What the row over Winston Churchill's legacy is really about

The debate over Churchill isn’t really about the man. It's about an icon—and what the values we instil in him can tell us about ourselves

February 15, 2019
We like great men to be either heroes or villains, so they can tell us something about ourselves. Photo: PA
We like great men to be either heroes or villains, so they can tell us something about ourselves. Photo: PA

Soon everyone who was alive during WWII will be dead, so people can’t keep saying “we fought a war, you know.” We have well-researched history books and articles, folk memory, and the sort of history Michael Portillo favoured in his 1995 speech:  that of “heroes and bravery, of good versus evil, of freedom against tyranny. Of Nelson, Wellington, and Churchill.”

This week, we’ve seen that what Winston Churchill actually said and did as a politician and as a man is completely unimportant in the war about Churchill as an icon. Two World Wars and One World Cup—that’s the account that matters.

Winston Churchill the Icon (or WCI, if you prefer) is football fans chanting still, “Stand up, if you won the war.” He is a reflective plastic poppy, clipped to a coat, all year round—to show that you really care. He is an entire range of best-selling pottery items, from Toby jugs to £20 busts embossed with “We Shall Never Surrender,” because WCI is the subject of thousands of inspirational memes—and one rather dodgy one, that turns his waistcoat into a hi-vis yellow vest. Screen accurate cosplay is possible thanks to the Imperial War Museum’s shop. You can even get replica glasses.

There are negative memes too—often referencing the Bengal famine—in order to “own” people online. In return, the WCI fans claim the critics are insufficiently critical of Mao and Stalin, who are also more icons than people at this stage.

Your position on WCI is a badge that tells us your position on patriotism, and on whether minorities speaking up for themselves is something to be disparaged, if it happens too often, as “identity politics.” But your position on WCI is itself identity politics, because it says so much about who and what you are:

  1. Churchill was a good bloke, natty dresser, drank iconic amounts of champagne, won us a war
  2. Churchill was a racist, anti-Semitic, Tory drug addict who couldn’t win elections
For some, 1 outweighs 2, and that makes Churchill a hero and you a tribalist, non-patrioticPoundland Lenin” if you disagree. For others, 2 means he is a villain.  Hero and villain are the only options, most of the time—and even those who call for nuance tend to plump for the former. The Great Man theory of history still holds, whatever it obscures.

Churchill mythologised himself and his role. He recorded his own speeches after the war, as the Commons was not rigged for radio recording at the time, and the recordings were sold in the 1960s on the Decca label, but people “remember” hearing him make them at the time. He retold defeat as victory—casting Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk, as the “miracle of deliverance.” This paragraph is the only part of this article about Winston Churchill himself.

A good-sized chunk of the population still needs Churchill to be firmly in the hero section, with his familiar cigar and a glass or several of whisky. Criticising Churchill now is seen as an affront to the working classes, in particular, making the usual assumptions that the only authentic working class is white and ‘English’ in origin. In reality the positive memory of Churchill is an important part of what Remi Joseph-Salisbury calls “the maintenance of ‘post-racial’ white supremacy”. In other words, being a Churchill fan is not about class, as we can see from most of the people defending him, often with calls for “nuance,” in the media. It is about whiteness.

As the UK population becomes more diverse and starts to reckon with its colonial history, the 59 per cent who thought the British Empire was a good thing in 2014 is unlikely to remain static. Nearly 30 per cent of young people do not drink alcohol, and that proportion is likely to rise over time. If Britishness is not winning at the football, winning wars, telling the rest of the world how to do things, getting drunk, Marks and Spencer…what is it? What are the British values we want children and new citizens to espouse? Tom Harris says you don’t understand Britain if you “hate Churchill.” Maybe in order to be a successful member of the Establishment, if you are not currently a Churchill fan you should hold your nose and get a mug or keyring printed with one of your favourite quotations. After all, as we have seen in recent months during which Churchill debate keeps returning, his fandom crosses left (albeit not “hard” left) and right-wing politics, Leave and Remain (he features on a lot of campaigners’ graphics and placards), North and South. He had a great turn of phrase. Witty; you can use his words to argue for or against almost anything. He was good like that.

I think I will opt for “The English never draw a line without blurring it” (1948).