Churchill – the truth about ‘the greatest Briton’

Winston Churchill died fifty years ago this year, so let’s look back at the man regarded as a hero. Now, before you write this off as typical lefty, attention-seeking rant, bear in mind that I will only state facts in this article regarding Mr. Churchill’s actions and words, followed by what I see to be a moral and ethical response to these views expressed.

Name the ultimate Brit. An iconic Brit. A world-renowned British hero. Two people spring to mind – Winston Churchill and James Bond. As Churchill was real we’ll give him the title of ‘ultimate Brit’, which is fair enough at first glance. Look at what he did for us: he won us the biggest war in the history of the human race. He kept Britain’s integrity and influence unscathed throughout the twentieth century via his work post-war regarding how to deal with a changed world (although arguably, the person who really did this was Attlee). And most notably of all, gave the best and most rousing speeches ever. “We will fight them on the beaches” makes even the most pacifistic person feel ready for action. “Never in the field of human conflict” stirs up patriotic emotions in even the most cynical members of society. And his speech on the “Iron Curtain” was so resounding that it even featured as the premise of a history exam question this year! In 2002 Churchill even beat the likes of Shakespeare, Darwin and Brunel to be voted the greatest ever Briton. From a very young age we are all taught about the importance and brilliance of Churchill -however, what if I told you he wasn’t quite as faultless as you might think?

First and foremost let’s look at the ideals and policies he believed in. When president of the Air Council he stated “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes”. This is Winston Churchill, posing the idea of gassing black people who didn’t comply with the British Empire’s regime. He also said “one may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as admirable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.” Now this was in 1937, before the war, but let’s not forget that by this time the state Germany was in politically was obscene, with concentration camps full of political prisoners, anti-semitism and rapidly increasing militarism. He also alludes to ideas of white supremacy when commenting on indigenous people by saying “I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race… has come in and taken its place.” Now you probably thinking that I’ve taken all of these quotes out of context and that they’ll all misinterpretations, however they were all taken from reputable papers such as The Guardian and The Independent who published the quotes five years ago. ‘They are biased towards left-wing principles’ you may say, and that’s true, so let’s look at one last quote with a bit of context around it so there can be no misinterpretations from me.

Many of Churchill’s colleagues thought he was driven by a hatred of democracy and for anyone other than the British and a tiny clique of supposedly superior races. This was portrayed most visibly in his attitude to India. When Mahatma Gandhi, (you know, the ultimate figure of peace and pacifism) started using peaceful resistance against Britain, Churchill said that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” As the popularity for Gandhi increased, he announced: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” This hatred extended heavily beyond idle words. In 1943 a famine broke out in Bengal, caused – as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proved – by the imperial policies of the British. Three million people starved to death while British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the region. He refused. He raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. At other times, he said the plague was “merrily” culling the population. All the while skeletal, half-dead people were streaming into the cities and dying on the streets, but Churchill – to the astonishment of his staff – had only jeers for them. This rather undermines the claims that Churchill’s imperialism was motivated only by an altruistic desire to elevate the supposedly lower races. You might now be reading this and thinking I’m taking the piss, trying my best to challenge what people hold dear in an attempt to stir things up, but sadly I’m not, I’m just stating facts, and it is an insult to the three million dead to suggest otherwise.

There are sadly more examples of Churchill’s barefaced criminality. Perhaps the most famous is the controversial bombing of Dresden in Germany. The bombing is controversial because it Dresden was not an industrial or military target, it was Northern Germany’s most cultured city, and was also filled with refugees. The point of the attack was to damage German moral by targeting civilians specifically, with the use of horrific incendiary bombs. In a day almost 4000 tons of bombs were dropped on the city. A firestorm developed as a result. The more the city burned, the more oxygen was sucked in – and the greater the firestorm became. The surface of roads melted and fleeing people found that their feet were burned as they ran. Very few of those in the city centre survived – those that did provided a vivid picture of what it was like to be in a firestorm. The end result was that the attack is estimated to have killed more than the number who died at the nuclear attack on Nagasaki, and possibly even Hiroshima, though it’s difficult to tell. It’s disputed over whether or not Dresden was Churchill’s idea, but it is certain that he signed off on the deal or at least had knowledge of it and the power to subsequently stop it. This, in my eyes, makes Churchill a war criminal – a controversial belief I know. Even though circumstances were bad during the war, there is simply no excuse for the actions he took.

I also think that to give Churchill credit for winning the war is a slightly short-sighted view, as although he was commander in chief, most of the strategic decisions were not made by him. I’m not trying to be pedantic here – if you asked me who won the second World War for Britain I’d probably say Churchill, as being leader gives you either the credit for victory, or the credit for defeat. However, when trying to find redeeming features or just reasons as to why he’s so beloved, his winning the war does not seem valid enough a reason to me, as objectively speaking it was not him at all.

And let’s not forget the obvious. He was a Tory! An early twentieth century Tory too! By default he wouldn’t have believed in fundamental equality for all, and his views even with regards to the people he was elected to govern were disgusting. Unlike Tories of today, he did not have to hide his contempt for the poor and openly said “the unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate… I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.” This essentially means ‘sterilise the working class’.

I’m sorry to shatter your idealised and misinformed view of this twisted man who you may once have regarded to be your only hero in politics. Many of you, I’m sure, are all now in utter despair, left without any political figure to respect and heroicize. But wait, I have one for you already. Winston Churchill’s immediate successor, Clement Attlee, who I consider to be the best thing to happen to British politics in the twentieth century. Attlee became prime minister in 1945, just after Churchill won the war. He was the leader of a Labour party and won a landslide general election victory with a majority.  His government was transformational. At home, the government created the welfare state and the National Health Service; abroad, it decolonised vast swathes of the British Empire, including India, and cemented Britain’s relationship with the United States. His strategy of maintaining high levels of employment, with major industries under public ownership, was the governing model in post-war British politics until Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Attlee’s approach to government was a central factor in Britain’s success, with manifesto promises being fulfilled quickly and efficiently. This seems far more deserved of recognition right?

I think we can all agree that the NHS, the welfare state and the decolonisation of the British Empire beats rampant racism, forced famine and bombing civilians any day of the week and for that reason, I present to you Clement Attlee as your new political idol and ultimate Brit.