More books have been written about Winston Churchill than perhaps any other figure in British history. Do we really need another volume added to the existing library? In Churchill and Empire, the historian Lawrence James makes a strong case for justifying another book for Churchillian bibliophiles. The narrative begins by looking back at Churchill’s career as a young army officer in the late nineteenth century, where he served in conflicts in India, South Africa and Sudan. It ends with Churchill’s slightly deluded view of Britain’s place in global politics as the Second World War is ending: when the British Empire is disintegrating and America is the most dominant superpower on the planet.
James gives an honest and well-researched account of a deeply complex yet extraordinarily colourful statesman. The author is not shy of displaying Churchill’s prejudices, particularly his views on race. But James is deeply sympathetic to his subject for much of this book. He excuses some of Churchill’s controversial decisions as a political strategist, as well as the deeper flaws of his egotistical personality.
I spoke with James about the complex nature of Churchill’s opinions on empire, race, and various other subjects.
Throughout the book you give many examples of how Churchill believed in a worldwide racial hierarchy. He was a strong advocate of social Darwinism for example. Did this influence his thoughts on empire?
Well, he is an evolutionist: he looks back on British history and sees a very long and slow process of evolution, in which at the very end of his own lifetime Britain seemed to have found a perfect way of governing itself. He looks around the world and he sees in Africa and Asia, a lack of government. But like every late Victorian, he tended to see the world in hierarchies. He was very sceptical about the ability of many people to govern themselves unassisted. He thought that if they tried to, all sorts of calamities would follow. In the Middle East he sees the empire as protecting minorities. He believes different groups of people will eventually find ways of governing themselves, justly, with representative government. He doesn’t oppose independence for many countries.
Which countries specifically?
He looks at Malta and Cyprus in 1908 and sees no reason why these people cannot have an idea of self-government. He goes to Uganda and sees this is quite possible. But when he travels to the northern province of India, he finds what he calls ‘wild people’, who don’t want any part of government, and sees them, if you like, as nature’s anarchists. He looks at some situations and, in fits of rage, he says: these people cannot govern themselves, they can’t do anything. But then in calmer moments he says they can. Civilization is a broad plateau, he believes, and everyone has a capacity to reach it.
You quote Churchill saying ‘I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ Can you talk about his deep prejudices to Indian culture?
His statements about India — his most bad tempered ones — are made during the Second World War, when he gets a feeling that India isn’t grateful enough to Britain and that it’s not pulling its weight as a country in the war. These things are not true. But at the same time he sees the Indian people as victims of religious and social systems that are holding them back. And he views these as dark forces that can only be erased by imperial views. He thinks that if the controlling hand of Britain is removed, Hindus and Muslims will start killing each other, which they do in 1947, partially because of a botched partition arrangement. In that respect, as a prophet, he was right. As an agnostic, this kind of religious passion is utterly distasteful to him.
In your introduction to this book you say that you want to avoid the post mortem following the death of imperialism and empires. Do you believe that exploring this adds nothing to our understanding of the past?
Well, the task of historians is not to put people of the past on trial. Nor is it to preach sermons. People in different times behaved in different ways. They lived by different moral codes. And looking back at these moral codes, we can say they were unpleasant. But there was most of the time, reasoning behind them. But just to say, oh this is horrible, doesn’t tell us anything really.
I don’t think it’s my job to carry out a vast post-mortem of the British Empire. And I must recognise that Churchill is a man of his age.
He believes in certain things and on the whole is reflecting a consensus which existed for a long time, but which has now disappeared. Certainly his views on race relations, and the categorization of races, were often extremely silly, sometimes laughable, and they could be extremely hurtful and venomous. But a long session of breast beating about this subject is terribly boring and has been done over and over again. Historians should tell you what happened and contemplate people in the past, but not produce a case for either the defence or the prosecution. That is not their job. And when they do that, they lose sight of the truth very quickly.
You include a quote from Churchill speaking during the First World War, where he says ‘I love this war – I know its shattering and smashing the lives of thousands and yet I enjoy every second of it’. Can you speak about Churchill’s infatuation with war, and how he saw himself shaping world history by being part of it?
Well he experienced war, he genuinely knew what it looked and smelled like, and he knew the horrors of it. He was also full of apprehension about the wars of the masses, and wars using mass technology. But his own personal reaction to sitting behind a desk, ordering war ships to different ports and planning grand strategies, he found this quite addictive. He loved the theatre of history. And what better theatre can you have than sitting at a long table, pronouncing the movements of armies and the distribution of fleets? But I suspect that he never lost sight of the fact that the orders written down and sent by telegram would leave many men dead at the end. He often makes mistakes but doesn’t let that deter him.
He learns from them. At the end of First World War, when he writes his memoirs, he is extremely critical of the generals on the Western Front who reinforced failure. He was very condemning of men who just squandered lives.
How important were Churchill’s negotiating skills in getting Michael Collins to sign the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921?
Well, both the British Army and the Irish Republican Army had been fought to a standstill. And Collins was very worried that the British would start another war. Churchill did mutter in negotiations that, if we don’t have an agreement, a terrible war would be unleashed.
But both Churchill and Lloyd George privately said that they didn’t intend to continue fighting. So the Treaty comes down to the fact that there are two exhausted men at the end of a fight. Both have got to find terms which they can claim they have gotten some sort of success out of. Churchill admired Collins — and I can understand why.
But at the time, Churchill and Lloyd George were under pressure to have a permanent peace. Churchill is in two minds: he sees the Irish Republican Army rather like the romantic nationalists of the 19th century, which in many respects they were, and he has an admiration for them as people struggling to be free. But on the other hand, he’s got to preserve his coalition; and he’s got the right wing of the Conservative Party snarling in the background and they want blood. He knows that most people — particularly in the press — want peace.
It was a disgraceful episode for Britain. The behaviour of its soldiers was scandalous. So all sides want an agreement. But they don’t want the agreement to make either of them seem weak, feeble, or to be seen to be giving ground. Churchill hoped that the new Irish dominion would remain friendly to Britain in the way that the South Africans were integrated into the empire. He hoped that Éire would be as well. But I think that was wishful thinking. And certainly there was the problem of Ulster.
You argue that Churchill had the mind-set of a Victorian rather than a modern politician of the 20th century. Did this cloud his political judgment, particularly after World War 2?
Yes. By 1945 Britain cannot sign the cheques. We cannot sustain our pretensions. Our closest allies, and paymasters, the United States wants us to hand over our empire. This will help America in the Cold War. Churchill loses sight of this. The reality is there; but he hopes the Americans might bolster up the British Empire. They don’t, and the whole structure falls apart. Once India got independence, Britain lost the Indian army: a great source of manpower and imperial control. We cannot afford a big navy anymore, and the Victorian and imperial age is over. But Churchill is hoping that something can be salvaged, and of course it can’t be.
Were Churchill’s ideas about the empire in the post-World War 2 period delusional? For example you say that in his victory broadcast in May 1945 he boasted that ‘the British Commonwealth and Empire stands more untied and more effectively powerful than at any time in its long, romantic history’.
Yes, he is denying reality. He knows that the majority of Indians want some sort of self-government. A lot of the black soldiers from west and east Africa, who come back from the war having done their duty for the empire, want a different world. They say: we were told on the newsreels during the war that we are fighting for freedom and the rights of people. So when they come back they are asking: where are they? You have wonderful examples of Indian officers saying: we have won this war and now we can make a new India. I don’t think Churchill understood the depth or the scope of these passions.
How do you think we should judge Churchill as a statesman?
Well, he is a very human leader. Our overall analysis of him should be that he is a man of extraordinary humanity. In 1940 he takes over the government with a clear headedness and a determination. People wept when they saw him in the street. And Churchill said, ‘I don’t know what I have got to offer them’. But I think people were overwhelmed by the sheer decency of the man. He was always trying to do good, as he saw it. And unlike today’s politicians he used language beautifully and he could be very amusing.
Churchill and Empire by Lawrence James is published by Orion Books (£25)