rotten bugger too and maybe it would take one rotten bugger to get rid of another rotten bugger but after this war was over we would get rid of all the rotten buggers, every one of them . . . I told this anecdote to a colleague when at Oxford and he told me around the same period he went to picture shows on Saturday mornings and they always showed Pathé News and when a certain person appeared on screen the whole audience would hiss and boo. He thought it was Hitler for a while, but it turned out to be Churchill.

A New York Times writer in the 1970s was taken aback while interviewing Richard Burton after his success playing Churchill in a TV dramatization. The actor, asked for his own views on the great man, replied: “I hate Churchill and all his kind . . . a bad man . . . a vindictive toy soldier child.” Burton had grown up in the Welsh valleys.

The Dunkirk Spirit

Why this degree of hatred? Churchill was not the only reactionary politician in modern British history. His arrogance is often cited as a factor, and perhaps what angered people was that he was a boaster. He enjoyed his triumphs too well.

The British do not mind forthright leaders, but they do not like British noses being rubbed in British dust. And on too many occasions — at Tonypandy in 1910, during the 1926 General Strike, in Ireland — Churchill treated his own citizens as enemies. How can this ever be universally popular?

Nevertheless, History is unpredictable. It picks an actor, bedecks them with fine costumes, and pushes them to play a particular role to such an extent that the part melds with reality. When the curtain comes down, it dismisses them and picks up new actors, raw but eager to learn, and throws them into battle.

Churchill was one such actor formed by his times. This did not make him a cult figure at the time, in fact the opposite. He was accepted as a war leader, but the ambiguities never disappeared. By the time he became prime minister at the head of a National Government, with Clement Attlee as deputy prime minister, people realized they had nothing else with which to fight a war that had to be fought. So they supported him till the first opportunity arose to get rid of him, which they promptly did, without many regrets, in 1945.

But even during the war the support was always contingent. It needs to be remembered, despite the dramatics of the widely applauded film Darkest Hour, that when Churchill delivered his famous “we shall never surrender” speech, the defeat at Dunkirk had traumatized the nation. It was obvious then that the herd mentality exhibited in World War I would not be at work again. The men fleeing Dunkirk knew how unprepared and badly armed they were, and that the governing class had no idea of why this had happened.

Even semi-defeats raise questions in the minds of those taught to obey their superior officers at all times. Dunkirk caused a serious loss of self-confidence in ruling-class circles. The Tory gang running the country was not at all sure whether Britain could survive. They had won the propaganda war, but the much-touted “spirit of Dunkirk” was little more than a victory mask concealing a dejected and fearful face.

On July 1, 1940, The Times published a remarkable editorial that is still more or less applicable today, but could not be written by any employee of Rupert Murdoch or, for that matter, any liberal media outlet in the Western world:

If we speak of democracy, we do not mean a democracy which maintains the right to vote but forgets the right to work and the right to live. If we speak of freedom, we do not mean a rugged individualism which excludes social organization and economic planning. If we speak of equality we do not mean a political equality nullified by social and economic privilege. If we speak of economic reconstruction we think less of maximum production (though this too will be required) than of equitable distribution . . . . The European house cannot be put in order unless we put our own house in order first. The new order cannot be based on the preservation of privilege, whether the privilege be that of a country, of a class, or of an individual.

Myths and Memory

By 1943, discontent with Churchill’s leadership was widespread among the governing elite. Singapore had fallen to Japan. Gandhi and Nehru had launched a Quit India movement that was bound to affect the morale of the tens of thousands of Indians serving as cannon fodder. The ultra-nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose had decided to create an Indian National Army, recruited from Indian POWs captured by the Japanese, tasked with fighting the British in India.

At home, the failure to achieve production targets had affected supplies in Britain and on the frontlines. A Gallup poll revealed that only one-third of the population expressed satisfaction with the war Cabinet, i.e. Churchill. Cecil Beaton, a friend of Conservative politicians, reported that they freely discussed Churchill’s faults and weaknesses. When asked who might replace him, they replied: “Sir Stafford Cripps.” Not Atlee, not Ernest Bevin, but their Labour colleague Cripps, a name rarely conjured with today as the greatest leader we never had.

Discontent in the military too was evident. The now-forgotten “Forces Parliament” took place in Cairo between 1943 and 1944. Organized by soldiers to discuss the future of Britain after the war, the “Cairo Parliament” was inspired by the Putney debates between the Levellers and Oliver Cromwell. It discussed nationalization, land and banking reform, inheritance, and work. In the mock elections Labour obtained a thumping majority. The Tories came last. Inevitably the exercise was swiftly shut down.

Ahead of the 1945 general election, it was widely assumed that a Tory victory was inevitable, given Churchill’s prestige in the war. But The Times leader-writer had been prophetic. Anti-Churchill feelings, especially in working-class communities, had remained strong throughout the war, contrary to the propaganda. Labour swept to victory on a social democratic program that used The Times editorial as its mantra.

Paper Shrines

On Churchill’s death in 1965, tributes and eulogies from all sides were not in short supply. Richard Crossman, a Labour Party intellectual and senior member of Harold Wilson’s Cabinet, grumbled publicly about being forced to attend, and later wrote that “it felt like an end of an epoch, possibly even the end of a nation.” How wrong he was. Many others too.

At that time it did appear that the postwar settlement, the gradual decolonization abroad and the creation of a welfare state with its comforting, happy-families atmosphere had seen off the iniquities of the past and laid the foundations of a post-Churchill modernism. Europe, geographically little more than a cape attached to the giant Asian continent, would become for postwar politicians the embodiment of hope and the repository of Western civilization. Its crimes at home and abroad, its wars, imperial, civil, and religious, were virtually forgotten, with the single exception of the Judeocide.

Most of the obituaries lauded Churchill’s role as wartime prime minister. On other subjects, opinion in the country was much more divided. The morale-boosting propaganda that Churchill had both created and participated in spoke to collective endurance. On this score he had been a masterful rhetorical tactician. What his eulogists forgot was that the history of that endurance ran far deeper, and was far more lasting, than the heroic appeals of a moment.

Many of those who had suffered the mass unemployment of the 1920s and ’30s had not yet passed away. It was not uncommon to hear remarks such as “My family (or my father) hated Churchill.” Many of the soldiers who had greeted him with cheers during the war had also voted against him when it was all but won. Memories were longer in those days.

Even when Churchill was not directly involved, he typified the more adventurist wing of the British ruling class: its violence, its arrogance, its complacency, and its incubation of white supremacy. His military-aristocratic heritage was useful to him, but not a great recommendation for many others. Churchill’s ancestors in the dukedom of Marlborough, after the founding duke died, produced nobody of significance apart from Winston and his father, Randolph. A trend, one could add, that has continued to this day.

Unlike many of his peers, Churchill was not satisfied with being a backroom boy or a passive Member of Parliament. He was, above all, an imperial activist. He wanted to fight, to kill and, if necessary, to die for the cause always uppermost in his mind: the British Empire. Death to all its enemies at home and abroad. And where whites were forced to kill other whites (Boers, the Irish, the Germans), ideologies complementary to white supremacy could be brought into play.

The boom in Churchilliana began four decades ago. Since then Churchill’s history has surreptitiously become that of Britain (or at least England) as a whole. It is easy to forget how it was in 1965. Back then, satirists, filmmakers, and others staunchly opposed imperial wars.

Joan Littlewood’s mocking Oh! What a Lovely War, a savage assault on World War I, packed the Theatre Royal. Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade laid bare the worship of the Imperial Great Game. It would have been hard to predict then the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands war, the instrumentalization of Churchill, now elevated to the status of a Tory icon.

And the legend has grown on both sides of the Atlantic. A cloying scent of incense surrounds most of the paper shrines that commemorate Churchill and his wars, small and big. Together with the celluloid versions, their effectiveness cannot be denied. What the student decolonizers and their allies have made indisputable, however, is that a new conversation has been broached.