Winston Churchill’s Legacy Is Indefensible

Despite overseeing famines in colonial India, celebrating imperial war, and sending troops to attack striking miners, Winston Churchill continues to be celebrated by the British establishment. He shouldn’t be.

The combination of racism and authoritarianism was central to Winston Churchill’s worldview. (GetArchive)

Perhaps no figure in British political history has been put on a pedestal as high as that assigned to Winston Churchill. Across most of the political spectrum, Britain’s wartime Conservative prime minister and former Liberal continues to enjoy the reputation of man of unimpeachable conviction, responsible, almost single-handedly, for the greatest achievement in the nation’s history: victory over fascism and the restoration of peace in Europe. This narrative could not be further from the truth, argues Tariq Ali, the British-Pakistani public intellectual, historian, and activist, in Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes.   

The image that Ali paints of the man who millions of Britons once voted as the greatest individual their nation has ever produced is that of a reactionary, even by the standards of his own time. Of women, he claimed that if we allow them “to vote it will mean the loss of social structure”; about Asians, he said, “I hate people with slit eye and pigtails. . . . I don’t like the smell of them”; when it came to fascism, he managed to strike a slightly more empathetic tone, claiming that “if I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been wholeheartedly with Mussolini.”

But above all, Churchill was both a product of and a lifelong enthusiast for the British Empire. The book itself was inspired, in Ali’s words, by the student movements to decolonize universities and the media’s visceral reaction to Cambridge University’s discussion group The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill. Ali’s account provides a necessary corrective to what he has termed the “Churchill cult.”

The Enemy Within

As Ali outlines, Churchill’s popularity is significantly greater today than it was in the 1960s and ’70s. After switching from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party in 1904, Churchill briefly served as home secretary from February 1910 to October 1911. During this period, he chose to deal with strikes in the Welsh town of Tonypandy in the harshest possible way. The then home secretary was faced with the option of negotiating with mine owners to put an end to the industrial dispute that had pulled 950 workers onto the picket lines or sending in the troops. Churchill chose the latter.

While many popular accounts maintain that Churchill prevented troops from reaching Tonypandy, Ali clarifies that he did indeed give permission to send troops, who were able to use the “gentle persuasion of the bayonet,” into the region. Ultimately, these forces pushed protesting miners away from the collieries and ended the dispute. On Churchill’s instructions, the official Home Office version of events was tampered with. The rosy narrative that presents Britain’s wartime prime minister as a peacemaker, both inside and outside of the nation, has been repeated in hagiographic biographies written by hobbyist historians such as the UK’s most recent prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Churchill’s contemporaries were not, however, as quick to whitewash his crimes. After turning British troops on British citizens, his reputation was ruined among large segments of the working class. As Ali notes, “He was never allowed to forget the episode. . . . Even during the Second World War, people in local cinemas heckled Pathé News images of him.” In 2019, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell famously described Churchill as a villain for his actions in Tonypandy, much to the outrage of the mainstream press.

Churchill’s renaissance originates, according to Ali, with Margaret Thatcher’s invasion of the Falklands Islands. “The manufactured love for Churchill, and the uses made of him, came to embody an Empire that was long gone,” he diagnoses. Churchillism builds on imperial nostalgia to mask the growing divergence between the UK’s self-assumed importance as a former empire and its increasing irrelevance on the global stage.

A Stronger Race

Churchill was surrounded by active agents of empire from his birth. Born into the aristocracy in 1874, Churchill spent his very early years in Dublin where his parental grandfather, the Seventh Duke of Marlborough, was serving as lord lieutenant of Ireland. He was educated at Harrow, one of the UK’s seven “public” schools, a grouping of fee-paying institutions responsible for producing much of Britain’s managerial elite. His father, the Conservative MP Lord Randolph Churchill, served as secretary of state of India. The tenures of both men would help inculcate the young Churchill with a steadfast belief in the primacy of British Rule.

This belief, combined with an almost callous obsession for war, followed Churchill throughout his preparliamentary career. In 1895, he traveled to Havana as a correspondent to cover the Spanish-Cuban war. There he instinctively sided with the Spanish and lamented that the island was no longer under British control. “It may be that future years will see the island as it would be now, had England never lost it — a Cuba free and prosperous, under just laws and a patriotic administration. . . .” He watched with gusto as the British Army faced down Sudanese resistance at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, reporting in typical fashion that it was one of “those spectacular conflicts whose vivid and majestic splendor has done so much to invest war with glamor.”

Ali has gone to great lengths to embed Churchill in the times in which he lived. Some chapters pass by with little mention of the man himself. Yet throughout the long line of truly historic events that occurred while Churchill was either personally in or in close proximity to power, the message remains the same – Churchill was on the wrong side of history. He strongly backed the use of poisoned gas against Kurdish uprisings in 1919–20, he was “delighted” with the successful US- and UK-backed coup to overthrow the Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and, in Ali’s words, considered General Francisco Franco “an all-weather friend”.

Perhaps the most shocking omission from the many works on Churchill is his role in the Bengal famine which killed (at least) three million people in 1943. There is, Ali reminds us, no mention of the famine in Boris Johnson’s biography of the former prime minster, nor is the Bengal famine mentioned in the entire volume of the Oxford History of the Twentieth Century. It remains the only famine in modern Indian history not to occur as a result of serious drought, with food supplies diverted to the military directly (in the fight against Japan) or those involved in production for the war effort. Ali points out that Churchill’s most prominent adviser on food distribution blamed the famine on the “irresponsible fecundity of natives.”

Churchill was indifferent to the mass suffering and starvation ongoing in India. Why, he wrote mockingly in a telegram, “if food was so scarce, had Gandhi not died yet?” This combination of racism and authoritarianism was a central tenet of Churchill’s worldview — he saw no wrong in the systematic erasure of the American Indians or the indigenous people of Australia. It should be welcomed that “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race . . . has come in and taken their place,” he insisted.

Past Is Prologue?

From a socialist standpoint, there is little to argue with in Ali’s contextualization of Churchill. As a staunch imperialist who was equally as keen to maintain class hierarchies within the borders of the UK, it is perhaps best to condemn Churchill to the dustbin of history. Left out of view in Ali’s conclusion, however, is the more pressing question of the continued legacy of empire within the UK and the racist ideology that flourished in the declining power as colonialism weakened. Despite the passage of time, Britain’s political elite remain unable to wean themselves off Churchillism.

Attempts to publicly debate Churchill’s legacy are near impossible. Anyone who hopes to do so is forced to butt up against a wall of patriotism that covers up for the historical Churchill. The sources of the problem are perhaps twofold. First, the mass acceptance of the view that Churchill was almost single-handedly responsible for the defeat of Adolf Hitler and Nazism ties the former prime minster’s legacy to stability of the British state. Even Ali briefly praises Churchill “as the only serious ruling-class politician who understood by late 1938 that a failure to resist the Third Reich would lead to disaster” before showing that any proper analysis of World War II obviously points to factors beyond one man who sat in Westminster. Chief among these was, of course, the contribution of the Soviet Union, which lost the most troops during the bloody war and effectively defended Western nations who saw it as an adversary.

The second dimension of the Churchill dilemma is that Conservative and other reactionary politicians continue to invoke his imagined legacy to prop up their political project. Seemingly every British military intervention and every call to tighten belts and accept austerity is legitimized through an invocation of the “spirit of the Blitz” or some other wartime bromide. At the core of Churchillism is British nationalism, a weak and confused ideology lacking, since the end of the empire, any real unifying narrative other than that provided by World War II. Ali’s conclusion does not turn to these issues, which should be central to any examination of Britain’s past.

Figures such as Paul Gilroy have attempted to provide an analysis that links Churchillism as the ideology of imperial decline to the postwar racism of reactionaries like Enoch Powell and more modern iterations of authoritarian populism. The greatest limitation of Ali’s book is that, while it succeeds in helping us to understand Churchill, it does not grapple adequately with the continued influence he has gone on to exercise over British politics. While Gilroy’s analysis in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack focused on Thatcher, Liz Truss, the UK’s current prime minister, appears set to follow in her footsteps. For Truss, racism and anti-immigration politics remain central to the project of constructing an English identity that builds on, rather than breaks with, Churchill’s legacy.

Faced with the biggest cost-of-living crisis in living memory, the Conservative Party will look to inflame these so-called culture-war issues wherever possible. Its image of the nation is, like Churchill’s, one constructed on the fields of war and the torture camps of empire. Ali’s book is a helpful corrective to the cult of Churchill that has come to dominate British culture. His study makes one thing clear: there is ultimately no path to a socialist and internationalist future without challenging this legacy.