For those who enjoy debunking the reputations of national heroes, there can be few softer targets than Winston Churchill. The phrase “flawed hero” could almost have been invented to characterise his long, wilfully erratic career. Running through it, like some bitter-tasting lettering in a stick of rock was a strain of extreme imperial chauvinism.
Indeed, for all his other faults, Churchill tends to be at his least attractive to a 21st-century audience when involved in issues of race and empire: prejudiced, jingoistic, opportunistic and sometimes callous.
His dealings with India, where the 50th anniversary of his death is likely to attract more criticism than praise, demonstrated all these features in abundance. His opposition to constitutional reform in India in the interwar period, which ultimately failed to prevent the passing of the 1935 Government of India Act, owed much to a self-interested attempt to rally support within the Conservative Party against the leadership of Stanley Baldwin.
Racism and vitriol
His notoriously vitriolic and racist denunciations of Indian nationalists both then and during his wartime premiership have fuelled accusations that Churchill left millions of Indians to die during the Bengal famine.
Some of his more crudely racist remarks were no doubt motivated in part by an almost childish desire to shock his determinedly un-politically correct inner circle. If so he certainly succeeded. In an entry in his diaries in 1955, his doctor, Lord Moran, records Churchill complaining:
he didn’t like ‘blackamoors’ … He asked a little irrelevantly, what happened when blacks got measles … When he was told there was a very high mortality rate … he growled; ‘Well there are plenty left. They’ve a high rate of production’, and he grinned good-humouredly.
A man of his times
So how easy is it to reconcile all of this with the image of Churchill as Britain’s national saviour?
Churchill was, of course, a product of his times. He had some direct experience of the practical business of administering the British Empire during two periods at the Colonial Office, first as under-secretary of state from 1905-8, then as secretary of state from 1921-2.
For Churchill, however, the British Empire was above all India – although an India largely of his own imagining. It was administered by its own separate Whitehall department, and Churchill’s actual experience of India was limited to his time there as a young subaltern in the closing years of Queen Victoria’s reign. He left in 1897, never to return. The contempt he regularly expressed for India’s Hindu population over subsequent decades was little more than an echo of the casual racism of the late-Victorian officers’ mess.
At the same time, as the research of Warren Docktor has recently revealed, during his military career in north-west India and north Africa, Churchill developed a romantic admiration for Islamic culture.
“Empire” then, as for many of his class and generation, was for Churchill a mixture of nostalgic and distant memories, crudely racist and orientalist projections of particular traits and values onto colonised people, and a powerful rhetoric inextricably bound up with notions of Britain’s greatness and its supposed “civilising mission”. But it was essentially always an empire of imagination: four parts fantasy to one part reality.
Ironically, it was the conflict in which Churchill led his nation to victory that saw the fantasy of empire colliding catastrophically with its reality. He boldly proclaimed in November 1942 that he had “not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”. Yet while the resources of Empire were mobilised to an unprecedented extent, war placed an intolerable strain on the rickety structures that had maintained imperial control.
The Bengal famine
In Asia in particular, sweeping Japanese victories and the Bengal famine of 1943-4 shattered the illusions of British military and moral superiority. The latter, which claimed up to four million lives, is likely to remain one of the most bitterly contested episodes in Churchill’s controversial career.
Certainly, its causes were multifaceted, including the loss of rice supplies from Burma following its fall to the Japanese, the cyclone which hit East Bengal in October 1942 and the reactions of local politicians and traders. But Churchill’s characteristically provocative interventions – scrupulously recorded at the time – have fuelled accusations that this was little less than British-inspired genocide.
As conditions worsened, he mused that “starvation of anyhow underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks” and that Indians were, in any case, “breeding like rabbits”. His defenders have stressed the practical limitations on effective famine relief and the fact that Churchill’s outbursts were sometimes followed by decisions to take action. Nevertheless, if the accusation of genocide against Churchill and his ministerial colleagues can be relatively easily dismissed, that of callous indifference remains difficult to counter.
According to one of his colleagues, the Empire lost much of its interest for Churchill once India achieved its independence in 1947. Although he continued to dig into the Conservative party’s rattle bag of imperial rhetoric, all that remained for Churchill in practical terms was a mopping-up exercise.
He was suitably sceptical when, in the mid-1950s, elaborate plans were drawn up to build a new Colonial Office, telling his colonial secretary that soon, all he would need was “a fine drawing room, a good kitchen and an office”.
During his second term as prime minister, he presided over vicious counter-insurgency campaigns in Malaya and Kenya. Yet his personal role was often as a moderating influence, expressing concern that brutal reprisals were at odds with British values and would alienate global opinion. At least by the end of his political career, then, the Victorian imperialist had become a realist of sorts.