No other British prime minister is as lionised to the point of deification as Winston Churchill. Libraries are chock full of Churchill biographies, multiple documentaries have been made about his life. Numerous biopics have been produced — the latest being the 2017 movie Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman joined a long list of British actors who have portrayed Churchill on the silver screen.
However, the lionisation of Churchill should not blind us to the fact that he advocated a worldview based on white supremacy and British empire-building. Indeed, Churchill came of age at a time when the maintenance of the British Empire was paramount. The myth of Churchill — the British bulldog ever defiant in the face of tremendous obstacles — is not based on his wartime record. It is in fact a deliberately constructed cult, from the 1980s onwards, to justify Britain’s role as an imperial overlord.
Tariq Ali, in his new book, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes (Verso 2022), writes that the manufactured adulation of him dates from well after World War II, and serves distinct political purposes. Colonial nostalgia — a hankering for the “good old days” of empire — is deftly buttressed by the cult of Churchill. Churchill was an unrepentant empire loyalist, supportive of the criminal policies that sustained the British empire, and contemptuous of those the empire ruled.
The 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war, when Margaret Thatcher’s British government fought to hang on to its colonial possession in the south Atlantic, was the crucial turning point in the construction of the Churchill cult. Thatcher positioned herself as a new Churchill, confronting a “new Hitler”, Argentine military ruler Leopoldo Galtieri. The Conservative party, along with its Labour counterparts, participated eagerly in this new cultural construction of Churchillism.
Churchill’s racism and advocacy of mass violence
Churchill himself made numerous racist statements — which informed his worldview. The British empire was everything, governing over millions of people. Any challenge to the authority of the empire, and the financial aristocracy that ruled it, was to be met with salutary violence.
In his submission to the 1937 Peel Commission, which was tasked with making recommendations for the governance of Mandatory Palestine, Churchill said: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
His eugenicist viewpoint came through strongly when expressing his contempt for the non-white peoples of the world. His hatred of Indians was widely known, and he called them a beastly people with an equally beastly religion. When informed that the Bengal famine required urgent food supplies, Churchill refused to help, thus condemning millions of Bengalis to die of starvation. He rationalised his refusal to help on Malthusian grounds — Indians “breed like rabbits” and would consequently outstrip the food supply.
As Tariq Ali points out, if we hold Josef Stalin personally responsible for the policies of enforced collectivisation, and Mao Tse Tung for the Great Leap Forward, then we should be ethically consistent and place the blame for the fatalities of the Bengal famine at Churchill’s doorstep.
While Churchill is celebrated for his foresight in opposing Nazi Germany, his opposition was not so much on fascism’s domestic methods, but on its external ambitions. Churchill fulsomely admired Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and praised the Italian dictator’s use of savage violence in dealing with socialist, communist and trade union opponents of the regime. Francisco Franco’s Spain, a fascistic remnant from World War II, was also an object of admiration in Churchill’s eyes.
Churchill was a vociferous supporter of Zionism, and advocated the establishment of a Zionist outpost in the Middle East friendly to British interests. It was in his enthusiasm in the development and use of the latest military weapons where Churchill’s fondness for empire shines through. Advocating the mass use of poison gas in Iraq in 1920, in order to suppress a nationalist revolt, Churchill dismissed criticisms of such tactics. In fact, he rationalised the use of barbaric weapons as necessary to “save lives” in the long run.
The logic of the empire builder can be seen in Churchill’s way of thinking; uncivilised tribes, in his view, can be decimated by the use of the latest weapons, and thus save British lives. Such justifications have been deployed to soothe the conscience; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were similarly rationalised as acts of mercy killing in order to save American lives.
During his second stint as Prime Minister (1951–55), Churchill had no hesitation in using mass violence, torture and concentration camps against the Kikuyu uprising against colonialism in Kenya. One of the victims of British policy in Kenya was Hussein Onyango Obama, the paternal grandfather of Barack Obama. Churchill long regarded Africa as an imperial playground.
It is more than time to reevaluate the legacy of Churchill, and deconstruct the false edifice of Churchillism. The latter is only a propaganda tool that obscures the crimes of Empire.