Leading Article: Ordinary enough for humility

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The Independent Online
WAS Winston Churchill a racist? Is Britain, as the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have said, 'an ordinary little nation'? These questions bobbed up last week in the wake of a Spectator article on Churchill by Andrew Roberts, and a snippet from an interview with Dr Carey in the uncorrected proofs of a book. They are interesting questions, even if the obvious answer to both of them is yes. To take one of several examples of Churchill's quoted views, Indians were the 'beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans' - difficult to argue from that that he took people as he found them, despite race, colour or creed. And while 'ordinariness' is a more difficult term to quantify, Britain is certainly more ordinary now than in its extraordinary imperial heyday.

It is useful here to remember one of the greatest poems of that time, composed by Rudyard Kipling for the celebration of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and published in the Times under the title 'Recessional'. It contains a famously racist line about 'lesser breeds without the Law', and yet, in what can now be seen as the most triumphalist year in British history, the poem as a whole spoke for humility and caution, of the transience rather than permanence of the imperial order.

Far-called, our navies melt away;/ On dune and headland sinks the fire;/ Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre]/ Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,/ Lest we forget - lest we forget]

The poem struck a minor - but popular - chord in the national mood. Kipling's literary agent broke down in tears when he tried to read it aloud. We had more foresight then. Little in Kipling's history suggests he could have agreed with Churchill about Indians, but, unlike the people on the right in Britain who would claim him as one of their own, he would surely have shaken Dr Carey by the hand.