Lindsey German welcomes Tariq Ali’s dismantling of the myth of the imperialist warmonger Churchill in Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes

Tariq Ali, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes (Verso 2022), 448pp.

There are, according to Tariq Ali, around 1600 books on Churchill to choose from. It is worth betting that few if any of them will approach their subject from the same angle as this one. You will not find here praise for ‘Winston’ as the Tories love to call him (as if they had only bumped into him in their gentlemen’s club yesterday), nor talk of fighting on the beaches, nor praise for his ‘statesman-like’ qualities, his war heroism or his patriotic fervour. Instead, this is the story of the Winston Churchill the militant defender of empire, the master of domestic political repression and the enthusiast for war. Empire and war were in Churchill’s blood. Born into an aristocratic family at Blenheim Palace, cousin of the Duke of Marlborough, his right-wing politics were never in doubt. His poor academic record at Harrow school was no barrier to his career as a journalist and politician who was attracted to war and conflict wherever it arose.

As he came of age in the period of high imperialist conflict in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was no shortage of opportunity. Churchill took part in the war in Sudan in 1898 and then again in the Boer War in South Africa at the century’s turn. His great chance came in 1914, however, when he was one of the most powerful politicians in the cabinet, his role at the Admiralty putting him in charge of the biggest navy in the world. While debate raged within cabinet in late July and early August 1914 about whether Britain should remain neutral in the forthcoming European war, Churchill was one of the key belligerents. His unilateral actions included moving the first fleet from Portland, under cover of darkness, to its war stations in Scapa Flow and telegraphing naval commanders, putting them on alert with a ‘stand fast’ order. These moves took place a week before the invasion of Belgium, the supposed reason for Britain declaring war on Germany on 4th August.  

Warmonger imperialist

Churchill revelled in the war but was also responsible for one of Britain’s major defeats in the Dardanelles at Gallipoli, when the failed attempt to capture the Black Sea from the Ottoman empire cost 45,000 Australian, New Zealand, Indian and British soldiers’ lives. He was forced out of office as a result and the memory of the catastrophe lingered for generations, not only in Australia.

If war was Churchill’s element, his attitude to it was always guided by defence of empire and of British interests around the world. Tariq Ali is particularly good in analysing his record which, given his own long life and the extensive nature of the empire, is both considerable and shameful. Tariq gives us quite a lot of background to the particular struggles against empire, with a chapter on Ireland which summarises events, from Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen through Parnell to the Easter Rising and Sinn Fein. Churchill was Secretary of State for War during the Irish War of Independence, which erupted after the First World War, and was thus responsible for sending in the brutal Black and Tans, whose atrocities against the Irish people are still legendary. His support for the partition of Ireland was designed to protect the empire’s interests in the industrial northeast of the country, at the expense of Irish independence.

Throughout this book we see Churchill playing a key role in a series of atrocities, wars and attacks: the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish uprising in Iraq after the First World War; his presiding over the horrific Bengal famine during the Second World War; being part of the intervention against revolutionary Russia from 1918; waging war against the Greek communists in 1945; involvement in the coup against the democratically elected Mossadegh in Iran in 1953; persecuting Kenyans fighting for liberation in the 1950s. In every one of these instances, Churchill’s devotion to the British empire shines through. His racism, especially against Indians, is also on display. And of course his class prejudices: it was abhorrent to him that working-class people in Russia or Iran or Greece could act in their own interests and against those of the class he represented.

Domestic class warrior

Domestic class warfare was also his forte. He set out to break the General Strike of 1926 with great enthusiasm. Already hated by miners because he ordered troops to fire on strikers in Tonypandy in 1910, this sealed his fate with the most class-conscious trade unionists, especially in the mining areas. His ruthlessness was demonstrated by his in-person oversight of the Siege of Sidney Street only a few weeks after Tonypandy, when two Latvian Jewish anarchists were burnt to death following police bombardment of a house in Stepney.

A number of these stories have stayed in popular memory for generations, not least among those subject to imperial rule, but also among working-class people in Britain. Churchill also was disliked by many of his own class and background, partly because of his changing political allegiances, but also because they found him too belligerent, aggressive and unsubtle. How do we explain therefore the level of adulation which now greets any mention of him, and how has his legacy become almost mythical?

Tariq Ali locates this change in the early 1980s, with the launch of the Falklands War in 1982, and the need to justify the invasion by harking back to the glory days of empire and world war. The wave of patriotism and jingoism displayed then was in inverse proportion to the size of the ‘enemy’ or indeed of the islands themselves. I think that is right, and the same period also heralded the Thatcher/Reagan era of neoliberalism, plus an intensification of militarism and the siting of new nuclear weapons in Europe. The myth of Churchill the war leader became near omnipresent. As Tariq notes, this continued into the next generation of warmongers, with Tony Blair presenting George Bush with a bust of Churchill shortly before the invasion of Iraq.

The war leader myth

The record of Churchill as war leader needs some careful deconstructing. When war broke out in 1939, Britain was ruled by appeasers, who did not want war with Germany and who were both unwilling and ineffective in preparing for war. Less than a year previously, Chamberlain had allowed Hitler to take over part of Czechoslovakia at the time of Munich. In May 1940, when Britain had been defeated in Norway and defeat in France loomed, Chamberlain was forced out and Churchill replaced him as prime minister. He was not the first choice of the ruling class: the king and many Tories wanted the appeaser Halifax. When Churchill rose in his first speech as prime minister his own side was largely silent, while the Labour benches applauded. He governed in coalition with Labour during the war.

His importance in 1940 was twofold: he was not part of the ‘guilty men’, the gang of appeasers at the top of the Tory party. And he saw that, in order to protect his beloved empire, Britain had to fight against Germany without equivocation. This chimed with the mood of working-class people who recognised that invasion was imminent after the fall of France and wanted to defend themselves. The period from the summer of 1940 to 1941 was his ‘finest hour’. The air Battle of Britain that summer saw the threat of invasion pushed back. The battle for London – which was bombed virtually every day from September 1940 to late May 1941 – was key in further reducing that threat and in developing a ‘people’s war’ which pushed sentiment further to the left and created the basis for Labour victory in 1945.

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and US entry into the war following Pearl Harbour in December that year, shifted the whole centre of the war away from Britain and Churchill became more marginal. It was clear by 1945 that the two victorious superpowers would dominate, that Britain would become a very junior partner to the US, and that the empire’s days were numbered. The growing left-wing mood, and a determination not to go back to the 1930s, led to Churchill’s humiliating defeat and the Attlee government.

Tariq Ali’s book is an essential antidote to the Churchill myth. It is also an extremely useful guide to international politics in the twentieth century, and touches on other aspects of history such as Chartism and the fight for democracy. However, it has a contemporary relevance which has become particularly acute in recent months, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war there is becoming increasingly a proxy war between NATO and Russia with very serious consequences. Germany is doubling its spending on ‘defence’ and there will be pressure on every country to follow suit. Sweden and Finland look like they are abandoning their traditional neutrality and joining NATO. Weapons are pouring into Ukraine from NATO states. The danger of direct war between nuclear powers is very real.

The British government – led by self-styled Churchill imitator Boris Johnson – is second to none in its belligerence. We are told by ‘experts’ in the media that we must ‘be prepared for war’. Erstwhile left-wing warriors like Paul Mason demand that we double our spending on the military to 5% of total GDP. In the atmosphere where anyone questioning these priorities is accused of pacifism or Putin apologism, the Churchill myth will be wheeled out time and again to justify more militarism and war. This book could not be more timely.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.