The trouble with Winston Churchill is that he was a hero partly because he was such a daft racist

Heroes are complex: it will probably turn out one day that Jesus had a gambling habit, and blew the widow’s mite on the 4.15 chariot race from Nazareth

Mark Steel
Thursday 14 February 2019 19:03
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John McDonnell calls Winston Churchill a 'villain'

As the country is experiencing a period of tranquillity, with nothing of importance likely to happen in the next few months, there has been an opportunity to calmly discuss John McDonnell’s comment that Winston Churchill was a “villain”.

So all day there were commentators making statements such as “Maybe Churchill was racist, but I for one wish I could have been black in 1920, just so I could have had the honour of being racially abused by the greatest man that ever lived.”

Whereas one of the finest comments online criticising Churchill said he was a white supremacist who’s “only liked because he did one good thing”. It’s encouraging that some people think “Alright, he beat Hitler, but what else did he do?”

So to start with, John McDonnell’s comments should be defended on the grounds of being an important experiment, like watching what happens you shove a broom covered in marmalade into a wasps’ nest.

Because the most glorious way to enrage Conservative Britain is to criticise Churchill. Most weeks there are letters in the Daily Telegraph declaring “Dear Sir: In our family, each Christmas, in order to give thanks, we repeat all the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill before each mouthful of dinner. Not only does this express our gratitude, but it means we’re often still at the table in April, when we start on the pudding.”

Or someone will complain: “Dear Sir: Yet again, one has had to endure a guest on Desert Island Discs choosing to take to their island an assortment of songs by the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, rather than eight speeches by Winston Churchill. Next time someone on this programme selects some cacophony by REM, rather than the great man’s address to the house upon the fall of France, they should be tried for treason! Without a trial!”

Then someone will call a phone-in show and shout: “I for one am sick to death of today’s shameful youth with their lack of respect for our steadfast British spirit. Instead of being drunk, and smoking, and being depressed, they should be more like our hero Winston Churchill!”

You can understand the Conservatives’ reaction to people saying Churchill was a white supremacist, because no Conservative would ever stoop to suggest such an awful slur. For example, when Conservative peer Lord Finkelstein wrote an article about Churchill, it was headlined “Churchill was a white supremacist but also a great man”, in no way implying that Churchill had a hint of white supremacism.

To be fair, one reason why this article didn’t cause uproar amongst Conservatives could be that many of them don’t see it as a criticism.

Some elderly Conservatives from Berkshire have probably been handed leaflets in a shopping centre by militant anti-racist groups, that say “Churchill was a white supremacist”, and said “Quite right, young man, that was another marvellous thing about him,” and ended up joining the Nation of Islam.

The specific issue on which John McDonnell called Churchill a “villain” took place during a miners’ strike in 1910, when Churchill as home secretary sent troops who fired on them, killing one miner.

The striking miner who was killed on that day behaved shamefully, screaming “aaaaah I’m dying”, rather than giving thanks for being shot on the orders of someone who would later save our nation, so it’s hard to have any sympathy.

Churchill also argued for the use of chemical weapons against the Bolsheviks in 1919, and against Iraqis in revolt in 1920. So he was a tiny bit villainy on the chemical weapons issue, but then again the attitude towards chemical weapons is much like the attitude towards calling people “coloured”: it was a different generation, when no one in a village minded being poisoned.

But the main lesson of that episode is we shouldn’t judge anyone who uses chemical weapons, until we’ve waited 20 years to see if they turn out to save the nation. This is why we should be gentle with Assad in Syria, he might do something we like one day and then we’ll feel silly for complaining about his gas attacks.

Because if someone is regarded as a hero, that means everything they ever did was marvellous.

Isaac Newton once worked for the Royal Mint, prosecuting the poor who used forged coins, which would sometimes result in their execution. But if John McDonnell called him a “villain”, for this, some people would yell “How DARE he? The man was a hero, if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have gravity and we’d all have to float.”

Heroes are complex. Muhammad Ali had medieval attitudes towards women, Elvis Presley ate burgers all day long; it will probably turn out one day that Jesus had a gambling habit, and blew the widow’s mite on the 4.15 chariot race from Nazareth.

Churchill was a passionate believer in British superiority and the British Empire, and did all he could to defend it against a terrifying threat. So he was a racist, believing other nationalities to be inferior to the British, and played a crucial role in defeating Hitler, who led the threat. Not only was he both things, he was both at the same time.

But the modern way of assessing anything as either “good” or “bad” doesn’t always grasp complexity, so a presenter on morning television will say “Lions? Good or bad? What do YOU think?” And within seconds, someone is screaming “They’re MAJESTIC, how DARE anyone suggest they rip zebras apart?”

Even so, as an experiment, tomorrow John McDonnell should say “Dame Vera Lynn used to rob post offices with a shotgun, the minx,” just to see what happens.

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