History Politics Social Justice

Winston Churchill: Saviour or Satan?

Following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, Churchill has been at the centre of debates highlighting divisions over his legacy. Several historical accounts demonstrate his racist ideology which makes a compelling case that it may finally be the time we have a reckoning with the problematic history of popular figures in Britain.

There’s no doubt Winston Churchill is one of the most renowned people in British history –  he has a statue dedicated to him in Parliament Square, appears on the reverse of the £5 note and was voted ‘the greatest Briton ever’ in 2002, surpassing the likes of Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. The British memory of Churchill is largely surrounded by his time as wartime PM, and British people see him as the epitome of the destruction of fascism in Europe as he led Britain to victory against the axis powers in WWII.

The glorification of Churchill is not uncommon, as demonstrated by current PM Boris Johnson who published a book, ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’, praising Churchill’s wartime efforts. Due to the reputation Churchill has, strong leadership in Britain is often compared to him; claiming a political leader is ‘Churchillian’ is seen as complimentary. 

Despite this, there have been significant criticisms of the lesser-known evils Churchill supported that have recently been gaining traction. Throughout his political career he was an ardent supporter of the British Empire and believed in a racial hierarchy in which white people are ultimately superior. Churchill identified with Social Darwinism, a principle in which survival of the fittest depends on race, thus justifying colonialism as a stronger race rightfully claiming territory.

“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.”

‘Debunking the Myths of Colonization: The Arabs and Europe’
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The statement mentioned may be treated by some like an isolated incident, yet he has made similar racially insensitive comments about many non-white people – he supported the use of poisonous gas against “uncivilised tribes” (referring to mainly Kurds) in the Iraqi Revolt (1921), claimed China should be partitioned to prevent the rise of a “barbaric nation” and despite the 14,000 black Africans that died in the Boer concentration camps he could only express “irritation that Kaffirs [referring to black Africans using a racial slur] should be allowed to fire on white men”.

People who support Churchill may not notice the extent to which his beliefs caused physical harm. A significant example of this was the negligence his cabinet had towards Indians during WWII, when Churchill’s government diverted food to British soldiers and countries like Greece in 1943. Consequently, approximately 3 million Indians died due to a famine in Bengal. Churchill’s response to this tragedy was beyond reprehensible.

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

‘Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II’
By Madhusree Mukerjee
Hindus burning their starved dead - Churchill

Hindus burning their starved dead at the Calcutta Myrone Memorial

indians lining for soup - Churchill

Indian citizens waiting in line at a soup kitchen

bengal famine - churchill

bengal famine Churchill 2

Some view the desecration of Churchill’s statue as the left altering British history, yet erecting statues of figures with problematic stances is an act of revisionism itself as it promotes idolisation to the point where there is no nuance in the discussion and criticism of the individual in question. As recently as 2019, nearly half of the participants in a poll taken by YouGov thought Churchill was a hero. This supports the view that the voices of those most affected by his racism have been silenced and the British government have failed to alter the education system to ensure that today’s generation can learn of both Churchill’s achievements and his wrongdoings – no-one should be exempt from their full truth being displayed.

So whilst Boris Johnson amongst many other British people may view Churchill’s statue as a “permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country”, for people like myself it serves as a permanent reminder that Britain still has a lot of progress to make in becoming a truly anti-racist society. Perhaps removing Churchill’s statue from Parliament Square could be the first step in Britain owning up to the crimes their leaders have both supported and committed.

Written by Tasneem Ali

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