Let’s Talk About the “Ugly Briton”: Shashi Tharoor on Winston Churchill

October is always a good time to catch up on one’s correspondence from July.  “FYI,” noted a friend though FB’s messaging system, linking to this:

The video’s title, “Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations,” sums it up.  The other videos from the same debate event are worth watching, too, but Tharoor’s is quite simply a must-see for anyone interested in the British Empire.  Indeed, you have probably seen it already.  With 3 million views, 6000+ comments plus what seem to be hundreds of reactions by all kinds of people in all kinds of media of communication, this one 15-minute video alone can legitimate Oxford Union Society claim’s that it aims “to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.”

Why is it that Oxford Union struck social media gold with this debate but not with some others (“socialism does (not) work,” anyone)?  Even if it is safe to assume that “many” people would be familiar the reparations argument in general and even that “some” would be familiar with Britain’s reparations to the Maori, the fact is that “no one” had given a fig about the case for Indian reparations [1].  My scare quotes are meant to signal that these quantifications are relative.  It was a century ago that Dadabhai Naoroji, known to some as the Grand Old Man of India, argued that “immediate” self-government, a.k.a. swaraj, would constitute Britain’s “reparation”.  But this is precisely the point: reparations-talk becomes itself only when subjected to a sufficient degree of metropolization or mainstreaming [2].  White academics like Boris Bittker started paying attention to the legal argument for “black reparations” only in 1969, after James Forman famously stood up in a New York City church to argue that white churches owed a lot of money to a lot of people.

Tharoor’s Oxford Union performance raises more than a few interesting questions for those interested in international politics and ethics, and I wish to reflect on but one: is Tharoor’s reparations claim based on the idea of racial justice? Consider the part of his speech at the 4:10-minute mark, when he draws attention to the number of Indians starved to death in “British-induced famines,” with special reference to the Great Bengal Famine of 1943:

[F]our million people died because Winston Churchill deliberately, as a matter of written, minuted policy  proceed to divert essential supplies from civilians to Bengal to sturdy Tommies and Europeans as reserve stockpiles…And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to him, pointing out that people were dying because of this decision, he peevishly wrote in the margins of the file: ‘Why hasn’t Ghandi died yet?…Churchill’s conduct in 1943 [is] simply one example of many that give the lie to [the myth of enlightened despotism]. As others have said on the proposition, violence and racism were the reality of the colonial experience.  And no wonder the sun wouldn’t set on the British Empire; even God wouldn’t trust the English in the dark.

Tharoor opined about Churchill’s role in this disaster, namely in his Time magazine review of Madhusree Mukerjee’s Churchill’s Secret War [3]. Entitled “The Ugly Briton,” this piece suggests that “some 3 million brown-skinned subjects of the Raj” died for no reason other than the fact that they were brown-skinned.  After citing Churchill’s I-hate-Indians quip to Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India, and they-are-breeding-like-rabbits to the cabinet, he puts it thus:

Mukerjee’s prose is all the more devastating because she refuses to voice the outrage most readers will feel on reading her exhaustively researched, footnoted facts. The way in which Britain’s wartime financial arrangements and requisitioning of Indian supplies laid the ground for famine; the exchanges between the essentially decent Amery and the bumptious Churchill; the racism of Churchill’s odious aide, paymaster general Lord Cherwell, who denied India famine relief and recommended most of the logistical decisions that were to cost so many lives — all are described in a compelling narrative.

Tharoor stops short of calling Churchill racist in this text, too.  The great man may be “bumptious”, but he is not racist, certainly not compared to the “odious” Cherwell, a.k.a, the Prof, who is an easy target for this label anyway.  A quick glance through Tharoor’s other writings on the subject tells me that this is his standard approach. The ultimate punch is always missing in the sense that Tharoor’s Churchill is “merely” ugly rather than racist (or an ugly racist).


Rhetorical choices like these are not unique and should not be surprising.  The racism tag is no small minefield, especially in societies in which it may be easier to be racist than to call someone racist (for earlier considerations on this blog, see here and here).  Furthermore, how Churchill is remembered matters to many, and for perfectly good reasons: “Few statesmen of the 20th century have reputations as outsize as Winston Churchill’s,” Sharoor writes in the Time piece.  This stardust can and does lead to self-censorship or at least a tendency to finesse things—especially if one happens to be standing up in front of the Oxford Union Society or writing for the global edition of Time.  However, the tendency to (consciously or otherwise) self-censor or finesse one’s thoughts is problematic because of the ambiguities it creates for those who wish to argue that race and racism are, or should be, central to modern thinking about a just society in general and about Indian reparations in particular.  It seems to me that one cannot even begin to examine how the three “r” words—race, racism, reparations—are implicated in Indo-British relations without first considering how to talk about the historical legacy of Churchill.  Consequently, let me outline some pros and cons of what I see to be the three commonplace rhetorical strategies—my organizational rubrics for them are presentism, temporization, and balancing—that characterize much of the Churchill chatter among contemporary intellectuals [4].

1) “Presentism.” In today’s Western societies, you can call Churchill the great twentieth century beacon of liberty, but sooner or later you will be asked to reflect on the “irony” of defending and promoting human freedom in the context of his Victorian/Edwardian understandings of humanity.   One way to deflect this request is to invoke the problem of presentism—evaluating the past by the political and moral norms and experiences of the present—and say that labeling Churchill racist is historically irresponsible because his racism was commonplace in his time.  Though at best partially true empirically, this tends to be rhetorically effective in most circumstances since only a small group of professional historians can actually name Churchill’s contemporaries who thought differently about human equality. I’ll return to presentism in a moment, and will only say for now that the success of this strategy hinges on the ability to define who counts as “Churchill’s contemporary” in the first place.  If your benchmark of the best available standard on human rights thought and practice at the time is Ghandi (and he, too, is imperfect by some latter standards), then Churchill looks terrible.

2) “Temporization.”  This is when one juxtaposes the brash young Churchill, who smacked of all of kinds of racisms, to Churchill the officeholder, who was a global force for good.  This can be a doubly advantageous strategy: it not only deflects the discussion away from the problem of racism, but it also eulogizes Churchill by showcasing his capacity for political and moral growth.  This one is also at best partially true.  While some variation in his racial thinking over time appears to exist—the younger Churchill was more likely to deploy racial discourse than the older Churchill—what matters more in this case is the variation across audiences, meaning that in private conversations Churchill never tired of using explicitly racial language to rank-order Europeans against one another, and Europeans against the rest.  One of his main fears in 1954, for example, was that “new” Commonwealth immigration would turn Britain into a “magpie society”.

3) “Balancing.”  There are three kinds of balancing.  Balancing I refers to the idea that, on balance, Churchill did more to fight racism—primarily the Nazi kind—than anyone else in his time.  This strategy is self-evidently weak, but it might work so long as one doesn’t have to explain whether the same logic applies to Stalin.

Balancing II is about that oft-heard claim that Churchill was a cultural/Lamarckian racialist, rather than a biological/Galtonian racist, whereby the former is meant to be significantly less terrible than the latter. As much as one may be inclined towards reminders of the heterogeneous and historically variable meanings of race, this one is basically a trick.  Certainly, a strong case can be made that Churchill regularly emphasized the sociocultural dimensions of race as opposed to biological ones. This is exemplified in the way he associated the most superior human traits with white European Protestants in general rather than those of the Anglo-Saxon stock in particular or, one could argue, the way he ranked Muslim Indians higher than Hindu Indians in the 1940s. But what did he think of the Lamarckian idea of racial mobility? See the magpie comment above.  And much more fundamentally, what is the difference between cultural racialism and biological racism anyway? One of degree or of kind?  If you lean towards the latter view, you are very likely to steer clear from Balancing II.


Balancing III is exemplified in a 2015 BBC News Magazine listicle on “The 10 Greatest Controversies of Winston Churchill’s Career.” The piece appears to have been motived by two infamous Churchill controversies from the preceding year—the Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham’s tweet that Churchill was “a racist and white supremacist,” and the arrest of Paul Weston, chairman of the Liberty GB party, on suspicion that quoting from Churchill’s 1899 book The River War in a public lecture constitutes racial harassment.  This is why, of the ten themes discussed in the article, race is directly implicated in no fewer than seven, namely, the indigenous peoples, the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East, the Bengali famine, Ghandi and India, Jews, Islam, and Ireland.

The piece’s opening paragraph zooms in on Churchill’s 1937 statement to the Palestine Royal Commission in which he suggested that the genocides against Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians were justifiable in social Darwinist terms (“a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”).  To contextualize and explain the statement, the author of the listicle gives voice to three individuals: Sir Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, and John Charmley and Richard Toye, two professional historians known for their willingness and ability to interrogate the dark side of Churchill (from the perspective of very different political-ethical viewpoints, I hasten to add).  The argument that any judgment of the past by the standards of the present is “ludicrous,” attributed to Soames, is balanced by Toye’s claim that while Churchill’s views on race were historically commonplace, “there were many others who didn’t hold them.” This is then balanced with a quotation, also from Toye, that Churchill’s views were essentially non-genocidal: “Although Churchill did think that white people were superior, that didn’t mean he necessarily thought it was OK to treat non-white people in an inhumane way.” What Toye could have added–and maybe he did, but it went unreported–is that this peculiar form of supremacist liberalism is what shaped and shapes the institutional environments in which we live today.

Note how Balancing III is not necessarily burdened by the problem presentism. If all present-day observers always impose on the past present-day biases and desires, then it makes sense to see presentism as a spectrum to make explicit the historical ambiguities encountered—just like the BBC piece on the controversies of Churchill’s career does. I am no historian, but I would say that the epistemological debate on the situatedness of historical knowledge and the concomitant relational nature of the historian’s positionality arguably supports this approach. Besides, whatever the philosophical and methodological merits behind it, Blanacing III is how many in today’s pluralist, multicultural societies prefer to commemorate the great men of history anyway. Ever since the 1960s and 1970s, when the confluence of anti-colonial, anti-racist, pacifist, feminist, and gay liberation social movements in led (in Western societies at least) to the mainstreaming of critique and dissent, historical figures like Churchill have been a battleground in the so-called culture wars—debates between the political Right and the cultural Left over beliefs and values concerning the nature of political institutions, social progress and the like. My view, which is shaped by the said cultural Left, but also pragmatism, is that Balancing III is acceptable so long as the overarching aim is to acknowledge rather than relativize past transgressions. Thus, given that it is very likely that Churchill will remain an object of worship for many people in many places for generations—just think of that one segment of the US political elite and wanna-be elite that moves the formidable Churchill industry forward—it might make sense to talk about his racism not only by foregrounding the historical ambiguities, but also the contemporary political-ethical standpoints that at once motivate and complicate attempts at “balanced” readings.  This seems to me to be part and parcel of a debate on whether Britain owes monetary reparations to India, in principle or otherwise.

[1] Note that Tharoor argues for the principle of owing reparations, not monetary reparations as such: “Personally, I’d be quite happy if it was one pound a year for the next two hundred years after the last two hundred years of Britain in India”; above, at the 15:01 mark.  Also note that the debate was not meant to be specific to India.

[2] In addition to the fact that today’s social media is well-Indianized and that Tharoor was a perfect choice for a speaker given his status as a global celebrity intellectual, among other things.

[3] I have seen this joke before, too; namely, in the texts left behind by British communists, circa 1945 (and the original does not conflate English and British).

[4] What follows is neither methodical nor methodological, but I do work with an assumption that some intersubjective presuppositions shape such chatter. One is that the figure of Churchill means different things to different communities of political ideology: some see Churchill as an icon of modern conservatism (and, sotto voce, of sound aristocratic paternalism); for others, he symbolizes the twentieth century liberal democratic triumph; and for others still, he is an embodiment of civilizational discontents like militarism and colonial imperialism.


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