On the 10th of May 1940, Neville Chamberlain resigned and Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. Britain was at war. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler had spectacularly failed. The fate of the nation now rested in the hands of the man who had done more than most to alert the world to the threat posed by Nazi Germany. In Britain’s hour of need, he would not let them down.
But what if the Second World War had never happened and Churchill’s career had fizzled out after he lost his position as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1929? What would we now think of Winston Churchill if all we had to go on was his career and his views prior to the war?
Fifty-five years on from his death, the debate about Churchill rages on. To many around the world, he is beyond criticism – the man who saved his nation in its greatest hour of need. To others, he is a racist, imperialist, warmongering drunkard who, without the career redemption the war afforded him, would have gone down in history as a failure. Would we all see him this way were it not for the war?
Churchill is frequently accused of being a racist and an imperialist. Like all children of the Victorian age, he was brought up in the bosom of the British Empire. His views on race and colonialism were fairly typical of the time. To Churchill, the British sat at the very top of the tree. Below them, occupying various branches depending on colour, creed and geographical location, were all the other peoples of the world - with Indians and black Africans very much at the bottom. This idea is grotesque to modern people, but to those who had grown up in a country that held dominion over a quarter of the globe, the idea that the British – masters of all they surveyed - were at the very top and black Africans were at the very bottom made perfect sense. You only had to look at a map, after all. If you’re brought up from birth to believe that the British are superior to everyone else, it’s rather difficult to shake the notion. Was Churchill a racist? By the standards of today, of course, he was. But then how many people weren’t going by our standards?
'It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir.'
Churchill on Gandhi in a letter of 1931
On the charge of imperialism, again, it is important to remember that the British Empire was the most powerful the world had ever known when Churchill was born. While there was a small anti-imperialist movement in Britain, it was hardly mainstream. Britons were proud of their empire and happy with their country’s place in the world – Churchill very much among them. This explains his utter disdain for Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Churchill believed the empire was a force for good and that it should be kept intact at all costs, so it’s no surprise that Gandhi and the movement he represented filled him with horror. 'It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal Palace,' Churchill wrote of Gandhi in 1931.
These words sound horrifying to the modern reader, brought up in a world where Gandhi is a venerated figure almost beyond criticism. In 1931, however, the vast majority of Churchill’s fellow countrymen would have agreed with him. Gandhi wanted to remove the jewel in the empire’s crown. To your average Briton, this didn’t make him a freedom fighter - it made him a traitor.
Another accusation tossed at Churchill is that he was no friend of the working classes and the unions. One incident, in particular, is frequently brought up to prove this - Tonypandy. In 1910, Home Secretary Churchill sent in the troops when a dispute between miners and owners in the Welsh town escalated into violent clashes between the miners and the police.
Churchill’s decision to send in the army ‘against’ people who were striking for better pay and living conditions is often cited as showing his disdain for the working class and the unions that represented them. However, supporters of Churchill argue that the troops were sent in reluctantly and only to stop the violence escalating out of control. Rather than being against the miners, Churchill was merely trying to keep the peace. Is what happened at Tonypandy really enough to definitively prove Churchill loathed the working class or that he had it in for the unions in the years leading up to the war? Hardly. His attitude to the unions certainly hardened in his later years, but it has to be remembered that just six years before Tonypandy, Churchill had not only voted against his own party to stand with the Liberals on restoring legal rights for the unions but also stood before parliament and made a pro-union speech that the fiercely conservative Daily Mail described as ‘Radicalism of the reddest kind’.
'I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.'
Churchill advocates using gas against Kurdish rebellions in Iraq
In the theatre of war, the charges against Churchill are – at first glance at least - a little harder to defend. For example, Churchill stands accused of being an enthusiastic supporter of the use of poison gas against the Kurds and the Afghans in 1919. ‘I cannot understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,’ Churchill wrote in a memo. It’s pretty damning stuff. However, what is usually overlooked by those using this quote to show Churchill was in favour of gassing innocent people to death is the rest of the memo:
‘The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effect on most of those affected.’
On this particular occasion, Churchill was in favour of the use of non-lethal gas as a means of crowd control. Context, especially when it comes to bringing Churchill down a peg or two, is often overlooked, and it is certainly the case here. That is not to say Churchill was against the use of gas per se. He was certainly in favour of using it against the Turks in World War I. However, this hardly singles him out as unusual among his peers where the stuff was tossed about like confetti by both sides in the conflict.
Harder to defend is Churchill’s involvement in Gallipoli and the Bengal Famine. Gallipoli was a disaster and Churchill, as the campaign’s chief cheerleader, was always going to take the fall for its failure. Did he deserve to take the blame entirely? It took more than the actions of one man to lead to the deaths of thousands of British, French, New Zealand and Australian troops, but there’s no denying Churchill shoulders a lot of the blame due to his pigheadedness, hubris and refusal to listen to wiser heads. To his credit, after his demotion from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty following the Gallipoli disaster, rather than retiring to the back benches to lick his wounds, he took up his commission again and headed to the Western Front to face the very real possibility of being killed in action. Would a modern-day front bench politician do that? It’s hard to think of one.
In his time in the House of Commons, he occupied some of the highest offices in the land.
The Bengal Famine is the other massive blot on Churchill’s copybook frequently brought up by his detractors. There is no denying the famine was exacerbated by British colonial policies, and that Churchill – no great fan of Indians at the best of times – does not emerge from the incident at all well. However, when considering Churchill’s prewar career, it’s hardly fair to include a famine that took place in 1943.
So, without the Second World War, would Churchill be seen as a success or a failure both as a man and as a politician? It’s important to pause here and remember that he was sixty-five years old when he became prime minister. In the years between 1894 and 1940, he had been a soldier who had seen action in the Sudan, in South Africa and on the Western Front; he had been captured by the Boers and made a daring escaped that endeared him to the British public; he had been a successful journalist and author and he had spent thirty seven years as a Member of Parliament. In his time in the House of Commons, he occupied some of the highest offices in the land.
Between 1900 and 1922, he served in the governments of Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War and Air and Secretary of State for the Colonies. After two years out of the Commons, he returned in 1924, serving under the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin as Chancellor of the Exchequer, though his period in Number 11 Downing Street is mostly remembered for his disastrous reintroduction of the Gold Standard.
Is this the CV of a failure? The answer, surely, is no. Like all politicians who rise above the back benches to take up high office, there were plenty of bumps along the road, but if all we had to judge Churchill by was his career before the outbreak of the Second World War, we would conclude that he didn’t do too badly. And when it comes to passing judgment on his character, well, he was very much a product of his time. To judge him by the standards of today might well score points in an argument on social media, but it is a rather fruitless exercise. Pretty much everybody from Britain’s history would fail the racism test.
Of course, we don’t just have Churchill’s prewar record to go on. In 1940, he took control of the country and, alongside his allies, led Britain to victory against the Axis powers in 1945. It is for what he did as prime minister that he will be forever remembered and celebrated, and it is for that reason Winston Churchill cannot be judged a failure.