Debate: should Britain be ashamed of Winston Churchill?

Comment

Two of our writers go head to head on the Oxford Union’s debate “This house believes Britain should be ashamed of Churchill?”

 

Yes, Upasna Saha

As an American, I confess that I will never viscerally understand Britain’s veneration of Winston Churchill, although my home country similarly deifies divisive figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. As someone with origins in the Indian subcontinent, I also freely admit to my own personal biases in that regard. And I do not disagree that Churchill deserves a great deal of admiration for the successes he achieved for the Great Britain and Western world of today. But shame is not a binary emotion; one can be both ashamed of and commend an individual, as was repeatedly mentioned in the debate. With those qualifications having been made, I staunchly supported, and continue to support, the Oxford Union’s resolution, this house believes Britain should be ashamed of Churchill.

What must first and foremost be addressed is the resolution itself. The framing of the resolution makes Britain, as both a state and a nation, the agent that ought to feel shame. This resolution is not about the feelings of the average Briton, and the opposition frequently lost sight of this distinction during the debate. Two speakers in particular, Sir Nicholas Soames MP and Sonia Purnell, while they did not centre their speeches exclusively on this, did frame their comments in the context of Churchill’s personal life. But we are considering the contributions that Churchill made as a public servant to his country and the rest of the world, not who he was as a human being. History frequently ignores or minimises the personal foibles of distinguished leaders. Charles Stewart Parnell lived openly with an already-married woman in Catholic Ireland, and both David Lloyd George and one of my own heroes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had extramarital affairs. Why should one’s personal life, therefore, be sufficient to exonerate one’s self? It hardly mattered to British political life that Churchill was a loving husband or a doting grandfather. Moreover, even if I were to concede that Churchill’s private life has any bearing on the resolution, a full characterisation of him must include more than an image of him as a family man. It must take into account the equally important fact of Churchill’s derogatory views on groups from Irish protestors in the early twentieth century to Indians supporting Mahatma Gandhi’s hunger strike to black Africans tortured and interned during the Boer War reflected personal racist and imperialist tendencies. For all the warnings made by the opposition not to judge Churchill by modern standards of political correctness, his comments on such issues frequently left his own contemporaries aghast, to the point that Stanley Baldwin’s advisors counselled him not to appoint Churchill to his cabinet.

 

Why should one’s personal life be sufficient to exonerate one’s self? It hardly mattered to British political life that Churchill was a loving husband or a doting grandfather.

 

To be fair, neither side disputed that Churchill, like all political leaders, was a problematic figure. And I find it difficult to agree with the comparison made by scholars including Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP, and Aimé Césaire, one of Martinique’s most famous poets, of Churchill to Adolf Hitler. Gisela Stuart, the last speaker of the opposition, spoke compellingly when she reminded the audience not to apply the label “Nazi” lightly. But Churchill’s particular biases against non-English people and especially colonial peoples of colour ought to be sufficient reason for the British state to be ashamed of him, if for the sole reason that the Britain that existed in Churchill’s time, and that Churchill himself held in such high regard, was much more than the Isles themselves. The “error of judgment” label Sir Nicholas stuck on the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign cannot be applied to Churchill’s advocacy of gassing Iraqis and refusing or radically reducing proposals made by white British government officials and leaders for aid to Bengal because of the prejudice involved in the latter decisions and, more importantly, the fact that these were actions that perpetuated the suffering of British subjects themselves. And for someone with such a long – sixty-five years! – and distinguished career in public service, it qualifies as yet another failing that Churchill did not enlighten his views as time went on.

I agree with the opposition’s point against cherry picking from the cornucopia of comments that Churchill made throughout his lifetime and taking his commentary out of its context. But hardly any attention was paid to the equally crucial argument made by Professor John Charmley regarding Churchill’s involvement in writing his own narrative. Churchill once said, “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history.” (The pithier and better-remembered, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” is actually a misquote.) It is clear that Churchill was aware during his lifetime of the scholarly potential that his personal papers would contain. Professor Charmley convincingly cited letters written by Churchill specifically so that they would be part of the historical record and the contradictions contained within such papers. He used this evidence to reiterate what every historian knows, that we should be extremely skeptical of the words people themselves right. We would be doing a disservice to this Nobel Literature Prize winner to assume that he was ignorant of how to use his words and the power they had once deployed, as Dr. Rahul Rao pointed out astutely.

we would be doing a disservice to this Nobel Literature Prize winner to assume that he was ignorant of how to use his words and the power they had once deployed

Dr. Rao went on to assert that Britain’s attachment to Churchill brings out the worst in Britain. That strikes me as an oversimplification. What is evident, however, is that it is in part difficult to ask Britain to be ashamed of Churchill because, as the man is a figure so inextricably tied up with British identity, it amounts to asking the state to be ashamed for itself. An unwillingness to take ownership of the, shall we say, less-than-honourable aspects of British history is evident in other recent controversies that British politicians and institutions have been involved in. British museums have been unwilling, albeit for a pragmatic reasons along with ideological ones, to return precious artefacts such as the Elgin marbles and the Koh-i-Noor diamond to their respective original homes. Such an attitude is also reflected in the British government’s unwillingness to engage in a serious discussion about, let alone actually pay, some kind of reparations to its ex-colonies. David Cameron, for instance, told Jamaica in 2015 that it ought to “move on from painful legacy of slavery.”

This debate opened with Shivani Ananth describing shame as an agent that fuels change and allows for a reassessment of history. It’s an idealistic statement, to be sure, but indulge for a moment as I write this from the comfort of the world’s most renowned ivory tower. No one is asking Britain to discredit the contributions Winston Churchill made during the Second World War. But this country ought to finally recognise that the freedom and Western democracy that Churchill was willing to sacrifice so much for were benefits that white Westerners reaped and that disproportionately brown and black bodies paid, and are still paying, the price for. And, by all measures of morality, that is shameful for any person, let alone one of the most lauded men in world history, to have believed.

 

No, William Evans

In this age of extremes and absolutism, it is unsurprising that the question facing members of the Oxford Union queries not whether the postcolonial reaction against men like Churchill has gone too far, or whether pride in such a figure has been too blind to any negatives whatsoever, but rather asks whether we should be ashamed of Churchill. History, no less in the study of individuals, is more complex than declaring certain people intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Few figures in history are truly, intrinsically, bad and deserving of a sense of collective shame in future generations. There can, it seems, be no pause for thought, no consideration of the intricacies of historical figures like Churchill, only outright condemnation such is the climate of reaction and rage in which we live.

Ever since the conclusion of the Second World War, Churchill has been revered by Britain as a hero. Many postcolonial writers have therefore been keen to reveal Churchill to be the imperialist, racist and misogynist. The motion put before the house was the manifestation of this extreme attempt at revisionism. Those like Professor John Charmley suggest that Churchill has not been painted ‘warts and all’, and the motion that we ought to be ashamed of the ‘real’ Churchill is therefore one we should accept. This in itself is a fallacy. Many unappealing and negative aspects concerning Churchill’s actions and character are well known. His poor military judgement, manifested in the disastrous events at Gallipoli, and racist remarks are well advertised today.

Churchill was — as even Charmley confessed — a great man. We do not overlook Churchill’s flaws, but rather choose to put them into perspective, to make a moral judgement that on balance his actions and leadership during the Second World War make him worthy of celebration rather than condemnation.

Churchill was a great man. We do not overlook his flaws, but rather choose to put them into perspective

If the motion were to suggest that we ought to regret those actions and comments made by Churchill that do not correspond with our values and beliefs today it would be hard to disagree with, yet, to demand that we feel ashamed of such an exceptional man surely goes too far. As the eminent historian Andrew Roberts suggested, we can criticise Churchill rationally for the mistakes he made. Indeed, who would not have made errors if they were in public service as an MP from 1900 until 1964, as Churchill was? We should celebrate not just Churchill’s brilliant leadership, but also his exceptional public service.

Many of those on the side of the proposition chose to paint Churchill’s imperialist tendencies in the light of the fact that he presided over the terrible Bengal Famine of 1943. The response of Churchill’s national government to the crisis was not good enough, but to suggest as they did that Churchill must shoulder the blame entirely because he was in favour of empire is simply misleading. Churchill also presided over a bankrupt nation. That he is known to have begged President Roosevelt to aid Bengal shows that he was not, as one speaker put it, indifferent to their suffering. This is not an attempt to justify the entirely lacklustre British response to Bengal, but rather a call for perspective when allocating blame for the appalling famine that occurred there.

Dr Rahul Rao argued: ‘a good dose of shame might do us all some good’ in the face of our ‘neurotic attachment’ to Churchill. Ought we be ashamed because a national hero of ours was flawed? What context, he asked, might justify Churchill’s racist comments? We should rightly condemn these comments as unrepresentative of our values today. Churchill, though, was not of our times.  Neither was he of the time in which he led the country as Prime Minister. He was a man of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, and we should as a result not be surprised that he held the views that he did; they were in currency in those periods. Churchill appeared a relic of a bygone age when he led the British government, let alone to us now.

The proposition struggled to work around Churchill’s role in the Second World War. Churchill did not singlehandedly win the war, but — to dabble in counterfactual history briefly — I doubt anyone would suggest that the alternative leaders in 1939, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, could have done what Churchill did. The former had favoured the appeasement of Hitler and the latter argued that Britain should seek peace with Hitler’s Germany within a year of the war’s outbreak. Churchill provided the mettle, tenacity and leadership that maintained the country’s morale and led it through the most difficult period in its history. Who but Churchill could have led the country with such brilliance through what truly was its darkest hour?

Who but Churchill could have led the country with such brilliance through what truly was its darkest hour?

The motion, then, asks the wrong question. We ought to be considering why it is right to praise and commemorate Churchill despite his flaws and mistakes. Humans are complicated, contradictory and deeply flawed, and Churchill was no different. He could be racist, arrogant and downright rude; but he could also be witty, inspiring and brazen in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. Churchill’s dedication to public service was commendable, and in an age where there is a drought of political talent, we ought to be celebrating, not condemning, brilliance, leadership and heroism in figures like Churchill.