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9 November 2022

We shouldn’t demonise Winston Churchill – or deify him

The point of history is to see people and situations in the round rather than to succumb to satisfying myths.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Winston Churchill was crowned the greatest Briton of all time by a BBC poll in 2002. According to a new survey by the think tank Policy Exchange, however, only one in five British people between 18 and 24 now have a positive view of the wartime leader; 58 per cent of over-65s, by contrast, view him positively. Overall, he gets the approval of just 36 per cent of the British public.

Another poll from this year, by YouGov, offers a more encouraging picture for Churchill’s admirers, but even here the generational divide persists: 76 per cent of baby boomers have a positive view of him, compared with 55 per cent of millennials. What is the cause? 

One explanation is a shift in social and cultural values. Younger people are more sensitive to questions of race, and for many Churchill embodies the racist and colonialist attitudes we ought to reckon with and condemn if we want to become a more progressive country. According to the Policy Exchange poll, for example, only 17 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds believe the British Empire did more good than harm, compared with 61 per cent of over-65s.

Churchill has been a key touchstone in the recent culture wars over the British empire. The writer Tariq Ali published a book this year entitled Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes that denounced him. There was a conference at the University of Cambridge in 2021 entitled “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill” at which the panellists, including the Cambridge don, Priyamvada Gopal, argued that we should stop mythologising Churchill and see him instead for what he really was: an advocate for white supremacy. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square was vandalised with red spray paint. 

His detractors point to his role in the Bengal famine, which led to the deaths of three million Indians during the Second World War. Churchill also described Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. He called Mahatma Gandhi a “malignant subversive fanatic”. Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India and a contemporary of Churchill at Harrow School, wrote that on the topic of India he didn’t “see much difference between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s”. 

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Churchill also said “Keep Britain White” would make a good campaign slogan for the Conservative Party in a 1950s election. Of Chinese people, he said: “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them – but I suppose it does no great harm to have a look at them.” He was a passionate defender of the British Empire, and his conception of empire was paternalistic: he thought the Anglo-Saxon race had a duty to look after the other races within the Empire.

Defenders of Churchill will point out that he condemned the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre (commonly known as the Amritsar massacre), in which thousands of peaceful protesters were shot at and hundreds killed by the British Army, as “unutterably monstrous”; that he opposed the 1905 Aliens Act, which tried to restrict Jewish immigrants coming to Britain; and, most notably, that he led the opposition to appeasement of Nazi Germany.

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Trying to either demonise Churchill or deify him is misguided. He was a complex person. As Denis Healey, the former Labour defence secretary and chancellor, once wrote: “Churchill had defects on the same scale as his virtues. But his virtues made up for a lot.” Healey added, moreover, that Churchill “added a vision and poetry to British politics which enriched the lives of all who had the luck to see and hear him in action”.

Clement Attlee, who many consider Labour’s greatest leader and who served as deputy prime minister during the Second World War, described Churchill as “the greatest leader in war this country has ever known”. This seems like a wonderfully generous compliment, but there’s an underlying bite to it: leader in war. Churchill was a consequential leader at a time of grave national crisis but he failed in many of the things he cared most about: the British Empire collapsed after the war; the Soviet Empire swallowed half of Europe; and Attlee’s Labour Party ousted Churchill from office in a landslide victory in 1945.

Churchill’s legacy is tied to the Second World War, and the last generation that lived through that conflict will soon be dead. As the distance between now and that time widens, the sentimental and intuitive sympathy we have for Churchill will continue to recede; he will become a person to study in history rather than a folk hero.

There is something to be said for that. The point of history is to see people and situations in the round rather than to succumb to satisfying myths. The issue, though, is that many of the people who rightly castigate Churchill’s defenders for mythologising him also succumb to a similar abdication of historical duty when they see him as a racist and little else. So let us be faithful to historical reality: all of it.

[See also: Andrew Marr: Mirror of the nation]