The facts of history have become more available to the public than ever before. The hard work of many historians coupled with developments in the mass media mean there are huge amounts of information about many historical figures easily accessible to the mainstream. This is a good thing; it allows historical facts to be known by the majority of people rather than just history academics. However it has also called into question the legacies of individuals whose actions are responsible for how the world looks today.
Despite being voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 and British People’s most respected leader in 2018, Sir Winston Churchill is a man that divides opinion. His leadership as Prime Minister during the most challenging periods of World War Two has cemented his name in the history of Britain, yet his personal and political beliefs have soured his name amongst many in the United Kingdom. Green MSP Ross Greer recently sparked a debate around Churchill’s legacy in a tweet which labelled the former Prime Minister ‘a white supremacist’ and a ‘mass murderer’. There have also been calls for his statue to be removed from Parliament Square because of decisions he took whilst in his position of power.
It is true that Churchill held beliefs that would disgust any reasonable person today. He has been described at best as an extreme patriot, at worst a white supremacist, believing Britain and British people were at the top of the food chain. This legitimised his support for empire and his reluctance to see Ireland and India become independent from the British empire.
Churchill also supported the use of poisonous gasses against what he described as “uncivilised tribes”. His action (or lack thereof) when it came to the 1943 famine in West Bengal further supports the view that he was an inherent racist. He decided not to send supplies of grain to the region which would have massively alleviated the suffering. 3 million people died as a result of the famine.
Some explanation of these actions has been given by historians. Warren Dockter of Cambridge University says his support of poisonous gas has been misinterpreted, arguing the weapons he supported would have been non-lethal and actually lowered the potential loss of life. A 1919 memo from Churchill states “Gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effect on most of those affected.” Richard Toye also suggests the failure in West Bengal was a result of poor prioritisation rather than direct racism. Historian Arthur Hermann says that once Churchill and his cabinet realised the true extent of the famine they acted to alleviate it. However as Toye also states, although Churchill had other distractions due to the context of the war, the small amount of effort it would have taken to act on the famine means there is no excuse for his poor handling of the situation.
Churchill’s record on strike action also brings with it major criticism. His role in the 1911 Tonypandy riots was a stain on his political career and something he was never allowed to forget. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently named Churchill a ‘villain’ in the case of Tonypandy. When miners in South Wales took strike action, Churchill as home secretary sent troops to the towns affected. Claims have been made that strikers were fired upon at his command, although this has been contested by historians. Professor Louise Miskell of Swansea University has said his role in the situation has been ‘oversimplified’, and much of the criticism surrounding his involvement is due to myth. One man died in the riots.
Again under his watch as home secretary, two people were killed when troops were deployed in Liverpool due to strike action. As many as 100,000 troops were deployed in Glasgow after similar civil unrest in 1919. Historians such as John Charmley posit that had Churchill not deployed troops the outcome could have been much worse and more people could have died.
The deployment of the infamous ‘Black and Tans’ in Ireland show again his rush to violent action. The group, which was Churchill’s brainchild, are well known for extreme violence and acts of revenge against the IRA, including burning down towns in Ireland and shooting civilians. The number of people killed and injured by the Black and Tans is hard to estimate but many of their actions have been described as war crimes. They were under Churchill’s command as Secretary of State for War and Air during the Irish War of Independence.
His quick turn to violent action is a source of criticism in the case of strikers and Ireland, yet it could also be seen as the character trait that is responsible for his success as a war-time Prime Minister. His decisiveness made him a good leader during the most pressing times of World War Two. Despite total disagreement with communism he immediately pledged support to the Soviet Union when Hitler attacked, saying “The Russian danger… is our danger.” Some historians have also named him the principle architect behind the Grand Alliance between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. An alliance plagued by ideological contradictions but one that needed to be formed in order to defeat the Axis powers.
It has been argued that giving people a simple Remain/Leave vote on the complex issue of European Union membership is naive and oversimplifies a complicated situation. I would argue it is equally naive to have a Good/Bad referendum on the legacy and character of complex people in world history. We must continue to have open debate about history, not so one side can win the ideological argument but so that all sides can learn the historical one. This is what the current debate about Churchill is getting totally wrong.
Robbie Lennie is a TPN columnist and is currently studying History and Politics at Northumbria University.