Winston Churchill: greatest British hero or warmongering villain?

Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell is in the firing line after calling wartime PM Winston Churchill a “villain”.

Responding to quick-fire questions at the end of a live video interview with Politico, McDonnell was asked if Churchill was a hero or a villain, to which he replied: “Tonypandy – villain.” 

McDonnell was referring to a series of violent confrontations between striking coal miners and the police in the Welsh town of Tonypandy in 1910. One miner was killed and hundreds injured in the clashes.

Churchill’s decision, as then-home secretary, to send the Army to reinforce police “caused considerable ill-feeling towards him in south Wales and with some in the trade union and Labour movement”, says Politico.

However, it “has been long disputed whether Churchill personally sanctioned the decision” to deploy troops, reports The Guardian

The response to McDonnell’s comments has been swift and severe, with Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames telling the Daily Telegraph: “Frankly, it’s a very foolish and stupid thing to say.”

Tory MP Soames added: “I think my grandfather’s reputation can withstand a publicity seeking assault from a third-rate, Poundland Lenin.”

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who has written a Churchill biography, told the newspaper that the wartime prime minister “saved this country and the whole of Europe from a barbaric fascist and racist tyranny, and our debt to him is incalculable… McDonnell should be utterly ashamed of his remarks, and should withdraw them forthwith”.

But some commentators have echoed McDonnell’s views. The Guardian’s Owen Jones tweeted a list of major indiscretions by Churchill, who worked as a soldier and a journalist before entering politics.

Labour MP Steve Reed also weighed in with criticism of the late leader.

Churchill has divided opinion for decades. Today, historians and journalists appear no closer to agreeing on his legacy.

Here we weigh up the main arguments on both sides.

Churchill as hero:

Churchill is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders Europe has ever seen, leading the Allies to victory in the Second World War. “It was his inspiration that prevented Britain from joining the rest of Europe in surrendering to the might of Nazi Germany,” argues British historian Max Hastings in the Daily Mail.

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The former prime minister was also responsible for fostering the “special relationship” between the UK and the US that continues today, and alerting the West to the burgeoning postwar threat of Soviet communism, with his infamous “Iron Curtain” speech. Indeed, his powerful rhetoric inspired the nation throughout his political career. “Who could deny the potency of lines like: ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’, ’blood, sweat and tears’ and ‘their finest hour’,” says the BBC.

Less sizeable but still significant achievements include reforming the prison system, introducing a minimum wage and bringing in legislation that taxed the wealthy to pay for social welfare reforms. “On [some] smaller issues he made some poor decisions,” concedes The Guardian’s Kenneth Baker, “but he got the big issues right.”

Churchill received numerous awards, honours and medals throughout his lifetime. He was knighted by the Queen in 1953, the same year that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”. When he died he received the rare honour of a state funeral.

“Churchill was a decent man and honourable man, as well as a charming one,” argues John Simpson on the BBC website. “It was these qualities, not just his famous defiance that made him prime minister.”

And his public popularity is unassailable. In 2002, Churchill was voted the greatest Briton who ever lived, beating Darwin, Shakespeare and Elizabeth I to the top spot.

Churchill as villain 

“There’s a danger in Churchill gaining a purely iconic status because that actually takes away from his humanity,” Allen Packwood, director of the Churchill Archives Centre, told the BBC.

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Many fellow historians agree. John Charmley argues that it is important to remember that “great men can commit great mistakes, and Churchill’s are on the same gargantuan scale as his achievements”.

Churchill was a keen supporter of eugenics, something he had in common with the leaders of Nazi Germany, where an estimated 400,000 disabled people were forcibly sterilised. He once said that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”, and drafted a highly controversial piece of legislation which mandated that those suffering from mental illness be sterilised, according to the New Statesman.

Many historians also refuse to forgive Churchill for his views on race. The Guardian reports that he once said: “I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race… has come in and taken its place.”

The announcement in 2013 that Churchill would feature on the new £5 note was met with anger by Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham, who called the late leader a “racist and white supremacist”, according to the Daily Mail.

When the Kurds rebelled against British rule in 1920, Churchill said he did not understand the “squeamishness” surrounding the use of gas as a weapon. “I am strongly in favour of using gas against uncivilised tribes,” he said. “[It] would spread a lively terror.”

“Many of the wounds Churchill inflicted have still not healed,” argues Johann Hari in The Independent. “You can find them on the front pages any day of the week.”

Hari blames Churchill for arbitrarily locking together warring ethnic groups in Iraq that “have been bleeding ever since”. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can also be traced back to Churchill’s decision to hand over the “Over-Promised Land” to both Arabs and Jews, even though “he seems to have privately felt racist contempt for both,” says Hari.

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When Barack Obama took office in the White House, he returned a bust of Churchill to Britain. “It’s not hard to guess why,” says Hari. “His Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.”

As secretary of state for war, Churchill sent in the infamous Black and Tans to fight the IRA in 1920. The unit became known for vicious attacks on civilians and violent reprisals.  

Historian Peter Hart described it as an “astoundingly counterproductive” move by Churchill, according to The Independent. “IRA violence only increased,” he said. 

Churchill was also known for his strong anti-union sentiment. In 1910, he ordered the Army to intervene when striking miners staged riots in Wales, and again the next year in Liverpool – where soldiers fired their weapons, killing two people. Nine years later he deployed 10,000 troops to Glasgow amid strike-related unrest. 

Churchill also exhibited a strong hatred for Mahatma Ghandi and his campaign of peaceful resistance, which he saw as threat to the British Empire. He once raged that Ghandi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back”.  

Veteran British journalist Peregrine Worsthorne has accused Churchill of warmongering. “Seldom has there been a statesman as good at glorifying war, and as indecently eager to wage war as Winston Churchill,” he said. “All his works demonstrate his love of war, glamourise its glories and minimise its horrors.”

Worsthorne accuses historians of leaving out the atrocities that Churchill oversaw as prime minister, and argues that he would have been a great leader “if only he had atoned for his warmongering”.

Churchill’s refusal to shoulder his burden of guilt is a huge disqualification for his place in this country’s pantheon, Worsthorne concludes. 



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