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 ourselvesby Penny Andrews / February 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
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:
Churchill was a good bloke, natty dresser, drank iconic amounts of champagne, won us a war 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-patriotic “Poundland 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…