Charlie Gardner considers the shocking historical record of the face of the new five-pound note
“Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could have done it”, wrote Boris Johnson in his biography of the famous British statesman, Winston Churchill. Echoing similar praise, ex-Prime Minister and fellow Conservative David Cameron declared that Churchill had served “humanity as a whole” (Watt, 2015). With such excessive admiration from the Tory elite, it is no wonder that he has replaced progressive social reformer Elizabeth Fry as the face of the five-pound note. On making the final decision on Fry’s replacement, departing bank governor Melvyn King explained his reasons. “A truly great British leader” he said, “he remains a hero of the entire free world. His energy, courage, eloquence, wit and public service are an inspiration to us all.” (Allen, 2013)
This type of Churchill-worship has long been encouraged by the British ruling class. What they neglect to mention, however, is Churchill’s unwavering faith in the British Empire, and with it, the devastation he and his government caused to millions around the world. His political philosophy, inclined at all times to further the expansion of Empire, resulted in famines, territorial theft and mass suffering based on racist prejudices and a bigoted belief in the superiority of an imagined Anglo-Saxon race.
Churchill is most well-known for leading Britain to victory against Hitler and Nazism and is thus regarded as a ‘defender of democracy’. Not only does this view determine history as the making of one man’s actions, it also overlooks the millions who fought and died to prevent the triumph of fascism. Moreover, the myth that he was an ardent critic of totalitarianism doesn’t add up with his expressed admiration for fascist leaders. Speaking to Italian fascist Mussolini in 1927, he said: “Your movement [Fascism] has rendered a service to the entire world… If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely.” (Samuel, 2010) As late as 1938, with the onset of fascism in parts of Europe and its quite apparent totalitarian traits, he wrote with glowing esteem of Mussolini’s “amazing qualities of courage, comprehension, self-control and perseverance which he exemplifies.” (Burns, 2010)
His leadership in the fight against fascism wasn’t due to any deep loathing of autocracy. Rather, when it looked increasingly likely that fascist powers may begin to dominate Europe and therefore challenge British imperial interests, Churchill was ready to defend his class and Britain’s influence across the globe. “I have not become the Kings first minister,” he wrote in 1942, “to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” (Wheatcroft, 2014) Anything that confronted British capitalism as directly as Nazism would be contended – Churchill’s aim was not to defeat fascism as such, but to represent the British ruling class in its fight against German imperialism. Although a section within the British ruling class favoured conciliation with Germany – championed by the likes of Chamberlain and Halifax – Churchill was aware of Hitler’s past record and that any potential agreement could just as quickly be broken if Hitler saw it in his best interests – a potential humiliation to the empire he so deeply cherished. Churchill was sympathetic towards Mussolini’s fascism insofar that it repelled the Italian worker’s movement and remained non-threatening towards Britain. This was not reciprocated with Hitler whose military capacity was exceedingly becoming a threat to British post-WW1 dominance. As Chris Bambery put it: “Churchill was opposed to Germany from the mid-1930s onwards because he recognized it threatened Britain’s position in Europe and the world.” (Bambery, 1995)
Churchill had no qualms in arming troops who had collaborated with the Nazis as long as it was advantageous to Britain’s imperial leverage, as the Greek resistance and those who played a significant role in the struggle against German occupation would discover in 1944. The Greek resistance, a key force in the region and ally of the British, were betrayed when the British Army switched allegiances after the Germans withdrew from the country. Churchill had no intention of enforcing democracy in Greece. Instead, the plan was to crush any communist resistance and reinstall the Greek King – a monarch previously aligned with the proto-fascist dictator Metaxas. This was a premeditated strategy to keep Greece as a “British sphere of influence”. Prior, Churchill had proposed to Stalin a “percentages agreement” which would divide Eastern Europe into two power bases: the plan allowed Greece to be accorded to Britain and in return Russia would take Romania and Bulgaria. Aware of its implications, Churchill called the paper on which the agreement rested, a “naughty document” (Rasor, 2000). When fighting broke out the soldiers fighting on behalf of the British were former Nazi collaborationists from the ‘Security Battalion’, a military group set up to support German soldiers during occupation.
Churchill’s Racism and Imperial Record
Churchill was a fierce and unrelenting imperialist; he envisioned the British Empire as the embodiment of progress, which informed his belief, Lawrence James writes, that it was “uniquely qualified to further progress and enlightenment throughout the world” (James, 2013). This “progress” and “enlightenment”, however, came at the expense of millions of lives globally and was justified based on white supremacist attitudes. Churchill’s grotesque racism is well documented. “I hate Indians,” he wrote. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” (Hari, 2010) He wrote callously of most races which he deemed inferior. Palestinians were “barbaric hordes who ate little but rabbit dung” (Hari, 2010) and in a recently uncovered article from 1937 – written by his ghost writer but read and approved by Churchill himself – Jews were “partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer.” (Butcher, 2007)
Churchill espoused these views candidly throughout his life and they remained mostly unchanged until his death. He saw Britain as being the “winners in a social Darwinian hierarchy” (Heyden, 2015), as his biographer John Charmley describes. This is exemplified in comments he made to the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937. “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people,” he said of native Americans and Australians, “by the fact that, a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
Most significantly, Churchill’s racism was not restricted to just words: he occupied positions of power and made decisions that deeply affected millions of people subject to British rule. His opinions of India and the actions (or lack thereof) he undertook played a large role in the horrific 1943 Bengal famine. Three million Indians were starved to death “directly and inevitably” (Mukerjee, 2010) as a result of decisions he made between 1940 and 1944. In Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War, a chilling account of British policy in India, she details how Churchill and his advisors were primarily responsible for the deprivation that ensued. Wheat exported from India was used to feed the allied armies of Europe for the war effort, continuing although Churchill was repeatedly informed of the mass starvation taking place in India’s cities. Churchill routinely restricted food aid reaching the country. The Secretary of State for India at the time questioned whether Churchill’s views on the country were “really quite sane” noting that he didn’t “see much different between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s.” (Tharoor, 2015) He merely brushed aside the mass starvation of millions of people. It was “their own fault”, he said in a war-cabinet meeting when the famine was discussed, “for breeding like rabbits.” (Osbourne, 2016)
The British Empire, that bastion of “enlightenment” so adored by Churchill, bore responsibility for other mass casualties. The Second Boer War produced the first concentration camps, used by Churchill’s former army officer Herbert Kitchener, resulting in almost 28,000 deaths. The camps were filled with civilian families; disease was rampant due to unsanitary conditions and starvation was widespread. Kitchener’s plan was to “sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerillas [The Boers], including women and children.” (Wikipedia, n.d.) This was the mentality Churchill shared and these were the kinds of people from whom he learned his political strategies and military strategies.
‘Arial policing’ – in other terms chemical warfare – was a war strategy Churchill favoured and encouraged his colleagues to support. He persistently pushed for the use of gas bombs, which, during the Arab uprising of 1920, he instructed the RAF to deploy on the “uncivilized tribes” – anyone who condemned such barbaric warfare he accused of “squeamishness”. The highly toxic “M Device” described as causing “uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up [of] blood and instant, crippling fatigue” (Milton, 2013) was used in 1919 against Russian soldiers who were defending the newly formed Russian workers state from invading forces. Various Bolshevik-held villages were targeted throughout the country. Similar tactics were used some years later in the fire-bombing of Dresden.
What of the workers?
The same working class fighting Churchill’s wars on the streets of Europe were treated with utter contempt when pressing for self-betterment at home. When Glaswegian workers took to the streets in 1919 to demand a shorter working day, Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, sent in the army armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer to supress the strikers. Beforehand the police attempted to subdue what the Secretary of State for Scotland believed was a “Bolshevik uprising” (Challinor, n.d.) using physical violence, injuring several protesters. For a week armed troops patrolled the streets. Dozens were arrested and jailed and three prominent trade unionists were imprisoned for several months.
Hostility to the working classes was a prominent feature of Churchill’s politics. An aristocrat to the bone, he believed firmly in the need for a small political elite to rule the masses and frequently displayed an anti-trade union stance. To this day many working class areas detest him, particularly in South Wales. The Tonypandy riots of 1910 and 1911 and the governments reaction to them were alike in many ways to Thatcher’s attack on miners in the eighties. They lasted almost a year and concluded, as in Glasgow in 1919, with the deployment of armed troops. There was no state negotiation with the Tonypandy miners whose reasons for striking were more than understandable: the miners were paid for the amount of coal they produced but a new seam made it more difficult for them and therefore extraction took longer. Strike action collapsed; strikers and mining leaders were arrested and imprisoned.
Churchill particularly abhorred militancy within the working class and hated the suffragette movement. After an election meeting was interrupted by suffragettes, he said “nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise” (Gristwood, 2016) . He referred to the suffragettes as “creatures” (Gristwood, 2016) and demanded their leaders be arrested they demonstration at Parliament Square. Without his interventions, it is possible that equal suffrage may have proceeded sooner.
Churchill also played a prominent role in the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911 when he directly intervened in police affairs. On his orders, the fire service refused to extinguish a burning building because it contained anarchists defending themselves from a coalition of armed police and troops. The fire raged until two people inside were dead. The anarchists were targeted for their sympathy for the Russian revolution of 1905 which Churchill desperately despised. The incident was demonstrative of both Churchill’s ego and vulgarity; he hurried to the scene midway through taking a bath and can be seen ordering police about via video footage. He later described the event as “fun”. (Bates, 2011)
Four years after the allied victory over Nazism, Churchill made a speech in the House of Commons telling those in attendance to “leave the past to history, especially as I intend to write that history.” (Shapiro, 2006) True to his word, between 1948-53 he released a six volume book detailing his version of the Second World War. Contemporary reviewers have highlighted the work as revisionist and full of inaccuracies. One reviewer described it as “Churchill’s attempt to defend his own reputation” (Boot, 2005). Despite these critiques, his reputation with the British establishment remains bias and disingenuous. The question remains: what is the real purpose, today, of putting his image on the five-pound note? To this there are a number of possible reasons. Perhaps it can be seen as an additional move to rewrite history, to embed him deeper within the public imagination and reproduce British patriotism. At a time when populism is on the increase, a celebration of ‘Britishness’ which uses spurious and selective history to appeal to most sections of the spectrum – from centre left to far right – looks like a concerted and timely move.
Today the Churchill myth still prevails, and adding his face to bank notes will only repress and distort history further. In reality, Churchill was a warrior for the ruling class and a darling of British imperialism; he was racist, sexist, eugenicist and virulently anti-working class, endowed with an immense ego and a capacity for callous destructiveness. No number of five-pound notes can pay for his crimes.
Allen, K. (2013, April 26). New Five Pound Note Replaces Elizabeth Fry With Sir Winston Churchill. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/apr/26/winston-churchill-new-five-pound-note
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Bates, S. (2011, January 2). Sidney Street Siege resonates even 100 years on. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/jan/02/sidney-street-siege-100-years
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Samuel, H. (2010, September 2). Wintson Churchill’ ordered assassination of Mussolini to protect compromising letters’. Retrieved from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-two/7978285/Winston-Churchill-ordered-assassination-of-Mussolini-to-protect-compromising-letters.html
Shapiro, F. R. (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press.
Tharoor, I. (2015, February 3). The Dark Side of Winston Churchill’s Legacy No One Should Forget. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/02/03/the-dark-side-of-winston-churchills-legacy-no-one-should-forget/
Watt, H. (2015, January 30). Sir Winston Churchill inspired the whole world, says David Cameron. Retrieved from The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/winston-churchill/11378975/Sir-Winston-Churchill-inspired-the-whole-world-says-David-Cameron.html
Wheatcroft, G. (2014, August 15). Imperial Son. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/books/review/churchill-and-empire-by-lawrence-james.html
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