Andrew Roberts

What the Marxist Tariq Ali gets wrong about Winston Churchill

In a biography riddled with factual errors, Ali portrays Churchill as cruel, incompetent and blinded by prejudice

What the Marxist Tariq Ali gets wrong about Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill's statue in Parliament Square after it was defaced (photo: Getty images)
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Winston Churchill:
 His Times, His Crimes

Tariq Ali

Verso, pp. 423, £20

Tariq Ali, the Marxist writer and activist, believes that a ‘Churchill cult’ is ‘drowning all serious debate’ about the wartime leader, and that ‘an alternative was badly needed’. He has therefore written a book that parrots every earlier revisionist slur about Churchill – war criminal, evil imperialist, mass murderer, pro-fascist – from detractors such as Caroline Elkins, Priya Gopal, Richard Gott, David Irving, Madrushee Mukerji, Clive Ponting, Richard Toye and Geoffrey Wheatcroft. If there were indeed a Churchill cult, it has done a singularly bad job of drowning out criticism of its hero.

There’s a general rule in biography, as in journalism, that knocking copy ought to be better researched than ordinary writing, but it is not one that Ali observes. He makes so many basic factual errors that Churchill’s reputation emerges unscathed from this onslaught.

The book claims that Churchill ‘had been little more than a clever politician engaged in career building’ before he became prime minister in 1940. Not so. He had already helped create the welfare state, readied the Royal Navy for the Great War and warned the world about the rise of the Nazis, among many other significant achievements. Explaining Churchill’s supposed unpopularity during the second world war, Ali claims it was because ‘the men fleeing Dunkirk knew how unprepared and badly armed they were’. Yet Churchill had been demanding higher defence spending throughout his wilderness years.

Ali further claims that in 1943, a Gallup Poll ‘revealed that only one third of the population expressed satisfaction with the war cabinet, i.e. Churchill’. Yet Churchill was not the war cabinet, and Gallup actually recorded Churchill’s personal popularity remaining above 80 per cent throughout his wartime premiership – dipping briefly for a single month to 78 per cent – and on three occasions reaching 93 per cent. The statement that the Conservatives lost the 1945 election due to ‘anti-Churchill feeling’ is similarly wrong. The Tories would have done much worse if he had not been their leader. They lost because the electorate, while admiring Churchill personally, wanted the welfare state, nationalisation and the ‘New Jerusalem’ offered by Clement Attlee (whose name is consistently misspelt in this book).

Ali believes that General Kitchener was in command and responsible for Britain’s early defeats in the Boer War in 1899, even though Kitchener did not set foot in South Africa until January 1900, three months after the war broke out. He claims that Churchill sent troops against the miners at Tonypandy, when in fact he stopped the troops who were on the way there, leaving the police to engage the miners with rolled-up mackintoshes. He describes Churchill’s wartime ministry as ‘the Tory gang running the country’, whereas in fact Labour and the Liberals were included in Churchill’s coalition from the start. He also puts Enoch Powell in Churchill’s postwar cabinet, whereas he was not even a minister in the government.

Churchill is accused of being ‘exhilarated’ by the destruction of German cities. In fact he saw it as a ghastly necessity, and rhetorically asked: ‘Are we beasts?’ It’s further stated that Churchill did not admire the Pashtun tribesmen’s ‘fierceness on the North-West Frontier’, proving that Ali cannot have read The Story of the Malakand Field Force, which is full of examples of just that. Not reading books is something of a speciality of Ali’s. He claims that in my biography of Churchill, I ‘execute sleight of hand’ by not directly quoting Churchill’s statements of admiration for Mussolini, whereas I do on five occasions.

Ali argues that Churchill was ‘an advocate of Franco’s triumph in Spain’ and that his ‘support for the general was never in doubt’ because, ‘blinded by class and imperial prejudices, Churchill fully backed European fascism against its enemies on the left’. In fact Churchill advocated strict non-intervention during the Spanish civil war, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that a Franco victory would lead to ‘the same kind of brutal suppressions as are practised in the totalitarian states’, and in December 1938 told Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary: ‘Our interests are plainly served by a Franco defeat.’

The quality of Ali’s research is so execrable that he even cites the fictional TV series Peaky Blinders as a source for the (untrue) claim that Churchill ordered Special Branch to murder Sinn Feiners in Britain in the 1920s. Sinn Fein is, of course, deified in this book, whereas Evelyn Baring, the governor of Kenya in the 1950s, ‘would have easily slotted in as a Third Reich bureaucrat’. When Ali is not being gratuitously insulting, the seriousness of his argument may be judged by his remark: ‘Jomo Kenyatta became the official leader, had lots of children (like Boris Johnson) and was feted by the Queen.’

If someone is going to make the accusation that ‘Churchill was fully aware of, and supported, crimes being committed’ against Mau Mau guerrillas, they must back it up with documentary evidence; but Ali has merely surmised this (again, wrongly). He states that Churchill believed that the native peoples of the British Empire ‘must be oppressed to such an extent that the force used, the terror employed, the exploitation permanently embedded in the colonial situation, comes to appear normal to them’. This is an utterly warped view of the way that Churchill genuinely viewed the Empire, which was as an honourable institution, driven partly by noblesse oblige, which brought to many millions a happier, safer and more prosperous life through being part of the British family of peoples and races.

That aspiration was what actuated imperialists such as Churchill, Curzon, Cromer and Kitchener, as well as millions of decent Britons who would not otherwise have devoted their working lives to the Empire as doctors, missionaries, tea planters, magistrates and soldiers. To write off generations of Britons, often of strong Christian faith and high morals, as bloodstained exploiters and murderers is simply Marxist propaganda. Few, if any of them, would recognise as true Ali’s statement that in the Kenya in the 1950s ‘Africans were regarded as talking beasts who could not think like Europeans’.

In the Kenya section, Ali has swallowed the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’s writings on the Mau Mau uprising, whose mortality figures were wildly out because of the way she used census data. But then Ali unquestioningly endorses the worst accusations of every Churchill detractor. Of one, Clive Ponting, who leaked military secrets while at the MoD during the Falklands war, he writes: ‘His fine mind was a loss to the English civil service.’

Ali’s accusation that the toppling of the supposedly ‘popular, liberal and democratic’ Iranian premier Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 was done primarily by the CIA and MI6 has been exploded by the recent work of the Oxford historian Dr Ray Takeyh and others. They have pointed out that Mosaddegh was appointed by royal decree and crushed dissent despotically; and although western intelligence agencies certainly supported his ousting, it was actually a powerful coalition of Iranian clerics, generals and merchants who disposed of a petulant would-be dictator who was ruining the country and was neither popular nor liberal nor democratic.

‘The intentions of western imperialism were certainly genocidal from the very beginning of the process,’ Ali states, arguing that there was ‘no crime too nasty’ for Churchill to support. Yet although the Amritsar massacre is mentioned, Ali fails to note that Churchill denounced it in the House of Commons, calling it ‘an extraordinary event, a monstrous event’ and asserting that ‘frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopaeia’. Ali’s remarks about the Bengal famine, the Greek civil war, the Combined Bomber Offensive and so on are consequently as predictable as they are under-researched and misleading. Over Iraq in the 1920s he fails to distinguish between the use of poison gas and non-lethal tear gas. Nor are his historical errors confined to Churchill. Napoleon is presented as having opposed the abolition of slavery, whereas it was one of the first things he decreed on returning from Elba in 1815.

Some of the imagery of this book is curiously scatological. Britain, which along with Australia is described as a ‘testicle-state’ of America, is apparently ‘destined to live in the capacious posterior of the White House’. In a long rant about Churchill’s Zionism and what he calls ‘settler racism’ and ‘Zionist war crimes’, Ali states that the Jews’ ‘long-denied crimes and atrocity’ against the Palestinians in 1948 is today ‘the common sense of Jewish Israel from top to bottom’. ‘There is no such thing as the historical right of Jews to Palestine,’ he explains, since Zionism is simply European colonisation, the result of Theodore Herzl’s ‘fanaticism’. There is nine pages more of this stuff in which Churchill isn’t even mentioned, but where Brooklyn Jews are described as ‘the most vicious, diehard representatives’ of American Jewish culture.

Ali believes that the spray-painting of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square ‘is one of the mildest criticisms of Churchill that can be made’. I would suggest a much milder one is to write a book so full of factual inaccuracies that its bile and evident malice fail to persuade. Here endeth the lesson of a high priest of the Churchill cult.