Was Winston Churchill really a “villain”?

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John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, recently sparked outrage by describing Winston Churchill as a “villain” because of his role in the Tonypandy riots of 1910. However, is it really true that Churchill sent in the military to crush the strike, or is the truth more complicated?

In the autumn of 1910 there was a strike by miners in south Wales. The strikers managed to shut down all the pits in the area except Llwynypia colliery near Tonypandy. After skirmishes broke out between strikers and the police, Glamorgan’s chief constable asked for military support. Churchill thought that the Welsh authorities were overreacting, but sent down Metropolitan Police officers. He agreed in principle to the use of troops but said that these should be held back rather than sent in immediately.

On 8th November, rioting broke out in Tonypandy and the next day troops were deployed. According to Welsh author Phil Carradice, writing for the BBC on the centenary of the riots, “there were [two] clashes…but…the soldiers were at the time…more welcome than the policemen from outside the valley”. Almost 80 police officers and more than 500 civilians were injured. Thirteen miners were arrested and prosecuted. No shots were fired by troops, although one miner died from head injuries said to have been inflicted by a policeman.

“To insist that for Churchill to be a great man he must never have thought or done anything bad is to insist that the world is divided into exclusively good and bad people.”

Tonypandy, therefore, is not the strongest example of the ‘other side’ to Churchill, which McDonnell has stressed exists alongside the well known war hero. The disastrous Dardanelles campaign in the First World War had a far greater effect on his political career.

A historical figure’s legacy, however, cannot be reduced to one word, especially one that passes moral judgement grounded in contemporary values. To insist that for Churchill to be a great man he must never have thought or done anything bad is to insist that the world is divided into exclusively good and bad people.

Churchill was a self-centred egoist who made some grievous errors and held a number of views that today we rightly consider abhorrent. However, he was also an indefatigable war leader, an inspirational orator and an important liberal reformer. Thus, to talk only of Churchill as a hero is to be blind to the rather unsavoury other side to which McDonnell refers. As esteemed military historian, Antony Beevor, rightly suggested, “history…should never be reduced to soundbites, especially politicised ones”.

The current unhelpful practice of identity politics is to rummage through the past careers of great men and women and sort them into friends or foes, rather than to reach a nuanced view. The host at the Politico event which sparked this row, Jack Blanchard, asked MacDonald, in binary terms, “Winston Churchill: hero or villain?”. This way of viewing history is infantile, and a habit of which society will hopefully grow tired.

Lord Finkelstein’s conclusion on the matter speaks for itself: “to make progress through robust debate among free people and never to be afraid to say what needs saying — that was the real meaning of the victory Churchill won”.

Image Credit: the Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons