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Becoming a Victorian

Winston Churchill was a racist. He said things like ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig-tails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’.

17 March 2010

12:00 AM

17 March 2010

12:00 AM

Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made Richard Toye

Pan Macmillan, pp.524, 25

Churchill Paul Johnson

Viking, pp.192, 15.99

The Churchills: A Family Portrait Celia Lee and John Lee

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.288, 20

Winston Churchill was a racist. He said things like ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig-tails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’.

Winston Churchill was a racist. He said things like ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pig-tails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’. In 1931 he described Gandhi as a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, a half-naked fakir and a ‘malignant subversive fanatic’ and in 1954 he told the white Kenyan settler Michael Blundell that he ‘did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people’, although he said that ‘if I meet a black man and he’s a civilised educated fellow I have no feelings about him at all’.

Anachronistic moral judgement? Not so. Even in his day, Churchill had some pretty old-fashioned views about race and empire. ‘He is alas very anti-black’, remembered his friend Violet Bonham-Carter. For the bulk of his career Churchill was a paternalistic imperial die-hard.

He speaks of Communism… being a religion to some people, [but] the British Empire and Commonwealth is a religion to him

 said the Canadian Prime Minister WL Mackenzie King.

Dig the paradox. The Churchill we salute as a lover of freedom and hater of tyranny muttered about kaffirs and blackamoors, and bore a lifelong commitment to subjecting swathes of the world to unwelcome British rule. How so? For answers, we may turn to Richard Toye’s excellent new book, Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made

Toye presents Churchill as a complex, flexible, and ultimately a moral imperial thinker. He grew up during the late bloom of Empire, albeit at a time when many people believed its best years were past. Churchill reacted instinctively against the idea. Toye quotes a speech Churchill gave to the Primrose League in 1897:

Do not believe these croakers but give the lie to their dismal croaking by showing by our actions that the vigour and vitality of our race is unimpaired and that our determination is to uphold the Empire that we have inherited from our fathers as Englishmen.

Thus the tone was set.

In his adventurous youth, Churchill saw much of the Empire at first hand in his role as a celebrated soldier-journalist. This, too, shaped him. Fighting and writing in every corner of the British Empire, he developed great sympathy for its peoples and an unwavering belief in the civilising superiority of the white man. He did not shirk from the cruelty of Empire but he did not doubt its purpose. Although he looked fondly on many of the peoples who lived under British rule, he regarded the non-whites’ desire for self-government as inappropriate and regrettable.


When Churchill returned to begin his serious political career, he took great interest in imperial matters, from Irish Home Rule to the ‘Indian question’. Toye argues that he flirted briefly with radical ideas during his early political career, and was considered a ‘Little Englander’ in some quarters, owing to his opposition to the Forward Policy. The intransigent, die-hard reactionary Churchill did not fully emerge until the 1920s: ‘it was in the years between the wars that he decided to become a Victorian.’

Toye shows how imperial thinking

permeated Churchill’s wartime rhetoric. In his first speech to the House of Commons after becoming Prime Minister in 1940 (the ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ speech), Churchill insisted on victory for the British Empire and everything it stood for:

Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.

Here was the essential morality of the Empire contrasted implicitly with the essential immorality of the Reich. In the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech Churchill spelt out the practical role of the Empire at war:

…we shall never surrender. And even if…  this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas… would carry on the struggle, until… the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old.

And finally, in his greatest speech of all, came a clarion call for Empire’s destiny:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

Magnificent stuff. Yet Churchill’s peerless rhetoric shaped the post-war world in ways he could not control. As the Gold Coast nationalist, Kwame Nkrumah later wrote:

All the fair brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.

In this new world, which Churchill helped create, the British Empire waxed irrelevant and indefensible. What pathos, then, in his 1942 declaration that, ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’

Toye shows how Churchill’s imperial rhetoric underwent a necessary shift following America’s entry into the war and the glaring inevitability, after 1945, that India was lost. With regard to the former, Churchill began to rely heavily on his long-predicted idea of a unity between the English-speaking peoples: a masterly fudge that retained Anglo-Saxon superiority, but acknowledged that the twentieth century was under new ownership.

On India, he was despondent: ‘India breaks my heart’, he told Leo Amery in 1945. Sadness largely dominated Churchill’s views on Empire following the War. Towards the end of his life he told his private secretary Anthony Montague-Brown: ‘I have worked very hard all my life, and I have achieved a great deal – in the end to achieve nothing.’

Every new Churchill book must, as a rule, leak one fresh drop of juice for it to be worth the tasting. Paul Johnson’s zingy little biography, Churchill succeeds, for the old boy met Churchill on several occasions. Johnson is unmatched as a short-form biographer thanks to his genius for a telling anecdote. Here he recounts:

When I was 17, I had the good fortune to ask him a question: ‘Mr Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?’ Without pause or hesitation, he replied: ‘Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.’ He then got into his limo.

Perfection.

In the case of The Churchills: A Family Portrait, by Celia Lee and John Lee, the new news is the revelation that Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill, had an affair with Edward, Prince of Wales. Apparently the Prince would send Jennie notes saying stiff things like: ‘Should you wish to see me, I could call at five tomorrow’. He would then visit her for dinner or tea or sex.

That’s pretty good too. The Lees were encouraged to write by Peregrine Churchill, in order to restore his father, Winston’s younger brother, John (Jack) Churchill, to his proper place in the family history. Trouble is, for every ‘dinner or tea or sex’ between Jennie and His Randy Highness, there are ten lines like ‘Jack’s job as a stockbroker in the City carried a lot of responsibility’. Yawn. Pass the Viagra. No matter how earnestly the Lees have tried, Jack Churchill wasn’t even the most interesting person in the House of Marlborough to be called Jack Churchill. Phooey.


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