The Spirit of Churchill: Elitism and British Empire

The Winston Churchill myth industry ignores the historical record. The man remembered for World War II leadership was an imperialist, a racist, and above all else committed to upholding class hierarchy.

Winston Churchill flashes a "V" for victory sign, May 11, 1959. (Photo by Fred Morgan/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

There are hundreds of biographies of and books about Winston Churchill. They still appear with incessant regularity. Even the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, has written a celebratory biography of the great man called The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, a volume that is, as one would expect, truly appalling. It’s one of the worst accounts ever written — and there is a lot of competition. This huge number of books both reflects and helps sustain the important part that the “Churchill myth” plays in the construction of contemporary Englishness and of contemporary conservatism. Churchill is celebrated as the man who embodied the spirit of England during World War II, inspiring the British people to stand alone against the Nazis in 1940, thereby saving democracy and the world. Wrapped up in all this is a celebration of class privilege and of the glories of the British Empire. The contemporary obsession with Churchill on the Right is very much about portraying the Conservative Party as being in some way a Churchillian enterprise. Today’s Conservative politicians are continuing the heroic struggles Churchill waged throughout his life, fighting for country and empire. Indeed, the Churchill myth has become an extremely useful weapon in the ideological war that the Right is waging and have been waging since the 1980s. Churchill, although he has been dead for nearly sixty years, is still enlisted as a combatant in the “culture war” that the Right is determined to fight.

Challenging this is a vital task — arguably a task more important today than it has been for some time — and Tariq Ali has stepped in to fill the gap with Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes. His book is not a conventional biography but rather an account of Churchill’s interaction with working-class struggle and colonial resistance, a narrative usefully informed by the author’s years of experience of revolutionary politics. The result is a powerful, combative, and immensely readable volume that is to be wholeheartedly welcomed and will hopefully be read by a growing number of people readying themselves to fight back. This is not to say that the book is without fault, but, particularly with regard to the British Empire, it confronts the Churchill myth head-on and to great effect.

As Ali insists, “Imperialism was Churchill’s true religion,” and inevitably this came with “a belief in and promotion of racial and civilisational superiority.” For Churchill, the empire was the “prism” through which he saw “almost everything else at home and abroad.” Indeed, as Ali sums him up, Churchill “was, above all, an imperial activist,” someone who “wanted to fight, to kill and, if necessary to die for . . . the British Empire.” Needless to say, the realities of colonial warfare were such that killing was much more likely than dying. While the centrality of Churchill’s imperialist politics cannot be doubted for even a moment, he was also very much concerned with how the glory of empire could be used to glorify and immortalize himself. Ali confronts this by laying bare the realities of the British Empire and celebrating those resisting it. A good example is provided by his account of post–World War I protests by troops awaiting demobilization in Egypt and India. In Poona in the autumn of 1919, there was “open mutiny,” and Ali celebrates the part that the “radical NCO, Sgt Bowker” played in this episode. One of the great strengths of Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes is that, instead of a relentless celebration of Churchill as a hero, Ali looks at those who resisted British imperialism and incorporates them into the historical record. For many of Churchill’s admirers, to sully an account of the great man in this way almost amounts to sacrilege.

Ali is very good on Churchill’s role in the Irish War of Independence. Churchill’s part in establishing the Black and Tans is well-known, but we are shown the face of resistance in the Listowel mutiny of RIC Constable Jeremiah Mee. Mee walked out in protest at a British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Smyth, telling recruits that they could shoot pretty much whoever they liked. What he said was, “The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.” Smyth went on to tell the troops of an emigrant ship full of Sinn Féiners that had left port recently, but he said, “I assure you, men, it will never land.” Mee denounced Smyth as a murderer, and Smyth ordered his arrest, but no one obeyed the order; in fact, another thirteen constables joined Mee in resigning. Ali goes on to chronicle the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, who were stationed in India in June 1920. Corporal Joe Hawes told his sergeant, “In protest against British atrocities in Ireland, we refuse to soldier any longer in the service of the king.” The Irish tricolor was raised in place of the Union Jack. Those involved were risking execution — and, indeed, nineteen of the mutineers were sentenced to death. In the end, only one man, James Daly, was executed, and Ali duly memorializes him for his courage and sacrifice and for his defiance of the British Empire. It is the likes of Daly who deserve to be remembered, not Winston Churchill.

The chapter on Churchill’s role in British intervention on the side of the White armies in Russia is also useful. Churchill was desperate to commit the Lloyd George government to the overthrow of the Bolsheviks, regardless of what the prime minister and his cabinet intended. As far as David Lloyd George was concerned, a full-scale war in Russia risked provoking a revolutionary outbreak in Britain, something that does not seem to have concerned Churchill. Once again, Ali identifies opposition to Churchill’s “adventurism,” focusing on Lieutenant-Colonel John Sherwood-Kelly, an officer serving in North Russia. Sherwood-Kelly had made clear his opposition to the conduct of the intervention and was sent back to Britain in disgrace, whereupon he went public, writing to the press to condemn the fiasco. His denunciation resonated with the troops still in Russia, and Churchill insisted he be court-martialed. He received a reprimand, which, under the circumstances, was almost tantamount to an endorsement.

There is, however, one weakness in Ali’s account of British intervention. More should have been made of Churchill’s failure to put a stop to the antisemitic massacres being carried out by General Anton Denikin’s White Army. Tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were brutally killed in an orgy of rape and murder by troops the British were arming and supporting in every way they could. Churchill did urge the head of the British mission, General H. C. Holman, himself a vicious antisemite, to encourage Denikin to curb the atrocities, because, as he put it, “The Jews are very powerful in England.” And somewhat surprising is Ali’s failure to have any discussion of the “Hands Off Russia!” movement in Britain, arguably one of the most important socialist campaigns of this period and a high point in British working-class politics. As for the British government actually recognizing the Bolsheviks, well, according to Churchill, “one might as well legalise sodomy.”

Ali also provides a powerful account of Churchill’s attitude toward fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. At least initially, Churchill saw fascism as a useful weapon with which to fight the communist threat. As Ali puts it, Churchill was “[b]linded by class and imperial prejudices” and consequently “fully backed European fascism against its enemies on the left.” Indeed, in 1927, Churchill actually met Benito Mussolini, praising him for his “gentle and simple bearing and . . . his calm, detached poise,” and proclaiming that Italy’s fascist dictator thought of nothing “but the lasting good, as he understood it, of the Italian people.” Even more telling, as late as November 1938, Churchill told the House of Commons, “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war, I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.” His objection to fascists was not their imposition of brutal, repressive police regimes on their people, but rather their posing a threat to the security of the British Empire. To be fair, of course, Churchill had no objection whatsoever to the British state imposing brutal, repressive police regimes in the country’s colonies — indeed, he was wholeheartedly in favor of it whenever imperial rule was challenged. Some exploration of Churchill’s relationship with Oswald Mosley and with Edward VIII in the 1930s would have been useful here.

As one would expect, Ali places the terrible Bengal famine of 1943 center stage in his chapter on Churchill and India. The death of as many as five million men, women, and children by starvation, disease, and exposure in British-ruled India during World War II was for many years suppressed, covered up, and forgotten. At the time, it was recognized as one of the most disgraceful episodes in British imperial history, with the Indian viceroy, Lord Archibald Wavell, for example, bitterly critical of Churchill’s response to the mass starvation, observing that it would do incalculable damage to Britain’s reputation. He need not have worried, of course, because the Labour Party members of Churchill’s coalition government, including deputy prime minister Clement Attlee, were just as involved in the crime as the Conservatives and just as interested in covering it up. Of course, generations of historians subsequently ignored the famine, eliminating it from the empire’s balance sheet. The reason for this is clear: portraying the empire as a benign endeavor, albeit with flaws, cannot be sustained if the millions who died in 1943 and 1944 are acknowledged and their fate incorporated into the story. Consequently, books on the British Empire, many written by reputable historians, conveniently excised it. Similarly, book after book about Churchill has failed to even mention the Bengal famine, and even today, when it is becoming harder to ignore the episode, it is often mentioned only in passing. Ali’s account of Churchill at last does the victims of the famine justice. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized, so grotesque has been the way these millions of terrible deaths have been successfully removed from the historical record.

There are many other issues and episodes about which Ali writes very powerfully, making points that expose both the realities of empire and of Churchill’s role. He reflects on British intervention in Greece in 1944, putting down the Communist-led resistance with maximum force; on Churchill’s racist attitude toward Arabs; on Palestine and Zionism; on the overthrow of the Mohammad Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953; and on the efforts made to suppress the so-called Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the early 1950s. During Churchill’s last premiership, the most brutal murderous methods were used to crush a popular insurgency and sustain in power a racist white settler regime. Ali insists that Churchill take responsibility.

But the book is not without its weaknesses. A case can be made that, while Ali is outstanding in his account of Churchill and the British Empire, he is not so successful in his account of Churchill and working-class struggle in Britain. He is very good on the Labour Party, but not so good, for example, on the Great Labour Unrest before World War I.

One other criticism is that, while he certainly has the measure of fascism and the Nazis, Ali does not have enough to say about Britain’s World War II ally the Soviet Union. The way in which the Stalin regime conducted the Russian war effort makes British World War I generals look like humanitarians driven by concern for the lives and well-being of their troops. Russian generals showed no concern for the lives of their troops, even clearing minefields by having their soldiers advance over them. Surrendering was made a crime by Josef Stalin, and if a soldier was believed to have surrendered, it was his family who were punished. Soldiers up to the rank of general who had actually died in fighting were erroneously believed to have surrendered, and their parents, brothers, sisters, and wives were arrested and sent to labor camps, with their children placed in state orphanages. On top of that, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers were executed during the war for “cowardice” like disobeying orders. The Stalin regime was a brutal dictatorship that continued to oppress the Russian people throughout the war years and after. This too deserves memorializing.

Let us end, though, on one of Ali’s most powerful passages: he insists on the enormity of the Nanjing Massacre, carried out by the Japanese army in December 1937 and January 1938. As he argues, “this was one of the worst crimes of the Second World War,” although for many years, in historical accounts focused on Europe, it was treated as no more than a footnote. This is no longer tenable, and it should never have been, just like the broadly accepted perception of Winston Churchill as a dignified hero. On this matter and many others, Tariq Ali sets the record straight with his new book.

About the Author

John Newsinger is a retired professor of history and the author of a number of books, including, most recently, Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right and American Capitalism.