‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’

Below is a slightly expanded text of a ten-minute speech I gave at the Oxford Union for the proposition ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’. The bits in square brackets are things I didn’t have time to say, or hadn’t thought of saying at the time, or reflections on what happened later. Shoulda coulda woulda: that’s what blogs are for. 

In April 2016, Boris Johnson (while still mayor of London) wrote a curious article for the Sun. The article was timed to coincide with a visit to the UK by President Obama, who was widely expected to appeal to the British people to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. As a leading spokesperson for the Leave campaign, Boris wanted to pre-empt Obama. He tried to do this by invoking Churchill in two ways. First, he drew attention to one of Obama’s first acts upon entering the Oval Office, when he returned a bust of Churchill to the British embassy in Washington. Speculating on why Obama might have done this, he suggested—with more than a hint of Trumpian Birtherism—that this might have been ‘a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’ See, Obama’s grandfather had been arrested and tortured for his alleged participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, which began during Churchill’s postwar premiership. Having tried to discredit Obama by reminding us of his dislike for Churchill and the British empire, Boris then invoked Churchill in a more positive vein as a symbol of the struggle against dictatorship in Europe who might similarly inspire the efforts of Leavers in their own struggle against the dictatorship of the European Union. In this strange little article and its intersecting oppositions—Boris v. Barack, Leave v. Remain, Churchill v. the empire—we have all the ingredients that might explain why this House, in 2018, is being asked to consider whether to express shame in a long dead British Prime Minister.

Is it possible to say something about Churchill that we don’t already know? Roy Jenkins, himself a biographer of Churchill, once claimed that in the case of Churchill, nearly all the ‘facts’ are known. I think there might be something to that. We know—or we should know—of the worst excesses of his imperial policy—his public justification of concentration camps during the Boer War in South Africa, his endorsement of racial segregation in Kenya (highlands for the white settlers), his defence of the indiscriminate violence of the ‘Black and Tans’ in Ireland, his authorisation of the use of aerial bombardment and mustard gas in Iraq, his wilful exacerbation of the Bengal famine.

We know—or we should know—how he talked about race. During the battle for the Malakand Pass (1897), Pathans were ‘vermin’ with a ‘strong aboriginal propensity to kill’, compounded by a religion which stimulated a ‘wild and merciless fanaticism’. In the Battle of Omdurman (Sudan, 1898), Islam was ‘as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog’—a quote that the British National Party pounced on in 2009, to claim that if Churchill had been alive he would have been a member of their party. As Colonial Secretary dealing with South African white settler protests against the importation of Chinese migrant labour, Churchill boasted of how the ‘yellow plague’ had been stayed and the ‘coolies’ sent home, and spoke of his hope that the ‘black peril would act as a unifying force, drawing the two white races [British and Boer] together…’ And elsewhere: ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig tails’; ‘the Arabs were barbaric hordes who ate little but camels’ dung’; ‘I hate Indians…they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ And on it goes. My opponents have accused us of taking Churchill’s words out of context, but it’s worth asking what context might appropriately justify the making of such statements. Nor can we assume that these statements were uttered casually. We are speaking here of the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, a man who understood the power of words, knew how to use them and built much of his career on them.

[Would it be churlish to point out that Prince Harry of just-married-to-‘biracial’-celebrity fame once went to a ‘native and colonial’ birthday party dressed as a member of Rommel’s German Afrika Korps? Or that a 2009 video features him calling a fellow-soldier in the army a ‘raghead’ and another ‘my little Paki friend’? Don’t say: he was twenty at the time (I work with British twenty year olds on a daily basis and none of them behaves like this). Do say: he was a man of his time our time.]

When Churchill spoke the language of liberty and equality—and he did, copiously—there was always a catch, his preferred formulation being ‘equal rights for civilised men’. It was of course the mission of the British empire, in his view, to bring civilisation to places where it did not exist, or perhaps more accurately to places where the British could see no evidence of it—a process that would be so gradual and would take so long, that the promise of equality could be endlessly deferred. As Churchill explained, helpfully:

Certainly, if the individual becomes civilised and lives in a civilised way, in a civilised house, and observes civilised behaviour in his goings on, and in his family life, and he is also educated sufficiently—that principle [of equal rights] seems to be a very valuable principle, and it is very practical too. [But] it is absurd to go and give the naked savages of the Kikuyu and the Kavirondo equal electoral rights, although they are human beings—you cannot do that… The Indians in East Africa are mainly of a very low class of coolies, and the idea that they should be put on an equality with the Europeans is revolting to every white man throughout British Africa.

We know all this, or enough of it anyway. The question is what we should make of it. Should we, as my opponents will no doubt try to persuade us, regard these views as unremarkable for, indeed representative of, their times and therefore not suitable objects for contemporary moral judgment? Churchill biographer Richard Toye [from whose Churchill’s Empire all the quotes in this post are taken] argues not. In his words, ‘whether or not it is right to criticise his views on issues such as race, it can scarcely be considered anachronistic to do so, when his own contemporaries did not hold back themselves.’ In Toye’s book, Churchill emerges as antediluvian even by the standards of the Tory circles of his times. As his own physician Lord Moran noted in a 1943 diary entry, ‘Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin; it is when he talks of India or China that you remember he is a Victorian.’ Even this may be letting him off too lightly, for the Victorians were themselves a varied lot, throwing up figures as diverse and dissident as Edward Carpenter, Henry Salt, Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Pankhurst, against whose example Churchill’s worldview appears morally impoverished.

Or is it that despite knowing everything that we do about Churchill’s rancid supremacism, we can forgive him anything because of his stirring leadership against the horrors of Nazism during the Second World War? Consider how this argument asks us to overlook Churchill’s defence of, among other things, British concentration camps or what historian Caroline Elkins calls ‘Britain’s Gulag’ (in reference to the Mau Mau detention camps in Kenya), on account of his leadership of the struggles against Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. In what crudely utilitarian or other calculus does it become possible to excuse, condone or ignore the suffering over which he so enthusiastically presided because it is purportedly outweighed by the lives that his wartime leadership saved? And why should the world outside Europe be grateful for the triumph of one form of European inflicted unfreedom over another? In his Discourse on Colonialism, the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire reminds his readers that before the European bourgeoisie became the victims of Nazism, ‘they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimised it, because, until then, it had applied only to non-European peoples’; and that what they could not forgive Hitler for ‘is not crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of Africa.’ He might have been speaking of Churchill.

[It’s interesting how many speakers for the opposition found the Césaire quote incendiary. Gisela Stuart found it necessary to remind us of the horrors of Nazism, as if the comparison seeks in any way to diminish this. And a speaker from the floor whose name I don’t know (so I’ll call him Brown Tory), hissed that nothing that British colonialism had done approached the ‘industrial’ butchery of burning people alive in ovens. I’m intrigued by the use of the word ‘industrial’. Was not slavery ‘industrial’? And what if it wasn’t? Are low tech genocides more acceptable? Does their pre- or non-industrial nature suggest a lower degree of premediation and therefore culpability?

In January this year, a number of SOAS students gathered at the Blighty Café in North London to protest its celebration of Churchill as expressed in its theme and décor. Their performance protest took the form of reading aloud some of Churchill’s racist outbursts, rather like I have done here. While café patrons seemed to have responded with a mixture of bemusement, irritation and perhaps guilt, the wider public and press reaction was vitriolic. The Sun and Daily Mail ran hostile articles with detailed profiles of the protesters, one of whom received intimidating tweets from English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson. Conservative MPs competed with one another to out-denounce the protesters, describing them as ‘puerile’ and ‘ignorant’. One—Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield—perhaps betraying some subliminal desire said ‘It is thanks to Winston Churchill that fools like these are able to hold their childish views and not be thrown into a concentration camp.’]

churchillWhen I was first asked to speak on the proposition before us today, I thought it a bit harsh. Why demand an expression of shame in a complex historical figure who, like most, embodies qualities both admirable and offensive, rendering categorical judgments simplistic? But the proposition calls on us to reflect as much on Britain as on Churchill. And here I would say that pride in Churchill seems to bring out the worst in Britain. Paul Gilroy explains Britain’s fixation with Churchill and the ‘finest hour’ as expressing a desire to find a way back to a point in time when the national culture was more comprehensible and habitable, for its white majority, before it commenced its long, slow decline; when enemies were simply, tidily and uncomplicatedly evil. It reflects an inability unwillingness to face the loss of empire and prestige and to come to terms with new arrivals, many, immigrants from that former empire who are also a reminder of its loss. The neurotic attachment to Churchill has only intensified in the Brexit moment, judging by reactions to the protest I mentioned earlier and/or by current offerings in the cinema, perhaps because Churchill provides a desperately sought reassurance that Britain can survive on its own—albeit this time in self-inflicted loneliness. In this sense, Churchill is an integral part of the ideological scaffolding—i.e. the lies—that uphold Brexit. It is especially in this context that a good dose of shame might be healthy.

We lost the debate 141-122.

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