Was Winston Churchill a bad person? It’s amazing how such a simple question has set off a storm of acrimony and accusations. John McDonnell must have known what would happen when he attacked one of the sacred cows of British nationalist myth. McDonnell has problems of his own to contend with, but on this issue he’s a struck a chord. Churchill was perhaps a villain, certainly an imperialist and frequently a British chauvinist. He was also the man the UK needed at the most difficult point in its history, whose determination and eloquence helped save the country. These two things are not incompatible. But one doesn’t cancel out the other.
Churchill’s first concern was always the best interests of Britain – or at least, his narrow definition of Britain and his personal interpretation of its interests. He wasn’t unique in his prejudices against non-white people, the working classes and the Irish. Bigotry was par for the course in Churchill’s generation and class. However, it’s in the exercise of power that prejudice finds its fullest flowering. In that regard, Churchill blossomed like no-one else.
McDonnell is right that Churchill sent the army into South Wales during the Miners Strike in 1910/11. Though his precise culpability is disputed, the people of that region never forgave as long he lived. And it seems, many of their descendants still haven’t.
Speaking of descendants, and putting all my cards on the table, I’m descended from people who suffered indirectly from decisions made by Winston Churchill. During the Irish War of Independence from Britain, a special force of demobilised First World War soldiers was assembled to police Ireland. Widely known as the Black and Tans because of their uniforms, they were conceived by Churchill.
The Black and Tans were mostly from counties in mainland Britain and their brutality and contempt for the Irish is still remembered today, more than 90 years after they left. The Irish were British citizens, placed under effective martial law, subject to harassment, curfew, random murders and endless indignities by an occupying army. An army devised by Winston Churchill.
Churchill’s attitude to Ireland remained dismissive. During the Second World War, the Irish government was frequently more worried about British invasion than German attack. He was particularly incensed that the independent Irish state refused to grant access to three ports, which Britain had evacuated in 1938. Privately, Churchill questioned the validity of the Irish state.
Even after the war, Churchill audaciously claimed that Britain would have invaded if it had become necessary, leading to one of the most famous speeches in Irish history – a rebuke of Churchill from Irish prime minster Eamon de Valera.
Churchill was famously rewarded by a grateful nation by being slung out of office in 1945, but when he returned to 10 Downing Street, Churchill presided over a brutal campaign against the Mau Maus in Kenya. The atrocities committed against the Kenyan people are now well-known: Detention camps, torture, castration, among other acts of indiscriminate violence. Bear in mind, the hideous actions of the British Empire in Kenya took place after the Holocaust was revealed to the world.
I haven’t even mentioned Churchill’s attitude towards India. Or the disastrous Gallipoli campaign that so many Australians and New Zealanders still resent. Or his comments on tribes in Africa and the use of gas.
Churchill had a singe goal throughout his political career: defend the British Empire. During the Second World War, this meant a noble struggle against the most evil regime in history. For that, we rightly praise him for his fortitude, bravery and ingenuity. However, in the 1920s fighting for the Empire meant unleashing hell on innocent people in Ireland, right on Britain’s doorstep. In the 1950s, it apparently meant inflicting national trauma on an African nation that wanted to be free. And in Rhondda, in the views of many people, defending the Empire meant quelling striking workers with the might of the British army.
The UK is at a crossroads in its history. As a No Deal Brexit looks more and more likely, and shocking stories about unthinkable contingency plans leak, the British people will be forced to take a long look at themselves. Understanding how the nostalgia for Empire and the myth making around the Second World War contributed to the current national crisis is essential. Telling hard truths about Winston Churchill is a good place to start.
So spare me the pettifogging diatribes from know-it-all columnists, the faux-nationalism of over mighty political hacks and the historically illiterate tweets about how Churchill single-handedly saved the world from the Nazi scourge. Sometimes, one man’s hero is another man’s villain. Sometimes, a villain succeeds where a good man would have failed. You only need to look at all of human history to see that. Or just the last three years.