The plight of a statue may seem a quaint topic, but it is indicative not only of the state of the ‘history wars’ in Britain but also of a wider cultural malaise in the West. I will explain the reasons, short, medium and long term, for the attack on the memory of Churchill, widely held to be the greatest Briton of the last century and a true man of destiny, and then move on to consider this malaise.
The short term precipitants of crisis throw the role of continuity to the fore. There had been much criticism of Churchill for years, but it was the crisis of 2020 that led to particular vigour. The key combination was that of the furore in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the failures of policing in Bristol and London, and the sense of tension building up during the Covid-19 lockdown. The juxtaposition of these encouraged an interaction in which cause and effect are difficult to disentangle. The tension deserves particular attention as, although it is difficult to pinpoint specific consequences of the lockdown, nevertheless there was a pronounced tension that built up.
Part of the tension was probably due to the general frustration with the Covid-19 lockdown. In addition, the shock of the Floyd killing led to a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain, although there is the sadness that the period since the killing has seen the shooting of black people in Britain, all apparently by other black people. Moreover, the killing drew on widespread anger in Britain over the Trump administration and, more particularly, over its presentation. This anger was also driven forward by the fury of a portion of the population with their political defeats in December 2019 (the general election) and January 2020 (final Brexit). In many respects, the disorder in June 2020 was the attempted reaction to these failures.
Churchill spoke often of the need to protect the way of life of ethnic groups throughout the Empire
Lastly, there was a specific failure of policing and governance in Bristol and then London. The decision by the police in Bristol to allow a public breakdown of law and order was justified in terms of the risks of law-enforcement in the city, but paid no attention to the wider context. Failure in Bristol provided the example for similar policing elsewhere, while also encouraging subsequent disorder. In turn, failure in London led to the attacks on statues, and in daylight in the centre of the capital, close to the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Churchill was a deliberate focus of the action because of his symbolic authority for the country and also an image of continuity. The shift from Bristol, and the statue of an individual with links to the slave trade, to London, and that of another who had no such links, was rapid, and reflected the ambition of those seeking change. Churchill was presented as a racist, but he spoke often of the need to protect and preserve the culture and way of life of ethnic groups throughout the Empire.
The short-term causes can be seen alongside the mid-term reasons for the attack on Churchill. These reasons here reflect the strength of the Left in the ‘history wars’ or ‘culture wars’ since the 1960s. The anger and energy of the Left in part drew on a deliberate assault on previous values, and this entailed an attack on the continuities of national history and culture. That Churchill was also the leader of the Conservative Party from 1940 to 1955, and the figure widely held up by the previous generation as the key to national survival, accentuated this tendency. So also did the extent to which later Conservatives looked to his example, with Margaret Thatcher, the leader from 1975 to 1990, often referring to ‘Winston.’
The assault on Churchill from this direction both continued and gathered force from the increasingly multi-ethnic character of British society, for imperialism was presented as racist and racism as imperial. In January 2018, a group of students from the School of African and Oriental Studies in London protested in the Blighty UK Café in Finsbury Park demanding that the owner, Chris Evans, ‘apologise to the local community’ for commemorating Churchill instead of presenting him as a racist who perpetuated the injustices of the empire. The café offered a breakfast entitled the Winston and had a large mural of Churchill that was repeatedly defaced. A statement from the SOAS Students’ Union declared that the café ‘exercises a concerted historical amnesia of British colonialism, which is offensive to those who continue to experience institutional racism’. The phlegmatic Evans remarked ‘If you cannot celebrate Britain and great Britons you are just erasing history and if you cannot celebrate Churchill, you cannot celebrate anyone.’ That March, some of those who had attacked the café took part in a violent blockade of the main SOAS building, their statement protesting at ‘the white-supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalist order’ of university life. Two months later, Afua Hirsch, a stalwart of the anti-imperial Left, in a BBC programme ‘The Battle for Britain’s Heroes’, presented Churchill as a nasty racist whose racism was key to his slowness to respond to the wartime Bengal famine, which did not really address the point that Churchill was a vigorous exponent of the bombing of Germany, and that the Germans, like the Italians who were also heavily bombed, were white.
Reason of course had little to do with the criticism of Churchill. Instead, fury was to the fore, with the dead leader the focus of anger at life being hard, the victim of an account that blamed such difficulties on the structures of a white world, and a cause and symptom of the most disturbing element of all for the Left, namely the eagerness of many ordinary people to support the system. This ‘class treason’ and ‘false consciousness’ had its historical focus on Churchill, whom, in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton’ in a large-scale BBC poll. Moreover, when interviewed by BBC History in 2007, John Reid, the (Labour) Home Secretary, who had a History PhD, chose Churchill as his hero, without noting his Liberal and Conservative roles, instead seeking to annex Churchill as ‘a bit of a rebel’ who became a reforming (Liberal) Home Secretary.
And here we have a later iteration of a long-term reason for anger with Churchill, namely the Cold War, in Britain, Europe and the wider world. Even before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Churchill, both when a Conservative and when a Liberal, had offered a populist account of nationhood and indeed of empire. On 29 April 1904, breaking with the Conservatives and declaring his candidacy as a ‘Free Trade’ supporter backed by the Liberals, he asked the voters of Manchester North-West, very much part of industrial Britain:
‘Whether we are to model ourselves upon the clanking military empires of the Continent of Europe, with their gorgeous Imperial hierarchy fed by enormous tariffs, defended by mighty armies, and propped by every influence of caste privilege and commercial monopoly, or whether our development is to proceed by well-tried English methods towards the ancient and lofty ideals of English citizenship.’
The following April, Churchill referred in a speech to the ‘regular, settled lines of English democratic development’ underpinning the ‘free British Empire,’ again without contradiction. Empire was seen as a transitional stage toward self-government and then independence, a view that is unacceptable today but was then more benign than that of other empires.
Of course, that version of imperialism was totally unacceptable on the Left, but so also were other aspects of Churchill’s stance. A fervent anti-Communist, he pressed hard Britain’s intervention in the Russian Civil War and subsequently was opposed to reconciliation, including the trade agreement of 1921. He was a senior minister when relations with the Soviets were cut off in 1927, only to be restored by Labour in 1929. Churchill was also a challenge to Communism in that he was keen on working-class patriotism which was a major challenge to the worker internationalism advocated by the Soviets. During World War Two, Churchill was deeply suspicious of Stalin, and vice versa. Stalin’s downgrading of the Anglo-American war effort was subsequently to be repeated by the British Left.
We are in another stage of the Cold War, with the Left benefiting from the particular anger of a tranche of radicalised youth
In the face of Soviet success and expansionism, Churchill sought to direct Anglo-American strategy in order to ensure that the scope of the eventual Soviet advance against Germany and its allies was limited by Anglo-American moves into the Balkans, especially, he hoped, Yugoslavia and Greece. Churchill also aimed to restrict Soviet control in parts of Eastern Europe that could not be reached by Western forces, notably by winning Hungary over, and there were hopes that the Horthy government would join Italy in changing sides.
It is scarcely surprising that Churchill, the man who warned in 1946 of an ‘Iron Curtain’ descending from the Baltic to the Adriatic, was a villain to the Left. What is truly depressing is that so many mouth its platitudes now. The reasons are easy to grasp. The lack of commitment to national identity and continuity, the failure to appreciate the value of imperialism, and the need to stand up to the tyrannies of Communism and Nazism, owe a lot to the nature and contents of the education system which, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences at university level are heavily Left-wing and often (although not invariably) closed to critical or self-critical assessment of their own assumptions. Many of the demonstrators and (differently) rioters in the assault on the statues, and the majority of the local politicians who seek to follow more legal means to the same ends, are white radicals for whom the Black Lives Matter movement provides a ready opportunity. That movement’s speaker called on BBC Radio 4 the news programme on 13 June at 8.10 am for the removal of Churchill from Parliament Square, and such calls have helped direct the agitation.
Ultimately, we are in another stage of the Cold War, with the Left benefiting from ‘the long march through the institutions’ and the particular anger of a tranche of radicalised youth. This is not a happy prospect, for Churchill’s statue or for the health of British politics and, indeed, the stability of British society.
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