Ben Sixsmith

Winston Churchill was no angel, but he wasn’t a demon either

Winston Churchill was no angel, but he wasn't a demon either
Text settings

Winston Churchill can be blamed for many things. He was an essential figure behind the disastrous landings at Gallipoli. It was on his word that the thuggish 'Black and Tans' were sent into Ireland. His racial animus towards Indian people did not help Britain to formulate an effective response to the Bengal Famine. He was insultingly quick to abandon our Polish allies to the Soviet Union. Yes, Churchill can be blamed for many things.

Many British writers and politicians, in an effort to retain their national pride as Britain declined on the world stage, have tended to deify the old bulldog. As Peter Hitchens wrote:

'As a child, I studied many patriotic accounts of the war, my favourite being a cartoon strip produced by the boys’ weekly The Eagle, called The Happy Warrior. This cast Churchill as a sort of superhero who was somehow always right amid an unending succession of disasters that mysteriously ended in a final triumph. It would be many years before I understood how wrong this treasured picture was, and I still find it painful to acknowledge.'

As unhelpful and unhealthy as this myth-making is, a modern counter-narrative is even more obnoxious. Corbyn's sinister second-in-command John McDonnell has called Churchill a 'villain'. One can learn a lot about people from their attitudes towards other people. McDonnell claims that Churchill is a 'villain' for his allegedly rough treatment of Welsh miners but has said that Lenin and Trotsky, who, among other crimes of the Bolshevik age, crushed the sailors at Kronstadt, were among his biggest influences.

Naturally, the Labour Party's ebullient propagandist Owen Jones has chimed in to say McDonnell's words 'should not be controversial.' He reels off a potted case for the prosecution.

Churchill's dedicated foes read from the same script: barraging their listeners with the same truths, half-truths and falsehoods until they submit.

Churchill, claims Jones, 'oversaw an Indian famine that killed millions.'  One should not be too dismissive here. It is certainly correct to say that Churchill's racialised disdain towards Indian people, as well as his focus on the British war effort, made him far too unfeeling towards men, women and children who were starving in their masses and delayed a sufficient humanitarian response. This is no small sin. Yet unlike with Stalin and the Holodomor, and Hitler and his Hunger Plan, there was no deliberate murderousness on display here. Churchill eventually sent the necessary relief, telling the Viceroy of India:

'Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages.'

Does this acquit him of blame? Absolutely not. But it acquits him of the charge of being a murderer or committing a genocide.

Other of Jones' charges are just falsehoods. Churchill, he claims, 'advocated gassing the Kurds.' Yes, he did. But if one reads the memo Jones references one finds that he was advocating the use of lachrymatory gas, or, in other words, tear gas. Why? Because such gasses would 'cause great inconvenience' and yet 'leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.' One can still dislike this yet acknowledge that one must draw distinctions between tear gas and Zyklon B.

Churchill, Jones claims, 'sent soldiers to crush striking Welsh miners in Tonypandy.' He did not. He sent police to keep order and denied a local magistrate's request for troops. He sent troops to Llanelli, where there were lethal clashes, but to protect the railways and not to crush the strikes.

Jones is also stridently unwilling to admit that Churchill might have had any achievements. When it comes to world war two, he writes, we should not 'focus on leaders' but on the troops that fought. Doubtless, it is true that one should not give Churchill singular credit. Yet had he not made two important decisions - to refuse to make terms with Hitler and to energetically pursue American involvement - those troops might not have had a chance of success.

'We're long overdue a debate not just about Winston Churchill,' says Jones, 'but about the British Empire.We'll never understand ourselves, let alone the world, or have an informed discussion about British foreign policy or racism, without doing so. So let's not allow that to be shut down.'

Calling Churchill a 'villain', regurgitating calumnies and passing over achievements is not how one conducts a debate. Progressives like McDonnell and Jones want to demonise past British cultural and political establishments because it gives conservatives no recourse to history and tradition. This excuses their own radicalism, and we should not let it stand.

With that said, we should avoid the different temptation to excessively romanticise Churchill and Britain's place in world war two. In a time of military failures, political embarrassments and cultural conflict, world war two can represent a kind of warm bath that conservatives sink into to ease their worries for the nation.

Churchill was a brave, perceptive, principled, inspiring man who could also be too quick to seek a grubby compromise, too reckless in his judgements and too callous towards distant people. He saved Britain, though he saved it largely by allying the nation with the United States. We should uphold these facts against his demonisers, but we should also avoid wallowing in nostalgia.