Britannia rules: Churchill in Bangalore, India in 1897 © Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

The cult of Winston Churchill

A new book from Tariq Ali argues that Britain needs to face up to the darker side of its great wartime icon
May 12, 2022
Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes
Tariq Ali
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On the back cover of Tariq Ali’s new book on Winston Churchill, a less flattering and so less familiar portrait of the wartime icon comes into view. Here, the man voted the Greatest Briton ever by over a million of his compatriots in 2002 fulminates against everything from women’s suffrage and liberal causes to “international Jews,” “uncivilised tribes” and “people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Ali also alludes to Churchill’s approval of the Conservative slogan “Keep England White”—at the same time MPs like Fenner Brockway were bringing the Race Discrimination Bill to parliament—and includes an extract from the cringeworthy praise he heaped on Mussolini in 1927. Such pronouncements will not be new to anyone familiar with the subject, but to invoke them in rarefied British company is usually to elicit the dismissive claim that they are not representative of Churchill or that they were simply “of their time.” “Nobody’s perfect” goes the more casual response, as if a view of the world in which Anglo-Saxons were “a higher grade race” entitled to rule the rest was simply a charming upper-class foible. 

Nobody’s perfect, indeed, but not everyone had the power to make such a worldview consequential for the lives of millions of people across the globe, often lethally so. At the heart of Ali’s account is this historical reality, one that is evaded in Britain today in favour of a burnished and bullish mythology in which both Churchill and his beloved British Empire emerge with untarnished courage and virtue. The “cult of Churchill” is a full-blown devotional practice, where anyone who demurs is met at the very least with shock and, more probably, tabloid denunciation. “Mythic Churchill,” as some historians have recently argued, has become a “serious fact of modern life” in Britain, “a constant point of reference in political discussion and popular culture,” and, one might add, in the culture wars constantly fomented by politicians. 

For Ali, this fact impinges seriously on our ability to reckon clearly with Britain’s past. The cult itself, however, is of relatively recent vintage, assuming its quasi-religious nature during the Falklands conflict in 1982. One of the more astonishingly successful legacies of this propaganda exercise is the ongoing presentation of Churchill, a man of the hard right by any measure, as a figure who transcends political partisanship. This handy fudge enables the presentation of elite Conservative projects as above party politics. No matter how damaging the policy, we are always “all in it together.” 

Ironically, Churchill in his own time was far from a unifying figure, famously booted out of office at the end of the conflict that contributes so much to his legend. Prior to the Second World War, Churchill’s career consisted of two related planks, Ali writes: “glorifying colonial atrocities abroad” and “suppressing working-class revolts at home.” Today the British media celebrates his imperialism while quietly consigning his domestic record to a collective amnesia. 

Yet working-class communities, especially in Wales, have not forgotten what their grandparents and great-grandparents endured at Churchill’s hands, particularly during his time as home secretary in 1910. Ali cites the actor Richard Burton’s revulsion for Churchill as a “bad man… a vindictive toy soldier child,” a perception embedded in his psyche during his Welsh childhood. A wartime leader Churchill may have become, but on many occasions, from Tonypandy in 1910 to Clydeside in 1919, and during the general strike of 1926, to mention but a few, “Churchill treated his own citizens as enemies,” writes Ali, willing to send in troops to manage “skirmishes on the home front.” 

Churchill deemed anticolonialism to be a wilful refusal of “superior science and a superior law”

Even as he switched between Liberal and Tory affiliations, Churchill was consistently hostile to the rise of Labourism. In Britain today, the separation of domestic working-class memories from imperial history is a political sleight-of-hand to which Churchill is central, made to “play a particular role.” Even so, the people whom he led into a necessary war “supported him till the first opportunity arose to get rid of him, which they promptly did.” 

In Ali’s telling, which draws on more honest existing historical scholarship than most popular biographies of Churchill, the two-times prime minister emerges not so much as deeply racist—some of his contemporaries remarked on it in shock—as profoundly authoritarian, with a soft spot for fascist strongmen, and a hostility to working-class assertion. It is no accident that in his time, as well as ours, rubbishing any criticism of empire goes hand in hand with assaults on the welfare state and trade unionism. Indeed, British critics of empire from Ernest Jones and Wilfrid Blunt to Sylvia Pankhurst and Nancy Cunard would note that colonial subjects abroad and working-class ones at home were both preyed on by the same exploitative and profiteering interests presented as merely “national” in scope.

For Ali, Churchill’s life is a lens through which to view a less glorious counter-history of empire than those histories generally lionised in Britain. On Churchill’s own life and tendencies, the book is at its strongest in the early chapters, where it details the young aristocrat’s reputation in his milieu as a “self-advertiser” and “medal hunter” possessed of a “vainglorious” enthusiasm for colonial conflicts, including the barbarities of the white-on-white Boer War. The British concentration camps in South Africa, which Hitler is known to have admired, find no mention in Churchill’s own copious account of that war.

The Duke of Marlborough’s scion had an unlimited enthusiasm for colonial wars, most of which involved the use of questionable, if not criminal, “counter-insurgency” tactics against resistant colonial subjects. The terrors of the First World War, about which Ali is unsurprisingly scathing, afforded Churchill not a fulfilment of his “desire to excel at military strategy” but the humiliating naval disaster at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles. Churchill also created the notorious paramilitary “Black and Tans,” which recruited unemployed veterans of the Great War to tame insurgency in Ireland, the only anticolonial uprising to take place close to home and the legacy of which is still with us today. Surprisingly, this gets only a passing mention in Ali’s -account, which otherwise discusses the Irish colonial situation in some detail. 

The cult of Churchill is, of course, bound up less with his imperial legacy but his role in the Allied and Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. For Churchill’s hagiographers, this is touted as negating his “flaws” in relation to the duskier peoples of the world. In actuality, both the British Empire and Nazi Germany were invested in white supremacy and a global race hierarchy, commitments that Churchill did not bother to hide. But was the wartime leader at least a committed antifascist? Ali evokes a man who was, in fact, rather admiring of both Mussolini and Hitler, at least until 1937 and, after the war, willing to support fascists in Spain, Greece and elsewhere against leftists and what he deemed “the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Indeed, he would state openly that if it was a choice between communism and Nazism, he would not choose the former. 

article body image Workers united: striking miners in Tonypandy, Wales, in 1910, one of Churchill’s “skirmishes on the home front”

Workers united: striking miners in Tonypandy, Wales, in 1910, one of Churchill’s “skirmishes on the home front”

Ali cites the New Leader, the sternly antifascist and often anticolonial newspaper of the Independent Labour Party, commenting in 1927 on Churchill’s praise for what he deemed “the commanding leadership of Signor Mussolini”: “we always suspected that Mr Winston Churchill was a fascist at heart. Now he has openly avowed it.” Although he was not alone among Conservatives in this regard, Churchill’s enthusiasm for the Italian strongman, who even at this time was recognised as an unsavoury danger, upset the eminently moderate editor of the Guardian, CP Scott, who was also less than approving of Churchill’s own willingness to deploy troops to quell domestic dissent.

“Churchill saw fascism,” Ali writes, “as an extra-parliamentary current with its own armed bands that could defeat the communists.” He is absolutely correct that fascism emerged as a force “prepared to defend capitalism and landlordism by illegal, violent and extraconstitutional methods,” that “it was created to destroy and defeat the left,” and that it “would not have triumphed had the dominant classes refused their financial and political support.” What about Hitler, the danger of whom Churchill did come to recognise before many fellow British politicians, including other Conservatives? Churchill was “the only serious ruling-class politician who understood by late 1938 that a failure to resist the Third Reich would lead to disaster, first for the British Empire and then for Europe.” Before then, however, he had expressed admiration for Hitler’s passionate nationalism and his success in “restoring Germany to the most powerful position in Europe.” Contrary to wider perception of his prescience today, Churchill did not initially dissent from Neville Chamberlain’s soft foreign policy approach to the Third Reich, or indeed “appeasement,” important though it was that he broke from this approach in time. 

Once he had established the danger posed by Hitler, Churchill was rightly implacable in a war for European liberation. The unfree subjects of the empire were, however, not consulted before being brought into the war alongside Britain, an “avoidable error” that Indian nationalists, for instance, refused to countenance without protest, although there were differences among them too. This set in motion the final set of manoeuvres and negotiations that would eventually lead to the end of the British Raj and the liquidation of most of the empire, much to Churchill’s fury. His attitude to Indians, always hostile, took on even more intemperate form leading the Conservative secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, to remark: “on the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane… I don’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.” Already, many anticolonialists across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean had asked why they should tolerate the British Empire’s racialised subjugation when they were being asked to oppose Hitler’s racist imperialism. 

Combined with his rage at challenges to the British Empire, Churchill’s racial thinking had often fatal consequences for the colonised. Nowhere is that more starkly visible than in his callous and criminal response to the entirely avoidable catastrophe that was the Bengal Famine. Between 1942 and 1944, several million Bengalis died of preventable hunger and illness, and from the British Raj’s failure to provide palliative emergency measures. While scholars of South Asia recognise that multiple factors resulted in the cataclysmic loss of life—including Indian hoarding of grains, profiteering and differential “entitlements” to relief—there is little doubt that Churchill’s stubborn racial loathing of the subjects of the Raj played a role in the unfolding of “one of the greatest disasters that had befallen any people under British rule,” as Indian viceroy Archibald Wavell himself put it. 

Wavell’s correspondence with the India Office, and with Churchill, makes for startling reading. The viceroy, hardly a left-wing firebrand, pleaded for relief measures, while the prime minister mocked the Indian birth rate (at a banquet!) and inquired why, if the famine was so bad, Gandhi had not died yet. Ali assigns collective responsibility for the catastrophe to the British Cabinet in London while also observing, correctly, that Indian elites were “accessories” to the crime—a fact that is often forgotten by modern Indian politicians expounding on the Bengal Famine today.

The later chapters of the book are concerned with a range of imperial misdeeds in which Churchill and his milieu were implicated—from the use of atomic bombs against Japan, regime change in Iran, backing French colonial violence in Vietnam and unleashing civil war in Greece, where in the latter Churchill is “still regarded by older generations… as a tyrant and a butcher.” In Churchill’s varied career, one potent ideology is consistently manifest: the entitlement of elites—specifically upper-class and wealthy white men—to rule women, the working classes and the darker peoples. Again, the man himself was not coy about stating this—insisting, for instance, that the indigenes of North America and the Aborigines of Australia had not been wronged in their dispossession by the “stronger race” and “more worldly-wise” Europeans. He would claim to a somewhat disapproving US vice-president, Henry Wallace, that there was no need to be “apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority.”

Anticolonial nationalism was deemed by Churchill to be a wilful refusal of “superior science and a superior law” by lesser breeds. Accordingly, he described the inhabitants of Palestine, not keen on having their lands expropriated under a British mandate, as the “dog in the manger” who had no final right to it though “he may have lain there for a very long time.” Others, like the Iraqi Kurds, were deemed suitable for “poison gas” by virtue of being “uncivilised.” 

Perhaps the most infamous 20th-century British counter-insurgency took place in Kenya, targeting “naked savages,” as Churchill dubbed the Kikuyu. The resistance that fuelled the “Mau Mau” began under a Labour government, which failed to start the decolonisation process, as Ali notes, but the brutal emergency was declared in 1952, after Churchill had been returned to office. The landscape was then dotted with a network of hellish detention camps in which thousands were tortured and died; cover-ups took place, most notoriously in Hola detention camp, where 11 detainees were beaten to death. 

Despite the long charge-sheet, Ali’s book is ultimately less about Churchill’s own “crimes” than an ideological cartography of the imperial-national story in which he emerges as both a leading actor and icon. In that sense, the book tries to answer the question what is Churchill, rather than laying out who he was. The book is often digressive without ever seeming irrelevant—although the reader does occasionally find themselves wanting more on the man himself.

There is undoubtedly further work and primary research to be done on excavating Churchill’s copious archives, housed at Churchill College, Cambridge. The college stands as a national memorial to the wartime prime minister, but timidity there hinders an honest engagement with history. A year ago, pursuant to ferocious media and political attacks, including from members of the Churchill family, a series intended to take a critical look at Churchill’s relationship to race and empire that I was involved in as a fellow of the college, was summarily suspended by the college administration. Speakers at an event just prior to the suspension, including me, were subjected to attacks in the media as well as threatening hate mail. 

As a man who famously insisted that history would be kind to him because he would write it, Churchill would be pleased at the policed glow around his image, the “media conformity” alone being “beyond his wildest dreams.” For those of us not content with self-serving political biographies by aspirants to the dubious adjective “Churchillian,” more exacting engagements with Churchill and history remain welcome.