ALBERT SCARDINO: How the world sees Winston Churchill
PUBLISHED: 08:43 25 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:47 25 February 2019
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Pulitzer prize-winning writer ALBERT SCARDINO offers a global perspective on how Britain's national hero is seen.
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Britons hung a halo on Winston Churchill after the Second World War, so it came as a religious insult to many when John McDonnell declared him a villain. Few in Westminster dare to speak of Churchill as anything other than a guardian angel who saved the nation, but outside of England (including many Welsh valleys, apparently) and across his long career the views run through a wider spectrum.
McDonnell wasn’t referring to the former prime minister’s service as defender of the realm against the Nazis. Instead, the shadow chancellor was taking issue with his action in 1910 as home secretary in sending troops to a Welsh village to back up local police in a coal mining strike that had turned violent. “Tonypandy,” said McDonnell, instinctively when his interviewer flashed Churchill’s name. “Villain.”
Boris Johnson, a one-time Churchill biographer, sputtered a demand for a retraction, as only someone can do when he lusts after the job of prime minister himself. Johnson, busy trying to push Theresa May out of office, could almost be heard muttering what he has said was one of his mother’s favourite Churchillian putdowns.
When the Lord Privy Seal asked for Churchill while the prime minister was in the loo, the great man is said to have responded: “Tell the Lord Privy Seal that I am sealed in the privy. I can take but one shit at a time.” Given his penchant for mumbling crudities under his breath, Johnson may have directed the same sentiment at McDonnell, while pre-occupied with unseating May.
Other, slightly different versions of this Churchill quote are placed elsewhere by other authors without attributing it to their mother. William Manchester in his magisterial biography The Last Lion says Churchill delivered a similar remark to his butler, at Chartwell, his country home, when a young MP who had insulted him in the Commons came out to apologise.
Both incidents may well have occurred. That would be consistent with Churchill’s practice of recycling good lines, a practice that helped him imbed his thoughts in both his own mind and the minds of others and made it easier to produce the mountains of books, letters and speeches that earned him his living.
That’s one of Churchill’s most admired characteristics, the sheer volume of his words. He wrote so much, often recycling his material to fit the demands of his publishers for more words, that he gave both friends and enemies plenty of material. He remains one of the most quoted – and most quotable – public figures in English, behind only Shakespeare and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
English men and women often think only of the stooped man with a cane in Parliament Square, defying the Nazis, rallying his countrymen to fight, fight, fight. Away from Westminster, indeed outside of Britain, views on Churchill 54 years after his death range much more widely. Worship remains, but there is also amusement, anger and, worst of all from Churchill’s perspective, ignorance of the man himself, many younger people even wondering if he is a fictional character.
Outside of the British Conservative party, devotion may remain strongest among American Anglophiles of a certain age. In the far reaches of the former empire, his dismissiveness of colonials and his sense of racial superiority have poisoned his legacy.
In Australia and New Zealand he is remembered particularly for the disaster at Gallipoli during the First World War. Churchill’s idea was to land an army on the Gallipoli peninsula to try to cut communications within the Ottoman Empire and disrupt the supply of oil to Germany. The manoeuvre failed. Around 56,000 Allied soldiers were killed, including nearly 2,800 New Zealanders and more than 8,700 Australians.
“Very few of my generation have much of a feeling about Churchill,” says New Zealander Mary-Ellen Barker, a research director and former journalist. “Our parents, the generation that fought alongside Brits in the Second World War, they had much more appreciation because of his strength against the Nazis, but he isn’t a presence in contemporary life the way he is in Britain.”
Churchill’s strategic thinking as prime minister had a much more disastrous impact on eastern India. In early 1943, with Japanese forces seizing Burma, Churchill ordered much of the rice in Bengal seized for shipment back to England to add to stockpiles of food. Most of what remained he ordered destroyed to prevent it falling into Japanese hands in the event they seized eastern India.
That year, a drought dramatically reduced the harvest, and with their reserves removed to the mother country or destroyed, hundreds of thousands began to starve to death. Some three million Indians died in the famine that followed. Millions more, weak with hunger, became vulnerable to disease.
“The famine has receded from the collective memory,” said Nandana Sen, 51, an author and actor in Kolkata. “Among academics and journalists and some politicians, those who are aware of the famine would blame the British as a nation rather than Churchill personally. He doesn’t stand out individually. And among younger people, I doubt they could identify him.”
So both the Gallipoli campaign and the Bengal famine have come to be tragedies of war rather than personal errors of judgement. Churchill’s critics may be less charitable about some of his decisions in his final tour of duty as prime minister, in the 1950s.
In what is now Botswana he betrayed the rightful king, Seretse Khama, banishing him from his own country because of his marriage to a white Londoner, an offence in neighbouring South Africa where apartheid had taken hold. Britain, still nearly broke from its wartime debts, needed South Africa’s cheap gold and uranium, and the white South African government did not much care for the idea of an African king and his white wife running the country next door.
In 1951, after completing his studies at Oxford, Khama had been barred temporarily by Attlee’s Labour government from returning to his country to assume the throne. Churchill campaigned in the Commons to lift the ban if the Conservatives were returned to power in the upcoming election. The Tories won and Churchill was restored to the role of prime minister, but he reneged on his deal with Khama. Instead of allowing him to return home, he extended the banishment indefinitely. The home country still needed cheap uranium and gold from South Africa, and apartheid was by then firmly entrenched.
Finally, in 1956, after women in his homeland appealed to the Queen directly, Khama renounced the throne and was allowed to return. He became active in local politics and helped to lead a peaceful independence movement. Ten years later, Bechuanaland, as the country had been known as a British protectorate, became the independent nation of Botswana. Khama was its first elected president.
Reflecting on his experience with the British government, Khama remarked during a visit to Malawi: “Bitterness does not pay. Certain things have happened to all of us in the past and it is for us to forget those and look to the future. It is not for our own benefit, but it is for the benefit of our children and children’s children that we ourselves should put this world right.”
Over the last 50 years, Botswana, a country the size of France with a population the size of Paris, has emerged as one of the most stable democracies in Africa, with an increasing middle class.
While Churchill may have been motivated by national interest in his dealings with Kharma, he made no apologies for his acceptance of white supremacy, or more accurately, northern European white supremacy.
“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place,” Churchill told the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937.
“I cannot understand this squeamishness about the use of gas,” he wrote in a memo during his role as minister for war and air in 1919. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
In what may be his most famous speech, he is remembered for rallying his people to prepare for the worst: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Yet in that very same paragraph, he declares that if defeated at home, “then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
It was just that sentiment that made US president Roosevelt suspicious of Churchill after 1942. Did Churchill believe that the New World would sacrifice its men and treasure to rescue a Victorian empire? Did he believe that the Soviets, in the process of losing as many as 27 million people fighting Hitler on the eastern front, were not entitled to at least as significant a place at the post-war table?
As Roosevelt grew closer to Stalin and as Eisenhower emerged as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, Churchill found himself increasingly relegated to the waiting room when it came time for discussions of strategy. Roosevelt greatly admired Churchill’s readiness to fight, as the bulldog showed when he ordered an attack on the French fleet to prevent it falling into German hands at the start of the war. But he had no intention of re-establishing a 19th century world order. Britain’s darkest hour was also Churchill’s finest hour as far as the rest of the world’s leadership was concerned.
But the war changed the world and Churchill’s leadership belongs to a long-vanished era. It should be judged in the context of those times and should also be judged according to the different, diverse perspectives that lapsed time and wider understanding allows. Such judgements do not necessarily render him any greater, or less great.
Seeing national heroes as other countries see them does not automatically diminish them. Rather, it offers a helpful blurring of the lines to create a more rounded, global appreciation.
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