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A Man Of His Time, And Ours - Priya Satia

Photo of Winston Churchill from Priya Satia article

Riccardo Bettazzoni for Noema Magazine

Winston Churchill was always ambitious for attention. Today he occupies a central place in heated disputes about the past and present of racism, and whether to celebrate or redeem Britain’s imperial history. 

In March, protests against police violence against women prompted the government to ring Churchill’s statue in central London with police protection, even hours after people had dispersed. A few weeks later, rallies against proposed laws curtailing the very right to protest, including harsh punishments for defacing statues, prompted the same government response — though protestors showed little interest in attacking the statue. 

Boris Johnson’s government, with its nostalgia for British imperial greatness, habitually translates criticism of its policies into attacks on the prime minister’s personal hero. Those who do criticize Churchill, like the (now disbanded) scholarly working group on “Churchill, race and empire” at Cambridge University’s Churchill College, are also threateningly rebuked for failing to grasp that his violently racist views were merely typical of his time. 

In fact, Churchill’s views not only reflected but also enormously influenced his time; more interestingly, over his long career, they were at times significantly out of step with his time — typical only of his place as a member of Britain’s ruling upper class. 

In 1974, the actor Richard Burton wrote in The New York Times that to play Churchill was to hate him. Burton was the son of a Welsh miner, and his essay is a reminder of the extent to which people’s views are often typical of place rather than time: Welsh miners have never forgiven Churchill for violently crushing their strike when he was home secretary in 1911. Likewise, Britain’s ruling class found Burton’s view practically treasonous: The BBC drama department banned him for life. 

A decade had not yet passed then since Churchill’s death. We now have a longer view, more records and a more inclusive historical profession that ought to be better able to understand Churchill’s historical impact. But questioning his legacy continues to arouse intimations of treason from those who insist that Churchill’s pivotal role in defeating the Nazis puts him beyond criticism. That this is a view conditioned by class is clear, for Churchill was continually reproached in his own lifetime.

Even before World War II was over, Britons rejected him in the election of 1945, looking to the Labour Party for new social and imperial policies, partly because many of Churchill’s wartime policies were so controversial. His 1944 decision to destroy rather than support Greece’s anti-fascist resistance before the Nazis had even been defeated, for instance, was challenged by members of parliament in stormy debates. His majority in his Woodford seat shrank in the 1959 election.