Churchill from a Different Perspective

Shashi Tharoor – Bloomberg

The recent flap over Winston Churchill — with Labour politician John McDonnell calling Britain’s most revered prime minister a “villain” and prompting a rebuke from the latter’s grandson — will astonish many Indians. That’s not because the label itself is a misnomer, but because McDonnell was exercised by the death of one Welsh miner in 1910. In fact, Churchill has the blood of millions on his hands whom the British prefer to forget.
“History,” Churchill himself said, “will judge me kindly, because I intend to write it myself.” He did, penning a multi-volume history of World War II, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his self-serving fictions. As the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies remarked of the man many Britons credit with winning the war, “His real tyrant is the glittering phrase, so attractive to his mind that awkward facts have to give way.”
Awkward facts, alas, there are aplenty. As McDonnell correctly noted, Churchill as Home Secretary in 1910 sent battalions of police from London and ordered them to attack striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales; one was killed and nearly 600 strikers and policemen were injured. It’s unlikely this troubled his conscience much. He later assumed operational command of the police during a siege of armed Latvian anarchists in Stepney, where he decided to allow them to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped.
Shortly afterward, during the fight for Irish independence between 1918-23, Churchill was one of the few British officials in favor of bombing Irish protesters from the air, suggesting using “machine gun fire bombs” to scatter them. As Secretary of State for the Colonies, he followed through on that threat in Iraq. He ordered large-scale bombing of Mesopotamia in 1921, with an entire village wiped out in 45 minutes. When some British officials objected to his proposal for “the use of gas against natives,” he found their objections “unreasonable.” In fact he argued that poison gas was more humane than outright extermination: “The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.”
This underscores the fundamental contrast in views of Churchill. In Britain and much of the West, he’s seen as the savior of “Democracy, Freedom, and all that is good in Western Civilization,” as one enthusiastic correspondent put it. In fact, his record is far more mixed even there. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Churchill was an open admirer of Mussolini, declaring that the Italian Fascist movement had “rendered a service to the whole world.” Traveling to Rome in 1927 to express his admiration for the Fascist Duce, Churchill announced that he “could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers.”
What Churchill was above all, though, was a committed imperialist — one determined to preserve the British Empire not just by defeating the Nazis but much else besides. At the start of his career, as a young cavalry officer on the northwest frontier of India, he declared the Pashtuns needed to recognize “the superiority of [the British] race” and that those who resisted would “be killed without quarter.” He wrote happily about how he and his comrades “systematically, village by village, destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”
The recent flap over Winston Churchill — with Labour politician John McDonnell calling Britain’s most revered prime minister a “villain” and prompting a rebuke from the latter’s grandson — will astonish many Indians. That’s not because the label itself is a misnomer, but because McDonnell was exercised by the death of one Welsh miner in 1910. In fact, Churchill has the blood of millions on his hands whom the British prefer to forget.
“History,” Churchill himself said, “will judge me kindly, because I intend to write it myself.” He did, penning a multi-volume history of World War II, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his self-serving fictions. As the Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies remarked of the man many Britons credit with winning the war, “His real tyrant is the glittering phrase, so attractive to his mind that awkward facts have to give way.”
Awkward facts, alas, there are aplenty. As McDonnell correctly noted, Churchill as Home Secretary in 1910 sent battalions of police from London and ordered them to attack striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales; one was killed and nearly 600 strikers and policemen were injured. It’s unlikely this troubled his conscience much. He later assumed operational command of the police during a siege of armed Latvian anarchists in Stepney, where he decided to allow them to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped.
Shortly afterward, during the fight for Irish independence between 1918-23, Churchill was one of the few British officials in favor of bombing Irish protesters from the air, suggesting using “machine gun fire bombs” to scatter them. As Secretary of State for the Colonies, he followed through on that threat in Iraq. He ordered large-scale bombing of Mesopotamia in 1921, with an entire village wiped out in 45 minutes. When some British officials objected to his proposal for “the use of gas against natives,” he found their objections “unreasonable.” In fact he argued that poison gas was more humane than outright extermination: “The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.”
This underscores the fundamental contrast in views of Churchill. In Britain and much of the West, he’s seen as the savior of “Democracy, Freedom, and all that is good in Western Civilization,” as one enthusiastic correspondent put it. In fact, his record is far more mixed even there. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Churchill was an open admirer of Mussolini, declaring that the Italian Fascist movement had “rendered a service to the whole world.” Traveling to Rome in 1927 to express his admiration for the Fascist Duce, Churchill announced that he “could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers.”
What Churchill was above all, though, was a committed imperialist — one determined to preserve the British Empire not just by defeating the Nazis but much else besides. At the start of his career, as a young cavalry officer on the northwest frontier of India, he declared the Pashtuns needed to recognize “the superiority of [the British] race” and that those who resisted would “be killed without quarter.” He wrote happily about how he and his comrades “systematically, village by village, destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”

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