2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 13

Winston Churchill: Challenging Perceptions of a British Hero

By Megan Bellamy

Historical figures are ever-increasingly labelled as inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’, as their entire characters, experiences and deeds are reduced to a singular narrative. This has never been more apparent than in the way we think about and commemorate Winston Churchill. Popular opinion celebrates him as a brilliant wartime hero, the saviour of this country and one of its greatest politicians. Yet a closer look at his actions calls into question how much we can truthfully call him a hero. An estimated 3 million people died as a result of the 1943 Bengal famine, and thousands were forced into concentration camps in South Africa and into what has been termed ‘Britain’s gulag’, set up in Kenya. These are just a few damning events in a career that spanned decades. He made no secret of the way he believed the British empire and British people to be racially superior to any other. And yet, he recognised how his views were a product of the late Victorian era and that his politics were overlaid by a nostalgia for the past. 

The Bengal famine of 1943 is arguably one of the bloodiest stains on Churchill’s career. The Nobel winning prize economist Amartya Sen has proved that the famine was caused and then exacerbated by the imperial forces of the British, the core problem revolved around the issue of goods being sold to the British at fixed low prices, whilst the remaining goods were then sold to the people of Bengal at extremely high prices so that sellers could make a profit. When British officials alerted Churchill of the resulting famine and expressed the dire need for food supplies in the region, Churchill responded that it was the Indian people’s own fault for ‘breeding like rabbits’, further stating that the famine was ‘merrily culling the population’. The end result of the famine was the starvation of up to 3 million people. This atrocity is not taught in schools alongside Churchill’s wartime achievements. Surely those who dictate and decide the British education curriculum have a responsibility to teach the whole unsullied truth, not just the parts that fit into the imperialist narrative that flows from the dominant western worldview, that this country seems determined to maintain, and is none so more apparent than in the way British history is taught and remembered. Furthermore, Churchill claimed that the concentration camps in South Africa produced the ‘minimum of suffering’. The death toll reached near 28,000 lives. Embarrassingly for this British government, a bust of Churchill left by George W Bush in the White House was returned by Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather was, ‘imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire’. These reprehensible policies and procedures need to be brought into the light and examined alongside Churchill’s status as the protector against fascism.

Today more and more people are increasingly aware of these atrocities, with Churchill’s Parliament Square statue recently being defaced, and has subsequently been boarded up. This has become a part of a larger conversation around the supposed ‘great’ men of Britain’s past and how we should remember them. Of the statue controversy Churchill’s granddaughter Emma Soames, ‘acknowledged some of her grandfather’s views would be considered unacceptable today, but said that millions of British people rightly saw him as a hero.’ She then went on to say that, ‘people weren’t looking at the entire record of people when they put up statues to them. If they did, we would be living in a country of empty plinths’. She’s not wrong, and when these statues were raised it was in the context of a different time, but they are still here today in a society where views, such as the ones Churchill proudly held, are rightly considered abhorrent and unacceptable. Therefore it is time to take a critical look at the record and decide if it is appropriate for Churchill to keep his status as a revered hero when doing so is arguably an insult to all those who died as a result of his policies and actions. Ultimately, Churchill was a product of a bygone age, who passed into the status of legend as a result of his victory over the Nazis. We cannot forget the evils he committed nor can we ignore his refusal to surrender to Hitler even as pressure mounted for him to do so. We must accept the truth in both and let go of the need to restrict the figures of history into binary categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.