Socialist Worker

Winston Churchill - a brutal bully and racist who was rightly hated by many

As a new film about Churchill is released, Darkest Hour, Simon Basketter takes issue with the myths that surround the former Tory leader

Issue No. 2587

Winston Churchill had his sights set on Russia after the Second World War

Winston Churchill had his sights set on Russia after the Second World War


US right winger Mike Huckabee emerged from the latest Churchill film, Darkest Hour, to declare, “Churchill was hated by his own party, opposition party, and press. Feared by the King as reckless, and despised for his bluntness. But unlike Neville Chamberlain, he didn’t retreat. We had a Chamberlain for 8 yrs; in @realDonaldTrump we have a Churchill.”

Brian Cox won awards for having jowls last year and Gary Oldman will do the same this year. That’s not to mention the blitz of Dunkirk or the hundreds of books that are spewed out.

It is a curious British cult, with Vera Lynn singing, Spitfires flying over Dover and Dad’s Army seen as a documentary. Like all cults it is built on a myth.

In fact, far from Churchill being hated by the press, he was friends with the most powerful press barons. He wrote his way out of his chronic overspending by appearing at length in their newspapers.

Though he was hated more than is usually mentioned.

The black revolutionary CLR James noted that Churchill’s own view of himself was that, “He is the only authentic ‘great man’ of the world bourgeoisie”.

But in truth, “Winston Churchill had established himself as the most discredited, the most untrustworthy, and the most irresponsible of all the senior politicians in England.

“The rulers of Britain did not take him seriously on the politics of war because they did not take him seriously on anything except his capacity to make a serious nuisance of himself.”

He was brutal to suffragettes. And during a police siege he ordered firefighters not to put out a fire in a building with anarchists inside—they died and he got headlines.

As home secretary he became fascinated by eugenics and seriously urged the sterilisation of the “unfit”.

He was secretary of state for war when Britain formed the paramilitary “Black and Tans” that rampaged brutally across Ireland.

In later life Churchill worried that nuclear weapons would mean the end—not of life—but the splendour of war.

Dirges

To be fair, during this and his famous dirges on the Cold War and the European Union he was thoroughly drugged up on top of his permanent drunkenness. Truly a great Briton.

Churchill was fascinated by soldiering. But he seems to have gone to officers’ training school Sandhurst only because his father thought he was too stupid for Oxford. Ordinary soldiering in India he found boring, apart from the polo, which he played often.

He liked it best when charging around on horses either at foxes or foreigners, especially when others could see him.

Self-promoting and tenuous war journalism made his name, boosted his bank balance and launched him into parliament.

He didn’t exactly rough it. Everywhere he went during the First World War “a long bath and a boiler for heating the bath water” were dragged along after him by horses. He and his fellow officers ate oysters and drank champagne.

He wrote to his wife, “I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment—and yet—I can’t help it—I enjoy every second of it.”

In 1918 he wrote from the Ritz Hotel, “I am trying also to arrange to give the Germans a good first dose of the Mustard gas before the end of the month. Their whining in defeat is very gratifying to hear.”

In 1920 Churchill ordered the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. He said, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.”

He was obsessed with finding the sudden attack that would topple the enemy.

He was repeatedly wrong whenever he got his way. Invariably others died.

The Dardanelles expedition in 1915 was the most notorious of these, where he oversaw pointless disaster in Gallipoli. But thousands of lives were worth the gamble.

If Gallipoli fell so would Istanbul, opening up the road to Mosul, Baghdad and the Caspian oil city of Baku. It didn’t. He repeated the mistake often.

Rhetoric

In times of peace and quiet he had nothing to offer his class but dated rhetoric, but in a crisis he offered decisiveness.

He learnt his simplistic imperialism at Harrow public school. It was a world view that the British Empire was a good thing and needed to be defended at all costs.

Over five million people died during the Bengal famine in 1943. There was grain stored in India—but it was not released.

Churchill said Indians were used to starving. He said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

He claimed to be a friend of the workers. He always referred to them as living in “their cottages”. If some reforms were forced so be it, but armed response was the preferred option.

In 1911 transport workers walked out on strike for better pay, conditions and for union recognition.

In response he sent in troops to help rail bosses. A gun boat was positioned in the river Mersey. More than 50,000 troops were mobilised.

They opened fire on civilians in Liverpool and Llanelli—four were killed. Just a year earlier Churchill sent troops to threaten striking miners in Tonypandy in Wales.

He oversaw the invasion of Russia after the revolution and his hostility to Bolshevism ran deep.

And he wasn’t averse to liking fascists. Speaking to Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1927 he said, “Your movement has rendered a service to the whole world.

“If I had been an Italian I should have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial passions of Leninism.”

He wrote that Hitler “had a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose. I also wanted England, Germany and France to be friends.”

When the British establishment wanted to throw out King Edward because he was too keen on Nazi Germany’s expansion plans, Churchill stood by him.

Overall the British ruling class was extremely reluctant to fight Hitler, partly out of ideological sympathy but mainly because they feared the cost and disruption of an all-out conflict.

It took the military disasters of 1940 to shock a majority of them into a realisation that, unless they mobilised seriously, they risked losing the empire.

Blitz

The pompous rhetoric of Churchill fitted in the months between Dunkirk and the Blitz.

Famously he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Not his, of course, but the myth was born.

The reality was grubbier. He argued that a revolutionary situation was developing in the country.

He wanted the suspension of parliament, the introduction of martial law and the formation of a committee of public safety armed with dictatorial powers. Wiser minds saw that getting the unions and Labour on board to a national government would better hold back unrest.

He also didn’t rush to defend the white cliffs of Dover.

Instead Churchill ordered the British forces in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal and the imperial link with India.

Meanwhile Australian, New Zealand and Indian forces were ordered to the Middle East, exposing those countries to a Japanese attack.

As late as 1944 Churchill resisted the Allied assault on France in favour of concentrating on the Mediterranean.

He saw it as key to British interests and thought it could forestall Russian expansion into Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Those soldiers fighting on what Churchill called the “soft underbelly” probably didn’t see it like that.

After the Second World War in Greece he rearmed the fascist troops, and British soldiers took on the resistance on his orders.

He saw history in terms of the deeds of “heroes”. So he wrote, or had assistants write, very lengthy histories with him at the centre. He acted as his own spin doctor. But it wasn’t always successful.

The war was no sooner over than he aroused new hostility by saying on the radio that the victory of the Labour Party would mean a Gestapo for Britain.

When he came to Walthamstow stadium in east London 1945, he was jeered by 20,000 people. And when he went to Ladbroke Grove in west London in the same year people threw rocks.

He died in 1965 and a state funeral of much pomp helped prolong the myth. The sooner that myth is buried the better.


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