Anger and agreement as Churchill accused of white supremacy views Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden (Photo: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images).
Radhakrishna N S
By Amit Roy
THE culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, has called a summit of 25 heritage organisations next Tuesday (23) because of concerns at the negative way the history of the British empire is being reassessed as well as facing pressure to act from right-wing Tory MPs and lobbies.
He will discuss “contested heritage” and how various organisations, such as the National Trust, Historic England and museums, should implement the government’s “retain and explain” policy.
One newspaper claimed Dowden will instruct these bodies “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
Dowden’s intervention comes at a time when a historian caused deep upset by accusing Sir Winston Churchill of being a “white supremacist” whose philosophy was not very different to that of the Nazis. It came during a discussion last week sponsored by Churchill College, Cambridge.
As academics engaged in “a critical re-assessment of Churchill’s life and legacy in the light of his views on empire and race”, Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, infuriated supporters of the wartime leader by stating: “If you think about Churchill, there is no debate about his white supremacy – (it) is pretty much on record.
“It’s almost like he’s been beatified as a saintly figure who is beyond reproach.
“He wasn’t even that popular at the time… he was never elected. And after this war effort where he supposedly singlehandedly led the world against the Nazis, he actually lost the election.
“This is a kind of historical replacing him back on the pedestal. So the argument here is that it’s because he is the perfect embodiment of white supremacy.
“There are lots of reasons why the war was won, notably Russia, but also the colonies as well. This was a world war, and there were billions of black and brown people involved in it.
“This stuff which Churchill firmly believed in – the superiority of the Aryan race, the idea that white people civilised the barbarians – those ideas are the very same ideas for which the Nazis came to power.”
One commentator, angered by Andrews, pointed out that Churchill College was “founded in 1964, with the great man’s blessing. It is also the home of the Churchill Archives, by far the most important collection of his papers.”
A tabloid newspaper quoted the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen as saying: “I’m absolutely happy for people to have a debate and people can hold whatever views they want. But if they read history and consult history books (they will) come to their own decision that Churchill was fundamental to the defeat of the Nazis.”
Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, a former Tory MP and minister, described the views advanced by Andrews as “execrable”. He said, “I think Sir Winston’s reputation will withstand, with some ease, this sort of rant. I do think it’s terribly disappointing that views like this are advanced at Churchill College. While there is every justification for historians examining the Churchill story, it’s extraordinary that it should be seen in this way by a very limited audience.
“I’m afraid to say I have nothing but contempt for what these people have said.”
However, “these people” included Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College since 2015 and professor of experimental physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.
She introduced last week’s discussion by asserting: “To many of our members past and present, 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 recognising complex truths and acknowledging difficult realities.
“This work includes a scholarly and critical reassessment of Churchill’s life and actions. I am determined that these issues are kept centre stage and not just initiated, and then kicked into the long grass.
“As a child brought up in the London of the 1950s and 1960s, I was well aware of tensions around race and the racism prevalent in everything from jobs and pay to the football pitch. Bomb sites were familiar sites, keeping the war in focus, and the narrative of Churchill, the supreme leader, is familiar to me.
“However, one of the topics of tonight’s conversation – what happened in India at the same time – was not something that I knew anything about. And I’m sure in this I’m typical of many of my generation and succeeding ones. We need to be cognisant of the racial issues that went unreported or which played out further from the shores.”
The debate was coordinated by Priya Gopal, a fellow of Churchill College who holds a chair in the faculty of English at Cambridge.
She said: “This event is a part of a wider effort to start a national conversation about Winston Churchill’s legacies in relation to race and empire – but not just about Churchill. Indeed, no discussion about Churchill is just about Churchill. It is necessary to break the wider silence on how empire and race have shaped contemporary Britain.”
Madhusree Mukerjee, author of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, stacked up what she considered detailed facts and figures to back up her case that Churchill was directly responsible for aggravating the effects of the Bengal Famine of 1943 in which several million people died of starvation.
Her case is that Churchill refused to send grain to India when the country was in the grip of famine; that he ordered paddy fields and boats to be burnt in Bengal in a “scorched” earth policy in a pre-emptive measure against the advancing Japanese; that India was impoverished through funding the British war effort; and that Britain stockpiled more grain than it needed with the idea of selling surplus stocks to Europe for high prices after the war.
She backed Andrews though her language was less emotive: “It’s terrific that Churchill College is having this discussion. So I am going to try and link the Bengal famine with Churchill’s ideas about race.”
Mukerjee added: “Hitler’s favourite movie was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. That was a Hollywood production from 1935, in which British officers in the North-West Frontier perform these heroic feats. He made it compulsory viewing for SS trainees. So absolutely, Hitler was inspired by the British empire.”
The writer, who lives in Germany, said she visits London once in a while: “I’ve always been struck by the number of monuments to military glory. And it’s so clear that militarism is at the core of the British identity. I think with the statues you put up, obviously, they show the values that you worship.
“And, yes, those statues need to come down, but they need to involve a real grappling with what empire actually means, and the United Kingdom finding a new identity that isn’t so fundamentally based on a false premise of glory.
“I come at this as a physicist. The sooner the UK can grapple with these ugly truths, the stronger it’s going to be in the long run.”