By Amit Roy
SIR NICHOLAS SOAMES has attacked the Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, for allowing the institution to be used to question his grandfather Sir Winston Churchill’s views on empire and race in the wake of Black Lives Matter.
He has also implied that the college, which was founded in the war-time leader’s honour when he was still alive, should perhaps change its name.
The comments by Sir Nicholas came in response to a year-long programme of events at Churchill College, in which academics are engaging in “a critical re-assessment of Churchill’s life and legacy in the light of his views on empire and race”.
Dame Athene Donald, Master of the college since 2015, last month introduced the second discussion to examine “the racial consequences of Mr Churchill”, saying: “To many of our members, Churchill was the supreme leader during the Second World War. His courage and wisdom led to the defeat of Hitler and fascism.
“However, both during the war and throughout his long life and career, Churchill expressed views and took actions which impacted adversely on different communities at home and abroad. His views on race and empire have had their own legacy, but one which is less well known.
“As Master of this college, I believe we must explore Churchill’s multifaceted character and actions, and not back away from … acknowledging difficult realities.
“We must not shy away from matters that may be uncomfortable to some, or that are so ingrained in the way the majority think about day-to-day life, that we’re blind to their impact on others. This work includes a scholarly and critical reassessment of Churchill’s life and actions.”
The historian Andrew Roberts has written a scathing “review” of the discussion in a paper published by the Policy Exchange thinktank, with a foreword by Churchill’s grandson.
Sir Nicholas, a former Tory cabinet minister, said: “I am very worried, given these circumstances, about the direction Churchill College seems to be taking. Above all, that the Master of the college and governing body could be facilitating this kind of historical illiteracy is a travesty of what the institution is for; especially given the fact that this conference about history was composed largely of non-historians, as was made clear by the dismal confusion between Aneurin Bevan and Ernest Bevin.”
He wondered whether the college should continue to retain its name: “The college benefits enormously from Churchill’s name. If they traduce it, should they be able to have their cake and eat it?”
He claimed that during the discussion, “many factually incorrect, deeply offensive and ignorant remarks were made. This constitutes, in my view, a new low in the current vogue for the denigration in general of British history and of Sir Winston Churchill’s memory in particular. This is now sadly quite common. But I never would have expected Churchill College to participate in it.
“Nobody, least of all my grandmother, Lady Churchill, who was present with the Duke of Edinburgh at the opening of the Churchill Archives Centre in 1973, could ever have expected this latest trashing of his reputation.”
He pointed out: “This college, the first one at Cambridge University to be named after a person living at the time of its founding, is the National and Commonwealth memorial to Sir Winston Churchill and was to be the embodiment of his vision of how higher education can benefit society in the modern age.”
He added: “That such an event could be held at this college is thus all the more shocking. Churchill was not perfect… Nonetheless, in the eloquent words of the college’s third Master, Sir Hermann Bondi – an Austrian Jew who had fled the Nazis – Churchill was the one man who held barbarism at bay when civilisation was hanging by a thread.
“If there was one academic institution in the world that one would hope and expect would give Churchill a full and fair hearing – rather than give a platform to those who overlook his astonishing contribution to the defeat of the most murderously racist regime in all history – it surely should be Churchill College, Cambridge, named in my grandfather’s honour and now home to his personal papers and one of the world’s most important archives.
“It really seems to me that Churchill College should be defending his remarkable legacy, not allowing pseudo-academic detractors to smear him unchallenged.
“While the Master now states that ‘the college believes in the importance of free speech’ and that Churchill’s ‘reputation is best served by exposing it to scrutiny and challenge as well as praise’, in practice she restricted free speech by having no one but Churchill detractors on the panel, who in the entire 45 minutes did not utter a word of praise. So even under her own slightly vacuous rubric, she failed to stand up for her own stated principles.”
The discussion was chaired by Professor Priya Gopal, a Fellow of Churchill College. Participants included Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, who has caused deep upset among Churchill supporters by alleging he was a white supremacist whose philosophy mirrored that of the Nazis.
Another speaker was Madhusree Mukerjee, author of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, who has argued that the British leader was directly responsible for aggravating the effects of the 1943 Bengal Famine in which millions died from starvation. Her book has proved controversial, but has received a favourable review from the British military historian and former Daily Telegraph editor, Sir Max Hastings.
However, Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny, dismissed Mukerjee for not being a professional historian: “Dr Mukerjee, being a physicist rather than a historian, might be excused for the confused account she presents in her dalliance into world history, particularly into a period as complex as this.”
Incidentally, the Master of Churchill also happens to be a physicist – a professor of experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.
Roberts quotes the “Pulitzer Prize-nominated” Arthur Herman: “Dr Mukerjee, who writes for Scientific American and is no historian, has gotten herself entangled in three separate and contentious issues: Britain’s battle with Indian nationalists like Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose; Churchill’s often tempestuous views on India; and the 1943-44 Bengal famine. Out of them, she attempts to build a plausible cause-and-effect narrative. All she manages is to mangle the facts regarding all three, doing a disservice to both historical and moral truth.”
He went on: “Churchill’s alleged loathing of Indians constituted something of a running theme during the Churchill College event, and formed a central premise of Dr Mukerjee’s claim that he facilitated the Bengal Famine of 1943.”
Roberts shares his byline in the paper with Zewditu Gebreyohanes, “currently the director for student engagement at the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation. Being of British and Ethiopian descent, she has a keen interest in East African affairs and is in the process of setting up a society called the Conservative Friends of Ethiopia.”
The paper gives Churchill a clean chit over the Bengal Famine: “In trying to pin blame on the distant Churchill, Dr Mukerjee has drawn a spurious link between Churchill’s views on Indians – which she misrepresents, and which in any case largely come from only one anti-Churchill source – and his alleged inaction during the famine, while conveniently overlooking the very real and immediate negative implications various domestic factors had. The truth is Churchill should be given credit for having done his best in the circumstances.”