The Cult of Winston Churchill

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A new book from Tariq Ali argues that Britain needs to face up to the darker side of its great wartime icon

Priyamvada Gopal in the Prospect: On the back cover of Tariq Ali’s new book on Winston Churchill, a less flattering and so less familiar portrait of the wartime icon comes into view. Here, the man voted the Greatest Briton ever by over a million of his compatriots in 2002 fulminates against everything from women’s suffrage and liberal causes to “international Jews,” “uncivilized tribes” and “people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Ali also alludes to Churchill’s approval of the Conservative slogan “Keep England White”—at the same time MPs like Fenner Brockway were bringing the Race Discrimination Bill to parliament—and includes an extract from the cringeworthy praise he heaped on Mussolini in 1927. Such pronouncements will not be new to anyone familiar with the subject, but to invoke them in rarefied British company is usually to elicit the dismissive claim that they are not representative of Churchill or that they were simply “of their time.” “Nobody’s perfect” goes the more casual response, as if a view of the world in which Anglo-Saxons were “a higher grade race” entitled to rule the rest was simply a charming upper-class foible.

Nobody’s perfect, indeed, but not everyone had the power to make such a worldview consequential for the lives of millions of people across the globe, often lethally so. At the heart of Ali’s account is this historical reality, one that is evaded in Britain today in favor of a burnished and bullish mythology in which both Churchill and his beloved British Empire emerge with untarnished courage and virtue. The “cult of Churchill” is a full-blown devotional practice, where anyone who demurs is met at the very least with shock and, more probably, tabloid denunciation. “Mythic Churchill,” as some historians have recently argued, has become a “serious fact of modern life” in Britain, “a constant point of reference in political discussion and popular culture,” and, one might add, in the culture wars constantly fomented by politicians.

For Ali, this fact impinges seriously on our ability to reckon clearly with Britain’s past. The cult itself, however, is of relatively recent vintage, assuming its quasi-religious nature during the Falklands conflict in 1982. One of the more astonishingly successful legacies of this propaganda exercise is the ongoing presentation of Churchill, a man of the hard right by any measure, as a figure who transcends political partisanship. This handy fudge enables the presentation of elite Conservative projects as above party politics. No matter how damaging the policy, we are always “all in it together.” 

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Ironically, Churchill in his own time was far from a unifying figure, famously booted out of office at the end of the conflict that contributes so much to his legend. Prior to the Second World War, Churchill’s career consisted of two related planks, Ali writes: “glorifying colonial atrocities abroad” and “suppressing working-class revolts at home.” Today the British media celebrates his imperialism while quietly consigning his domestic record to a collective amnesia. More here.