Alan Lester

University of Sussex and La Trobe University

Winston Churchill is an iconic figure. For many, he stands for the idealised qualities of the British nation: a bulldog spirit leavened with a sense of fair play and deep attachment to freedom. His character, contribution to historical events and legacy have been contested to greater or lesser extents ever since he became a public figure at the beginning of the twentieth century, but after Black Lives Matter protestors named him a racist by graffitiing his stocky, brooding statue in Westminster in June 2020, he also become more central to the culture war.

Churchill Statue, Westminster
Tim Buss from North County, San Diego, California, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Culture war works to drive wedges between social groups, forcing them to extremes from which they are unable to work collaboratively, find nuance or reach consensus. So who has been primarily responsible for making Churchill’s legacy a culture war wedge, driven into our public consciousness and preventing dialogue? Is it the antiracist activists and scholars who have alienated Britons by claiming that their ‘wartime PM was a white supremacist’ leading an empire ‘worse than the Nazis’, as The Telegraph would have us believe? Or is it social conservatives and their allies in papers like The Telegraph itself, who rally to defend Churchill from critique as if the fate of the nation, and indeed the Western world, depended upon it?

The Cambridge ‘Debate’

In this essay I focus on one the key moments in which Churchill’s legacy was weaponised. In January 2021 the University of Cambridge college named Churchill as his national memorial announced a series of online events to reflect specifically upon his racial views and relationship with the British Empire. The Daily Mail immediately described the plan as ‘idiotic’, quoting Churchill’s grandson, former Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames: ‘It seems to me extremely unlikely young ladies and gentlemen will get a balanced view of Churchill’s life … in … this idiotic debate that’s got out of control in all our universities.’  

The Daily Mail had already encountered the academic who would chair the events, Professor Priyamvada Gopal. The previous year it had been forced to pay her £25,000 in damages after claiming, falsely, that she was ‘attempting to incite a race war, and that she supported and endorsed the subjugation and persecution of white people’. The story was based on fake Twitter posts maliciously attributed to Gopal. The newspaper had to admit, ‘We also partially quoted another tweet from Professor Gopal as saying: “White lives don’t matter.” The tweet in fact continued: “As white lives.” Professor Gopal’s actual view is that all lives should be valued.’

Following the Mail’s pre-emptive strike, the series of events itself was introduced by the Master of Churchill College, Professor Dame Athene Donald. She explained that Churchill’s legacy as a staunch opponent of Nazism and supreme wartime leader was well known, but that ‘his views on race have had their own legacy … which is less well known’. The purpose of the planned discussions was not to cover every aspect of Churchill’s well-aired life and times, but to explore the ‘complex truths’ behind this specific and more ‘difficult’ legacy of racism. She introduced Professor Gopal, who reiterated the intent to ‘bring long overdue balance to a heavily skewed national story that has preferred untrammelled national glorification to an … assessment in the round’. She made it clear that the year-long series would be based around ‘discussion, not … debate’.

The first event was a conversation between Prof Gopal and the leading historian of Churchill, Prof Richard Toye of Exeter University. Toye started by mentioning the reaction of Piers Morgan when Professor Kehinde Andrews (who featured in the next Churchill College event) named Churchill’s racism as a problematic legacy on the TV show Good Morning Britain.

Piers Morgan Interrogates Kehinde Andrews on Good Morning Britain

Morgan had launched an unremitting barrage of criticism and aggressive questioning, allowing Andrews barely any opportunity to respond and demanding to know ‘why don’t you like living in this country’? The onslaught concluded with Morgan demanding that Andrews ‘say one good thing about this country’ and suggesting that if he did not like his country, he should live elsewhere.  The inaugural discussion between Gopal and Toye, which centred on the way that Churchill had come to stand for the nation in the eyes of people such as Morgan, seems to have escaped the attention of the series’ critics. It was the panel assembled by Gopal on 11th Feb 2021 and comprised entirely of scholars of colour, including Andrews, that attracted their ire.

The topic for this discussion was ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’. After an introduction by Gopal the speakers, Professor Andrews from Birmingham City University, Dr Madhusree Mukerjee senior editor for Scientific American and the author of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, and Dr Onyeka Nubia from Nottingham University, each gave a ten-minute presentation. Collectively, they discussed the racist comments that Churchill had made and placed them in the context of their time and place, noting the problematic silencing of this aspect of his life in the popular iconography. Then they discussed questions raised by Gopal before taking further questions from the online audience.

Andrews’ was the most provocative talk, referencing Zygmunt Bauman’s argument that the Holocaust was not an aberration in Western modernity but could be explained only through its logic, and arguing that colonial genocide too, was intrinsic to the fabric of that modernity. He made a comment as an aside, later seized upon by his detractors, about having read that the numbers of indigenous Americans killed by European colonisers caused global temperature changes. Seemingly a bizarre claim on the surface, he appears to have been referring to research indicating that the ‘clearance’ of 60 million indigenous peoples from vast swathes of land in the Americas through the spread of introduced diseases, slavery, warfare and societal collapse gave rise to a temporary reforestation that may in turn have contributed to the Little Ice Age

The most significant attack on this second event in the series came in a paper by Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes, with a foreword by Churchill’s grandson, the man who had called the planned events ‘idiotic’ in the Daily Mail, Nicholas Soames. Andrew Roberts, or Baron Roberts of Belgravia, is a popular historian and journalist who was appointed to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson. He has written widely, including a biography of Napoleon and the impressively researched and generally very well reviewed Churchill: Walking With Destiny (although Toye’s review was an exception). Zewditu Gebreyohanes is a former director of the Restore Trust lobbying group, which tries to prevent the National Trust from researching or publicising its properties’ colonial history, worked at the think tank Policy Exchange, is deputy editor at History Reclaimed, was appointed by Nadine Dorries as a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is now a senior researcher at the Legatum Institute, which is directed by the former special adviser to Jacob Rees-Mogg MP.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes’ response, ostensibly a detailed engagement with the arguments presented by the panelists, was published initially as a Policy Exchange paper and repurposed in The Spectator. It is still available on the History Reclaimed website. The US-based International Churchill Society, of which Roberts is a director, issued a statement that it ‘is pleased that Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes have addressed the recent controversy at Churchill College, Cambridge with historical context and nuance’. Even in a recently published book that is critical of Churchill’s attitudes towards Indian people, Walter Reid felt obliged to mention that ‘The “scholarship” behind the conference [sic] has been fairly devastatingly destroyed’ by the Roberts and Gebreyohanes paper (Fighting retreat: Churchill and India, Hurst, 2024, p. 5). Unfortunately for Reid, Roberts did not repay the compliment, calling Reid’s book ‘vicious’, ‘malign and cruel’.

Despite the definitive status that this riposte to the panel’s arguments has gained in some quarters, I have not been able to find any detailed engagement with it or assessment of its validity.

Churchill the Coward?

Roberts and Gebreyohanes attack Andrews for pointing out that Churchill had not personally fought in WWII, as if he had said this in order to question the Prime Minister’s courage. They ‘respond’ by pointing out, quite accurately, that Churchill had taken part in plenty of fighting between 1895 and 1916 and was therefore no coward. However, Andrews seemed fully aware of Churchill’s participation in campaigns against Indians and Sudanese, viewing them as an indication of his complicity in colonial violence. Andrews was making a different point: that in popular culture Churchill is often spoken of as if he were the reason why Germany was defeated. Andrews was saying that, in some people’s view it is almost as if Churchill single-handedly fought off the Germans. He said that ‘Britain [as a whole] should be proud of its role in the war’.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes themselves admit that ‘no historian [my emphasis] has ever claimed that Churchill won the war alone … yet Churchill … played a crucial and indispensable role in ensuring the victory’, so the only real argument here is over the emphasis accorded to Churchill as an individual vis a vis other individuals, such as Roosevelt and Stalin, and relative to broader collectives such as the Soviet, American and imperial armies.

Churchill in the military dress uniform of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars at Aldershot in 1895, public domain

Dr Nubia’s point that ‘Churchill was part of a collection of individuals … part of a policy’ could surely have been accepted as relatively uncontroversial had Roberts and Gebreyohanes been inclined to note it.

The British Empire Versus the Third Reich

Roberts and Gebreyohanes claim that the panellists stated ‘the British Empire was worse than the Third Reich’. There were two moments in the discussion to which they might be referring. The first was when Andrews was discussing the Holocaust in the terms that Bauman had used. Andrews said that this event was ‘not an other at all; it’s the complete logic of the West. Just the only difference is that it was brought to bear in Europe with people we would consider White, right? If you actually consider the mechanics of the … killing, millions of people because they’d been deemed racially inferior, we’d seen that before … this is kind of the foundation of what the West is’. Roberts and Gebreyohanes respond that this is ‘belittling’ and ‘normalising’ the Holocaust, but Andrews was actually following Bauman in problematising modernity as responsible for the horrors of both the Holocaust and colonial genocidal violence. To say that he was belittling either seems to me a gross misrepresentation.

The only mention of the ‘Third Reich’ came from Andrews in the impromptu Q & A following the presentations. He remarked ‘The British Empire was worse than the Nazis. It lasted far longer, it killed many more people, and in fact, in many ways … the Nazis were copying large elements of the British Empire. And that’s just fact. But you state something like that, it’s like heresy, right? Because we’re not having a rational conversation … about actual history’. Roberts and Gebreyohanes slam this comment as ‘puerile invective. More befitting the playground than the seminar hall’.

Let us look at the grounds upon which Andrews based his remark. He gave three grounds for the comparison. First, ‘it [the British Empire] lasted longer’. Well, of course it did. Most historians date the start of the British Empire to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century and its end in the mid-late twentieth century. The Nazis were in power for 12 years. The British and other European empires developed through four centuries of technological change, emergent nationalism, racist ideologies and the global displacement of peoples, while Nazism was more of a concentrated burst of nationalistic antisemitism and racism towards the end of their existence.

Secondly, Andrews asserted that the British Empire killed many more people. The standard figure for the Holocaust is 6 million and if we attribute the 15 million military and 38 million civilian WWII war deaths to the Nazis alone, that is a figure verging on 60 million people. We will never know how many indigenous peoples were killed defending their lands against British invasions in North America, Africa, Australasia and Asia because they were never enumerated, but a rough estimate of those killed in British colonial wars in the late nineteenth century alone would be well over a million. If we attribute the deaths from avoidable famine too, the figure would probably be over 20 million. It has been estimated that around 60 million indigenous Americans alone died as a result of European colonial conquest. We are clearly trading off wild guesstimates and making all sorts of assumptions about responsibility in both cases, but it is probably fair to say that in this off-the-cuff allusion Andrews overestimated the numbers killed in the imposition and maintenance of British rule compared to the Nazis, but not those killed by European colonialism in general.

Andrews was right in his final point: that the Nazis tended to admire the British Empire to the extent that they wished to copy elements of it. As Mukerjee noted in her presentation, Hitler spoke of ‘a copy of the British Empire, only to the East’ in occupied Slavic lands, and during the 1930s the Nazis particularly admired the arch British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, not least because he saw the Anglo- Saxons as a branch of the Germanic race. Hitler thought that he was the only man who had understood what was necessary for continuing British supremacy and Goebbels described him as a ‘rare force man’.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes characterise Andrews’ informal response to a question as ‘puerile invective’. He may not have gauged that response in a way that conceded to the sensibilities of Empire fans, but the format of the discussion was a provocation to reconsider. Roberts and Gebreyohanes state something equally sweeping, offensive and insulting to many: that the British Empire was ‘not only to benefit Britain but also – especially by the Victorian era and certainly thereafter – to further global civilisation and social advancement. The British wanted the best for the peoples of their empire’. Andrews is the descendant of people whom the British bought as captives and shipped to Jamaica as slaves. Victorian anti-slavery thereafter did not challenge, and in many ways, exacerbated colonial racism, something that Roberts and Gebreyohanes unwittingly confirm when they say that Churchill’s racial views were of their time.

Churchill the Racist?

Roberts and Gebreyohanes contest or mitigate the panel’s repeated and well-substantiated claims that Churchill was racist. The attempt is based on the premise that notions of cultural superiority are not the same as those of biological superiority, together with the claim that only the latter constitutes racism. The Oxford definition does not specify biological or cultural forms of differentiation. Racism is ‘the inability or refusal to recognize the rights, needs, dignity, or value of people of particular races or geographical origins. More widely, the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples’.

Like most of his contemporaries, Roberts and Gebreyohanes argue, Churchill spoke of civilising other peoples so that they could ultimately share in the advantages enjoyed by Britons. This indicates a cultural rather than a racial hierarchy – one which allows for individuals’ movements up and down the scale of civilisation regardless of their skin colour. They suggest that ‘Churchill’s view was not focused on skin colour … but instead on a rather nationalised perspective’. Even where he did use the word ‘race’, he meant a ‘people’ or a nationality, and not differences between Black and Brown and White people. ‘Churchill did on several occasions make disobliging remarks about Indians, about Chinese, about Palestinian Arabs and various other groups, but it is important to understand the context in which he did so’. They adapt the definition of racism again so that a racist is one who ‘wants bad things to happen to non-whites’. Having never expressed such a sentiment, Churchill is exonerated.

In her introductory presentation Gopal had presented evidence that Roberts and Gebreyohanes simply ignored. Their argument that Churchill was not focused on skin colour was directly contradicted by his physician: ‘Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin’. His remarks on Indians and other ‘races’ were more than  ‘disobliging’. The imperialist Leo Amery wrote that ‘I didn’t see much difference between his outlook’ on Indians ‘and Hitler’s’. Roberts and Gebreyohanes dismiss Amery as an unreliable witness because he was a political rival of Churchill. As Reid shows though, Churchill repeatedly referred to Indians as ‘Baboos’, describing them as ‘gross, dirty and corrupt’. He declared ‘I think we shall have to take the Chinese in hand and regulate them. I believe that as civilized nations become more powerful they will get more ruthless, and the time will come when the world will impatiently bear the existence of great barbaric nations who may at any time arm themselves and menace civilized nations … The Aryan stock is bound to triumph’. For Churchill there was no consistent differentiation between race, people or nation. He moved blithely across these categories conflating them into a single notion of White supremacy.

Churchill as Secretary of State for the Colonies during his visit to Mandatory Palestine, Tel Aviv, 1921, public domain

Such views were not just uncharacteristic outbursts, expressed in moments of stress during the dark days of WWII as his apologists routinely claim. It may have been in 1942 that, as Nubia pointed out, he said ‘I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’, but it was in 1921 that he described visiting East African Indians as ‘a vulgar class of coolies’ who ‘could not yet be allowed the same political rights as white men’. It was in 1922 that he expressed his belief ‘that opinion would change soon as to the expediency of granting democratic institutions to backward races who had no capacity for self-government’. A decade after the outbursts against Indians during the crisis of 1942, he told his doctor, ‘When you learn to think of a race as inferior beings it is difficult to get rid of that way of thinking; when I was a subaltern in India the Indians did not seem to be equal to the white man’. He seems not to have tried very hard to unlearn these attitudes since, in 1954, he declared ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails’ and admitted he ‘did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people’. The following year he told Cabinet that ‘Keep Britain White would be a good slogan’.

As Roberts and Gebreyohanes reiterate, one must take isolated quotations in the context of Churchill’s stage in life and environment. Whether we consider Churchill as a younger man, in middle age or old age, whether we take him in peacetime or wartime, as a young officer or as a Prime Minister, he did not vary in his racism. Most British people believed that White people were superior to others, with many, like Churchill himself, crossing fluidly between biological and cultural ‘explanations’. But as contemporaries of his noted, his racism was also particularly pronounced, and resistant to change. By the 1930s, Reid, argues, it was presenting an obstacle to negotiations with Indians about self-governance.

In the light of his response to the panel’s arguments, it may seem surprising that Roberts himself wrote in a 1994 Spectator article: ‘For all his public pronouncements on “The Brotherhood of Man” [Churchill] was an unrepentant white – not to say Anglo-Saxon – supremacist … for Churchill, negroes were ‘n*****s’ or ‘blackamoors’, Arabs were ‘worthless’, Chinese were ‘chinks’ or ‘pigtails’, and other black races were ‘baboons’ or ‘Hottentots’.”

Churchill was vehemently opposed to Hitler’s genocidal policies and he professed a paternalistic desire to ‘improve’ other races instead, but fighting Hitler and sharing some of his racial views were not mutually exclusive. As Nubia pointed out in his presentation, Churchill’s notions of the inferiority of Black and Brown people were ‘not contradictory’ to Hitler’s, although the way they were ‘implemented’ was ‘very different’.

Churchill was briefly attracted by the idea of Eugenics, wanting to to improve the ‘national stock’ by eliminating the ‘socially unfit’, preventing the ‘multiplication of the Feeble-Minded.’ He advocated the forced sterilisation of 100,000 people to test the outcome. Roberts and Gebreyohanes justify this by saying that the only alternative was ‘confining the mentally ill in institutions’, and that Churchill’s idea would ‘at last enable them to live in relative liberty’. They provide no evidence that this would have been the fate of the people upon whom Churchill wished to experiment. They are correct in noting that he later abandoned this idea and was not ‘one of those many intellectuals who used Eugenics to justify class or racial oppression’.

Churchill and The Bengal Famine

Roberts and Gebreyohanes are exercised by the idea that the panellists blamed Churchill for the 1943 Bengal Famine, in which 3 million Indians died. They allege that Mukerjee made the ‘monstrous accusation that Churchill wished starvation and suffering upon innocent Indian civilians because of his dislike of their ilk’. However, she made no such accusation. What she said, in the Q& A, was that because of his relative devaluing of Indian lives (he referred to them repeatedly as rabbits compared to British lions), ‘if someone other than Churchill had been prime Minister at the time, the death toll … would not have been so high’. Mukerjee had noted in her presentation that the resources needed, and risks taken, to ship food to Bengal through Japanese submarine-infested waters were no greater than those of shipping much greater quantities of food across the U-Boat-infested Atlantic to feed Britain.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes are right to explain that the major causes of the famine were beyond Churchill’s control and ability to fix. Indian suppliers’ hoarding, and local Indian officials’ initial inactivity, the Japanese occupation of food producing areas, the extra 2 million military mouths to feed and the cyclone that had destroyed crops were all primarily responsible. Mukerjee had noted all this and added the inflationary pressures of the wartime Indian economy and the policy of denying resources to potential Japanese invaders in some areas by appropriating them from the civilian population.

Roberts and Gebreyohanes argue that ‘It is unrealistic to imagine that anyone else in [Churchill’s] place could have given more attention to the famine than he did when a world war was being waged on multiple fronts’. Whether someone more sympathetic to Indian people would have given greater priority to rescuing them from starvation is unfortunately one of those counterfactual questions to which we will never have an answer. However we do know that Churchill declined to supply the amount of aid that was requested by the Viceroy until, too late, he asked Roosevelt for help without success. In the recent Radio 4 series, Three Million, the Churchill admirer and WWII expert Max Hastings said that he does not believe that ‘the interests of the war effort would have been disastrously compromised by’ Churchill sending more ‘shipping to Bengal relief supplies’, and that this should have been done. He also confirmed that Churchill was ‘callous to non-White’ subjects of empire, and inferred that this affected his decisions.


Roberts and Gebreyohanes say that the panel made the ridiculous claim that ‘colonialism is to blame for … the caste system’ in India. I have not been able to find such a statement in anything they said, either in the presentations or in Q&A. Gopal and Nubia said that ‘colonialism operated with the assistance of native tyrannies including the caste system’. Gopal also addressed the Raj’s inheritance (not fabrication), of the caste system when she said that colonialism in India operated ‘with the assistance of Brahminical supremacy’.

The Aftermath

Roberts and Gebreyohanes’ supposed ‘demolition’ of the panel’s arguments provided the ammunition for a very public, orchestrated backlash, against both the panelists and the college authorities. At first the college issued a statement saying that,  despite the ‘considerable publicity’ that it had received ‘because of the membership of the panel and nature of some of the views expressed’, the year-long programme would continue. The second panel, however, proved to be the last event. In its aftermath, the working group organising the series was disbanded.

Gopal said, ‘after ‘Policy Exchange’s [Roberts and Gebreyohanes] tendentious attack on the series’ was ‘circulated to the college’s Governing Body without caveat’, it was left ‘with the impression that Policy Exchange’s position is both uncontroversial and objective.’ When the college’s leaders tried to prevent the working group inviting the writer and activist Akala to the next planned event, Gopal accused them of ‘taking fright’, writing on Twitter/X, ‘Let me repeat: under pressure from groups like Policy Exchange & some members of the Churchill family, Churchill College has disbanded a group set up to engage critically with Churchill’s complicated legacies. Let that sink in.’

Churchill College’s Master, Donald, who had introduced the series, confirmed that there had been contact from the Churchill family and noted that their ‘support (not least for the Archives) has always been very important to the College’. She said ‘The event received a great deal of, often hostile, attention because it did address some of parts of [Churchill’s] life that are often not looked at in depth in the UK, and which do not play well to some of the standard views about his life. That hostility was also directed at the participants, who received unacceptable racist abuse, something the College utterly deplores’. However, she was adamant that ‘the implication made in some quarters that they [Churchill’s family], Policy Exchange or the national press might have been steering matters, is to misunderstand our governance arrangements.’ She attributed the demise of the programme to the Working Group ‘at some point’ seeming ‘to have changed direction, with the second event not aligning with the initial proposals that Council saw; nor did their suggestions for the third [potentially including Akala]’.

The Telegraph, 17 June 2021

It seems likely to me that the College’s council wanted the working group to organise a less controversial, perhaps more appeasing, third event following the backlash that Roberts and Gebreyohanes had helped to fuel against the second. The council, Donald, said, had ‘suggestions which they felt fitted better with the aspirations originally set out, including the names of further speakers previously identified by the Group themselves’. According to Donald, Gopal refused to concede, writing ‘at that point that the group might as well dissolve themselves’. Donald ‘was told that, at their meeting of 20th May, the group decided that they would not make further recommendations on a third event. Rightly or wrongly, as Master, I took that statement at face value: that they had in fact disbanded themselves, and that Council would instead need to take the next steps in moving the explorations of Churchill, Empire and Race forward’. Those next steps never materialised as far as I am aware.

Whatever the interactions between the Churchill family, Policy Exchange, the college council, the working group and Donald, whose position must have been invidious, there is no reason to disbelieve Gopal’s account of outraged letters sent to the college saying that the panel ‘was academic freedom gone too far, and that the event should be cancelled’. ‘The speakers and I, all scholars and people of colour, ‘she wrote, were subjected to vicious hate mail, racist slurs and threats. We were accused of treason and slander. One correspondent warned that my name was being forwarded to the commanding officer of an RAF base near my home’. Since I first posted this essay, Dr Zareer Mazani, a former nominee of Restore Trust for election to the National Trust council and founder member of History Reclaimed, has admitted that ‘I was one of those’ who wrote, ‘since we found it outrageous that college in Churchill’s memory hosting such an event, with not a single panellist to counter [Gopal’s] insane venom. Churchill family threatening to withdraw support finally persuaded the college governing body.’

Although sympathisers with Roberts and Gebreyohanes have complained that it was the panel’s discussion of Churchill that was somehow driven by ‘cancel culture’, to me it looks like Roberts and Gebreyohanes and allies in the TelegraphMail, History Reclaimed, Restore Trust and on TV programmes like Good Morning Britain, managed to block the ‘national conversation’ that Donald, Churchill College and the panel had sought to initiate.


Rather than really addressing all the panel’s arguments and evidence on Churchill’s relationship with Empire and race, Roberts and Gebreyohanes asserted that ‘Churchill’s intentions’ on racial matters ‘were both noble and moral’. The key point was missed. In a talk that Roberts gave to History Reclaimed entitled ‘Churchill Revisionism’, we can see how. The problem is not so much denial of Churchill’s racist attitudes in the past, it is the failure to reckon with them, indeed the exoneration of them, by his defenders in the present. Stating, as Roberts does in this talk, that Churchill’s racist comments were ‘very often jokes’, and giving Churchill personal credit for actions ‘intended to be to the benefit of the non-white, native population of the empire’ reinforce this problem. Blindness to the effects of justifying what Roberts himself describes as Churchill’s ‘awful, flippant, racist remarks’ is the real issue. It suggests that the acknowledgement that some of Churchill’s statements are ‘unacceptable today’ is a mere platitude. There has been no reckoning with the ideas behind those statements, let alone a fulsome rejection. Actively defending the man and the Empire by representing them as benevolent towards Black people reinscribes the racism that Churchill embodied.

A second lesson from this episode is more hopeful. What would happen if we set aside the intent to close down debate and examine the points made by the panelists and those of their detractors that were the least tendentious? Perhaps, with the adversarial friction taken out of it, we might piece together some meaningful insights about Churchill, race and empire. We might even find some points of convergence among a group of people who have all studied Churchill, albeit asking very different questions of him?

First, if anyone had actually said that Churchill was responsible for the 1943 Bengal Famine, they would be wrong. Whether he could have done more to alleviate it or would have done if the victims had been White rather than Brown is open to question and we’ll never have the evidence for a definitive answer, although it seems very likely to unprejudiced observers that his callous disregard for the mass of Indian subjects had some influence on his priorities.

Secondly, Churchill’s leadership was indispensable to British morale and he made critical decisions to continue fighting during WWII. These facts, emphasised by Roberts and Gebreyohanes, render his influence on the war greater than that of most individuals. As the panel emphasised, he was also part of the much broader assemblage of people and materials that made the victory against Nazism possible. As Roberts and Gebreyohanes pointed out, a confusion arose around the names of Aneurin Bevan and Ernest Bevin at one point, but it did not detract from this point. Britain, let alone Churchill, could never have prevailed without the help of soldiers from the Empire and especially India, and without the intervention of far more numerous and powerful Soviet and US forces.

Thirdly, unlike the Nazis, Churchill was vehemently opposed to the idea of exterminating ‘lesser’ peoples, and as Roberts and Gebreyohanes pointed out, he took the leading role in condemning Brigadier General Dyer’s massacre at Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar), casting it as an unnecessarily violent aberration from the more ‘normal’ processes of colonial policing.

Fourthly, Churchill saw no contradiction between opposing spectacular acts of colonial violence such as Dyer’s and believing in the need for White people’s authoritarian governance over ‘inferior peoples’. He articulated the sacred value of freedom for Europeans opposed to the tyranny of Nazi Germany but not for Indians at the same time. He may have resisted Indian independence because he was prescient about the chaotic violence that would ensue upon Partition, as his defenders argue. Or, as Reid argues, he may simply have been unwilling to cede control of India because he considered it the most important bastion of British greatness. Both are probably true, although his observations tend more to the desirability of maintaining Empire than concern for Indian people.

Finally, as Roberts admitted in an earlier phase of his career, Churchill was a racist. To deny that is historically inaccurate and, in most people’s eyes also morally indefensible. It would be surprising if he were not a racist, since racism, ‘racialism’ or ‘colour prejudice’, as it was called for much of his lifetime, was a prevailing ideology justifying British colonialism, just as antisemitism was a prevailing ideology fuelling Nazism. Roberts and Gebreyohanes are quite right that we must consider Churchill in the context of his times. While the analogy could have been better, in his History Reclaimed talk, Roberts described expecting Churchill to have had antiracist views as being like expecting Oliver Cromwell to have been an adherent of ‘socialised medicine’.

Placing Churchill in the context of the imperial understandings of his day was at the very centre of the panel’s project. Like others, Churchill employed both biological and cultural ‘explanations’ of Black and Brown people’s inferiority to White people. He also proved more reluctant than some of his contemporaries to moderate his views as Black and Brown people’s self-determination became more likely. Admitting that Churchill was a flawed character, often drinking too much and making strategic errors for example, is not the same thing as reckoning with the legacy of this national icon’s racism.

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

The Very Model of a Modern Major Liar?

By Alan Lester The Red River Expedition with Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s boat featured flying the ensign at Kakabeka Falls, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1877: We understand the British Empire’s military campaigns mainly via the accounts of the officers who led them. These records render the acquisition of territory, the crushing of dissent and the seizing of plunder into honourable enterprises but, when published, they were also about self-promotion. A heroic narrative, leavened with the correct dose of self-deprecation, could launch the career of an ambitious officer with literary flair. The best-known example is probably Winston Churchill, whose talent for burnishing […]

Response to Kemi Badenoch’s, Nigel Biggar’s and the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Whitewashing of Colonial History

In April 2024, the Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch gave a speech in which she sought to deny the extent to which Britain’s economic trajectory was reliant on colonialism. When criticised by William Dalrymple, Toby Young, responded with this tweet, linking to an article in support of Badenoch by Nigel Biggar. This is my quickfire response to Badenoch’s and Biggar’s case: Biggar makes three historical arguments, each of which is tendentious and based on the construction of straw men: He starts with the economic foundations of the South African War, arguing that the antisemitic Hobson’s thesis that Cecil Rhodes and other […]