Was Winston Churchill a racist? For students like me who attended Churchill College, Cambridge, it's a question which barely even merits an answer: of course he wasn't. But some Cambridge academics appear to take a different approach when it comes to assessing the record of Britain's most famous prime minister.
Churchill College recently announced a ‘year-long programme’ into Sir Winston’s allegedly ‘backward’ conceptions of empire and race. As part of this review, the college has held events such as ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’. Many students are simply bemused.
Academic debate is, of course, no bad thing. It is something to be encouraged at any university. But a problem arises when it appears to be taking place in a way which is one sided. At the recent event on Churchill's legacy, which promised a 'critical re-assessment of Churchill's life and legacy in light of his views on empire and race', it was hard not to conclude from the outset what the verdict would be.
The audience heard that Churchill was a white supremacist leading an empire 'worse than the Nazis'. Professor Kehinde Andrews, author of The Psychosis of Whiteness, said Churchill was: 'The perfect embodiment of white supremacy'.
Also on the panel was professor Priya Gopal, a staunch critic of the British empire who recently sparked controversy by tweeting ‘White lives don’t matter’. The pair were joined by Dr Madhusree Mukerjee, whose published work includes Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. What did she make of Churchill? You won't be surprised by the answer.
Are these speakers really well placed to offer a fair and balanced verdict on Churchill? Or was this a kangaroo court convened with one objective in mind: to sling mud at Britain's greatest leader?
These comments about Churchill, and the wider attacks on him, have caused understandable anger. For many, it seems symbolic of the ‘culture war’ being waged on university campuses up and down the country. Not unreasonably, those outside of the academic bubble are becoming increasingly concerned of this assault on our national history.
As a recent graduate of Churchill College, I have been on the frontline of what some imagine to be the great battlefield of our day. The reality on the ground is both less exciting and less bleak than many think. The vast majority of students and academics are reasonable and not neo-Maoist in inclination. From my experience, the average student opinion of Churchill would be roughly equivalent to that of any other person: Churchill, while no doubt flawed like any human being, was a titanic figure in this country’s destiny who should largely be lauded for his historic achievement. At the very least, he was better than the man he stood up to.
So why does the college pull stunts like this? Quite simply, because a tiny group of radical academics make a disproportionate amount of noise.
That the statements made about Churchill in recent weeks are so outrageous is part of the point. During my own time at university, there were campaigns calling for military organisations to be banned from the annual freshers’ fair. Why? Because the presence of military personnel carrying firearms indicated ‘implicit approval of their use’. There was also a campaign against Remembrance Day commemorations on the grounds it represented ‘imperialist propaganda’.
Inevitably these comments generated acres of coverage in the press. Many considered them to represent students as a whole. But most students simply ignored it. They want to put their heads down and enjoy themselves and finish their work so they can head to the pub.
Of course, there are times where it can be hard to forget the circus whipped up by various academics. On strike days, pickets were set up at libraries. Those trying to enter were sometimes abused. For students, this prospect was hardly welcoming: many of my contemporaries simply chose to stay in bed.
During lectures, some academics present intersectional theory as fact. Cambridge students aren't stupid; there are few who can't spot what is going on. But it is a brave student who dares challenge these views.
During student elections, a right-wing candidate will inevitably have his or her reputation destroyed. The outcome? It's best not to get involved. Even if you think the British Empire was not ‘worse than the Nazis’, it is much easier – and safer – to nod your head at the right moments or, in all likelihood, simply keep quiet altogether.
Why does all this matter? Because we have arrived in the strange and unhealthy position where fringe opinions are dominating academic life. A small group of radicals are wielding huge power over our universities and causing considerable damage in the process. Increasingly, these views are also spilling over into wider society.
So, no: Churchill wasn't an awful racist. But even making that point can be a hard thing to do on some university campuses. Let's hope that Churchill College's year-long review is soon forgotten. It would be a great shame if Churchill were to fall because of the views of a minority of academics who don't speak for most students.