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Rethinking Churchill – OpEd

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By Shashi Tharoor

“History,” Winston Churchill said, “will judge me kindly, because I intend to write it myself.” He was right. Of the genocidal leaders with whom the 20th century is sadly littered, he is the only one to have completely escaped the odium deservingly bestowed on his rivals Hitler and Stalin, to have been crowned with a Nobel Prize in 1953 and, in 2018, even with an Oscar.

As Hollywood confirms, Churchill’s reputation as what Harold Evans has called “the British Lionheart on the ramparts of civilisation” rests almost entirely on his stirring rhetoric during World War II. Churchill declared grandiloquently that he had nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He also threw in an exceptional talent for a fine phrase. “We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end…. We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets…. We shall never surrender.” (The revisionist British historian John Charmley dismissed this as “sublime nonsense.”)

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs.” That victory, as Charmley has argued, resulted in the dissolution of the British Empire, and more immediately if less consequentially, in Churchill’s own defenestration by the war-weary British electorate in the elections of 1945.  No wonder that not everyone was equally impressed by his oratory. The Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies remarked of Churchill during the World War II: “His real tyrant is the glittering phrase, so attractive to his mind that awkward facts have to give way.”

Indeed, the “glittering phrase” was always Churchill’s strongest suit: he never flinched from bombast. Churchill believed that “words are the only things which last forever.” The hagiology from which he has benefited in recent years suggests that he may well have been right.

For words, in the end, are all that Churchill admirers can point to. Actions are another matter altogether. British books and cinema have assiduously built up the image of Churchill the defiant bulldog who kept the British in the World War II when so many of the establishment wanted peace, and Churchill the parliamentarian of rapier wit who dominated its politics at a time when Britain was the epicentre of a worldwide empire. The vaingloriously self-serving but elegant volumes he authored on the World War II led the Nobel Committee, unable in all conscience to give him an award for peace, to grant him, astonishingly enough, the Nobel Prize for Literature — an unwitting tribute to the fictional qualities inherent in Churchill’s self-justifying embellishments.

Less well-known are the “awkward facts” Menzies alluded to, of which there are plenty. They begin with the brash political upstart whose arrogance in Cabinet meetings prompted Charles Hobhouse, Postmaster-General during the World War I, to describe him as “ill-mannered, boastful, unprincipled and without any redeeming features.”

Indeed, Churchill had a great deal to be ashamed of. There was his disastrous judgment on military matters, going back to the horrendous defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, a plan he hatched when first lord of the Admiralty, and reflected again in Norway in 1940. The idea that Churchill’s leadership won World War II cannot survive an analysis of his decision to delay the planned 1943 invasion of Europe in favour of a pointless diversionary campaign in North Africa in 1942 (which in turn led inevitably to the great Allied losses in Italy, where the topography overwhelmingly favoured the defenders). As a military strategist, Churchill was often in error but never in doubt, his bloodthirstiness as excessive as his rhetoric.

As Home Secretary in 1910, he sent battalions of police from London and ordered them to attack striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales, while holding troops in reserve in Cardiff, in case the police proved inadequate. In this he acted in the interests of the employers rather than the miners, a position bitterly remembered even today in Wales, where the very name “Tonypandy” evokes curses and led the Labour politician John MacDonald to denounce Churchill as a “monster.” Monstrous it was that Churchill was prepared to kill in the interests of the employers, and all too willing to mobilise the full force of the British state to ensure their interests prevailed. [1] As Home Secretary he enjoyed personally directing military repression, even assuming operational command of the police during a siege of armed Latvian anarchists in Stepney, where he took the decision to allow them to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped.

Though he did not last too long in the job of Home Secretary, it proved a good training ground for his subsequent career of ordering the killings of people he considered “lesser breeds.” “I do not admit,” he declared, “that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia,… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, has come in and taken its place.” Shortly afterwards, during the fight for Irish Independence 1918-23, one of the few British officials in favour of bombing the Irish protestors from the air was Winston Churchill, who as Secretary of State for Air, suggested that aeroplanes should use “machine gun fire bombs” to scatter them.

Churchill was an enthusiastic advocate of military intervention to quell the Russian Revolution, and wrote ferociously about the dangers posed to the world by the “International Jews,” his racist term for communists, and their “sinister confederacy.” (His response to “International Jews” was to promote “National Jews,” in other words Zionists, as far more palatable.) After pioneering the use of poison gas against the Bolsheviks in Russia, he urged the same in Iraq. Dealing with unrest in Mesopotamia in 1921, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, Churchill proudly nailed his colours to the mast as a war criminal: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes; it would spread a lively terror.” He ordered large-scale bombing of Mesopotamia, with an entire village wiped out in 45 minutes. Similarly, when some in the India Office objected to his proposal for “the use of gas against natives,” he found their objections “unreasonable.” In fact he argued that poison gas was more humane than outright extermination: “The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.”

If it seems odd that an individual of such reprehensible views should today be regarded as a hero of democracy, consider this: throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Churchill was an open admirer of Mussolini, declaring in the 1920s that the Italian Fascist movement had “rendered a service to the whole world.” Had it been necessary, he stated, he was prepared to do in Britain what Mussolini had done in Italy: “If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle.” Travelling to Rome in 1927 to express his admiration for the Fascist Duce, Churchill announced that he “could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. Secondly, anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understands it, of the Italian people.” (The Times, 21 January 1927)

The great hero of the anti-Nazi struggle turns out to have been an admirer of Fascism and dictatorship. As for democracy, Churchill was a late convert to the cause. As late as 1931, sneering at the Indian representatives to the Round Table Conference, he declared: “The Indian Congress and other elements in this agitation represent neither the numbers, the strength nor the virtue of the Indian people. They merely represent those Indians who have acquired a veneer of Western civilisation, and have read all those books about democracy which Europe is now beginning increasingly to discard.” [emphasis added] In other words, democracy was an idea that Europeans like Churchill were happy to discard in the heyday of Fascism. When circumstances plunged him into being the standard-bearer ofdemocracy and freedom, he embraced the public relations opportunity. But the idea that Churchill always stood for “Democracy, Freedom, and all that is good in Western Civilisation,” as one enthusiastic correspondent put it, reflects neither the man’s professed convictions nor his record.

Indeed Churchill was a walking policy disaster across the board. The architect of the Gallipoli tragedy of 1915 nearly wrecked the international financial system by messing with the price of gold and destabilising the gold standard, which cost him his slot in the Cabinet. By 1931, he was a backbencher, consorting with the likes of the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Some prominent Germans even considered him a suitable candidate to head a pro-Nazi “Vichy” government in Britain.


Some parts of this article have appeared in previous columns by Dr. Shashi Tharoor in Hero or War Criminal? Churchill in Retrospect, Open Magazine, 21 Jun 2018; The Rest of Us Always Knew Churchill Was a Villain, Bloomberg, 16 February 2019; and Hollywood Rewards a Mass Murderer, Gulf News, 14 March 2018.

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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