Was Winston Churchill really the absolutely stalwart defender of the British Empire that we imagine him to be?
Winston Churchill is justly venerated for his courage and leadership during the darkest days of World War II. But an equally important dimension of his amazing political career – a lifelong, stalwart defense of the British Empire – has received far less attention.
Indeed, for all the books in which he is the central figure, there has never been a single volume that analyzed Churchill’s views of and impact on the British Empire. Historian Richard Toye has now produced such an overview. Churchill’s Empire is largely sympathetic, but it shows its subject in a much less flattering light than usual.
Throughout his career, Churchill saw nonwhite people as inferior beings that were, nonetheless, capable of improvement. In 1907, for example, after traveling in Kenya, he wrote that he liked “these light-hearted, tractable if brutish children” and concluded “that they are capable of being instructed and raised from their present degradation.”
Some of his comments are shocking. “I hate people with slit eyes and pig- tails,” he once said. He especially disliked Indians. “ ‘I hate Indians,’ he declared, ‘they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ ” He proposed that Gandhi be “lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant.”
Given such views, it’s hardly surprising that Churchill is usually seen as a complete reactionary for whom preservation of the Empire was an abiding commitment. Indeed, in the middle of World War II, he famously said, “I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of British Empire.” He was blunter in private, writing, “ ‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.”
Toye’s central thesis is that Churchill’s beliefs and actions were less predictable and more nuanced than his rhetoric and conventional wisdom suggest. As late as the 1920s, for example, many fellow members of Parliament regarded him as dangerous because he did not care enough about the future of the empire and seemed overly interested in fair treatment toward the subject peoples.
Churchill did have an unmistakably die-hard commitment to the empire in the 1930’s and 1940’s. But Toye suggests that this was the result of two factors. First, public opinion – especially in Western democracies – was less tolerant of empires and the subjugation of indigenous people and the British Empire looked like an anachronism. In other words, as time passed, the world had changed but Churchill’s views had not evolved.
Second, and probably correctly, Churchill believed the empire was the only thing that ensured that Great Britain would be regarded a leading power. If the empire disappeared, so would Great Britain’s place on the world stage.
The British Empire disappeared rather quickly after the war and Churchill’s attitudes and actions were contradictory as it happened. He glumly acknowledged that “India must go” and did nothing to stop that from happening. Moreover, he finally accepted an independent Ireland, something he had vociferously opposed when it happened 30 years earlier. Nonetheless, he mourned the end of the empire and once said that his life’s work had “all been for nothing.... The Empire I believed in is gone.”
Toye repeatedly describes Churchill’s views and actions with regard to the empire as “pragmatic” and this seems right. He was born when the empire was at its zenith and was deeply committed to it emotionally. But he intellectually understood – especially with the passage of time – that its days were numbered.
This is a carefully researched and exceptionally well-documented book that is a welcome addition to the literature. It is not a traditional biography but more of a study of Churchill’s behavior in a central area of his career. It makes extensive use of government archives, diaries, and secondary sources. The citation of newspaper articles to underscore the broader reaction to Churchill’s actions is especially welcome. It is fascinating reading.
It is fairly dense in some places and, because it was written by an English historian, it assumes the reader will have a good knowledge of British government and politics. Lacking such knowledge, it will seem like a tough slog. American readers, for example, may be jarred by the frequent references to “Congress” because it does not refer to our legislative body but rather the Indian National Congress party.
Paradoxically, Toye concludes that Churchill himself may inadvertently have helped topple the Empire. His forceful and soaring speeches about freedom before and during World War II inspired the world. Most likely, they also inspired those people longing to leave the British Empire.