Interview: exorcising the cult of Churchill

Issue: 176

Tariq Ali

The past few years have seen both challenges to the official account of Winston Churchill’s life and a hectoring defence of the national mythmaking surrounding him. This dynamic was epitomised by images of the Churchill statue in Westminister being placed under police guard in June 2020 after the words “was a racist” were spray painted under his name on the plinth during a Black Lives Matter protest. The more a new generation of anti-racist activists has illuminated Churchill’s vicious colonial policies in countries such as Ireland and India, the louder has been the chorus from the media and politicians that he must be beatified as the leader who single-handedly saved Britain from Nazism. The difficulty of publicly criticising him was underlined when the University of Cambridge’s Churchill College shut down a working group investigating his legacy in June 2021.

In a new book, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes (Verso, 2022), veteran socialist activist and writer Tariq Ali takes on the cult of Churchill. Donny Gluckstein caught up with him to understand what motivated him to write the book, what lies behind the Churchill cult and what he thinks of the political crisis in Britain today.

Donny: You say a lot has been written about Churchill. Why write another book about him?

Tariq: I’ve done what a Marxist historian should do, which is to utilise all the existing and available facts about Churchill and present them in the context of the huge struggles that were taking place in his times. Central to these were the formation of the British working class and the formation of the British Empire. They both came to a sort of peak roughly at the same time. What I’ve done has angered the conservative historians and reviewers a great deal. Simon Heffer in The Telegraph called it a Marxist insult to history, which is fine. That quote will go on the back of the paperback edition.

The principal reason I wrote the book is that the Churchill cult is completely out of control. His career, what he did and his real political views are being obfuscated or covered up. He has become part of the heritage industry, a sort of political Pride and Prejudice on the BBC. I’m glad I’ve written this book because, even on the anti-imperialist side, many of the young people who daubed his statue with slogans have no real idea of the full details. I’m not saying this in a patronising way—the material has simply never been collected and put together. There needs to be an alternative account to set the record straight against the Churchill cult, which encompasses the Tories, Liberals, right-wing Labour and indeed a lot of left-wing Labour too.

Actually, the right-wing attack on the book has boomeranged because it’s alerted people. Apart from The Independent the liberal media largely ignored the book. They ignored it because they were embarrassed. They don’t know what position to take in a situation where new wars are taking place and Churchill’s little baby, NATO, is still active in the world. Another aspect, and what even people on the left sometimes forget, is that there is a huge interest in the Churchill I have portrayed in places like the Middle East. The book has been reviewed very favourably in three major papers in the Arab world, and an Arab edition is currently in translation.

In the course of writing Churchill, I discovered lots of things not mentioned by mainstream historians. They either didn’t know about them or they deliberately covered them up. For instance, in relation to the 1910 riots and miners’ strikes in Tonypandy in South Wales, where Churchill played an active role in ordering violence against strikers, I discovered that a lot of the paperwork was simply destroyed, including Churchill’s instructions to the general in command of the troops. The only clue to it having existed is that one of the generals involved referred to something which is normally in official records but is nowhere to be found. Similarly, a lot of stuff about Churchill’s role in the coup that overthrew the left-wing government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 has been destroyed. There’s a real battle over the past.

But they can’t totally destroy the historical memory of the people. An example is when they were collecting money for a statue outside parliament for Churchill. Not a single Welsh council collected or donated—not a single one! Another thing that is not in any other book on Churchill, and actually surprised even me, is the mutiny that took place in the expeditionary force sent to fight the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution in Russia. The soldiers were extremely unhappy about being used in this way. I tell the story of a highly decorated senior South African army officer there. He simply refused to carry out orders from London—that is, from Churchill—to use chemical weapons left over from the First World War on villages under Bolshevik control. He told his senior commanding officer, “Look, this is a war carried out on false pretences. We were told we were just here to pick up stragglers from the fighting and allied prisoners. But this is a wholescale war against a people who are in revolution.” He didn’t agree with the revolution, by the way. The officer was fired, but there was an outcry from the troops and further afield. The Daily Express ran a front page about it: “Churchill’s lies exposed.” I’m proud to have found this and put it in the book. No one knew.

On other matters it’s not so much whether the material is available but how you analyse and interpret it. That is what drives the Tory historians crazy. They cry “not true, not true”, but what they’re saying is untrue is my interpretation. They can’t challenge the facts.

Donny: The next question is about the structure of the book. Churchill is present but it’s not a biography. Sometimes you deal with history before him and then you go right up to the present day. What was your intention in writing in that way?

Tariq: The preface makes clear that this is not a standard biography. It was pointless just writing another book that follows Churchill chronologically. The logic was not to treat Churchill exclusively as an individual, but rather to contextualise him in the social formation of his time, and in the context of the British Empire. He emerged as the arch-imperialist ideologue, a propagandist soldier and then later a political leader. He must be placed in the framework of what was going on around him.

Not every book on Churchill is bad. For example, I strongly recommend Clive Ponting’s biography, Churchill (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994). However, no one else has provided the setting in the same way, and I hope to have created a reference book for people looking for an alternative view. They may disagree with it, but it’s there. It would also be dull to mechanically repeat stuff exposed before, even if by good historians.

The best way to see the early Churchill is in the context of social conflict between his own ruling elite and a working class which was rising in most parts of Britain, as well as the nationalist movement that was reshaping Ireland. The chapter on Ireland is extremely important because today Churchill is being glorified. A whole number of Irish historians on the payrolls of British universities have presented the national liberation struggle in Ireland as something unfortunate, terrible and awful. One historian refers to the 1916 Easter Rising as a “terrorist outrage”—mindless violence against a legitimate government.

I wanted to correct that. Irish history is incredibly rich in terms of resistance. For example, if a storm hadn’t delayed the French landing at Bantry Bay in 1796, if the French revolutionary army had linked up with the republican leader Wolfe Tone and taken Ireland, who knows what the result would have been. We can’t say. We can, however, show that the divide between Protestants and Catholics within Ireland is relatively new; Tone, who led the United Irishmen, was a Protestant.

The other great Irishman was Charles Stewart Parnell. After the armed struggle was defeated, the focus switched to parliament. The descriptions of Parnell’s performances in the House of Commons by James Joyce and others are staggering. From outside Ireland, it’s difficult to understand the grip Parnell had on the masses. He was finally destroyed by the usual British intelligence methods. Accused of adultery in 1889, his position as leader was not backed by the Catholic Church because they were nervous at the way things were going under his guidance, and Liberal leader William Gladstone shunned him. They destroyed the most effective parliamentary leader Irish independence had.

Then came the 1916 Easter Rising, followed by outrages committed by Churchill’s “black and tans”—brutal gangs of demobilised British soldiers recruited to fight against the nationalist side in the Irish War of Independence. As secretary of state for war, Churchill had responsibility for their atrocities. Afterwards, a long struggle and the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which approved the partition of the island and accorded the Irish Free State the status of a dominion within the British Empire, led to the tragic civil war in which Irish nationalists killed each other. The British prime minister, Lloyd George, was laughing. He thought, “We’ve now got them divided.” This was the tactic in every single imperial colony. I’m pleased that I’ve had the opportunity to show the truth about the Irish struggle.

Another incident connected to Churchill was the 1943 Bengal famine. It was not the result of unintended consequences like some famines. This was deliberate and well organised. You just need to read the correspondence between the Viceroy of India, Archibald Wavell, and Churchill. Wavell was livid. His wife in particular was shaken when they visited Calcutta. She said she had never ever seen human beings in this condition, just like animals. All this was totally ignored by Churchill and Labour’s leader, Clement Attlee. It was not taken seriously in the war cabinet, and then Churchill had the nerve to say we needed what food was available for the “sturdy Greeks” who were fighting fascism.

Sturdy Greeks, indeed! Churchill wanted to completely wipe out the Greek resistance because the overwhelming majority of its supporters were led by the Communist Party of Greece and the left. Josip Tito was tolerated as resistance leader in Yugoslavia because the country was not strategically important for the British Empire. But Greece and its islands were on the route to military bases. In addition, Stalin had agreed Greece would fall under the British sphere of influence. The consequence was mass semi-genocidal killings. People will be shocked to learn that the heads of Greek partisans were chopped off and put on poles outside the concentration camps where resistance prisoners were kept. The Greek thing was covered up. Rereading that stuff made me enraged, particularly because the Soviet leadership was complicit and the largest British group to the left of Labour, the Communist Party, ignored it.

It was a handful of left MPs, such as Aneurin Bevan, Sydney Silverman and Konni Zilliacus, who challenged Churchill in the House of Commons. They really embarrassed him. Bevan, the guy now worshipped as a great saint and founder of our Health Service, had to insist on his right to speak at the Labour Party conference. He was given just 5 minutes. Disgracefully the Labour Party and the trade unions backed the Churchill government.

We get very worked up about Tony Blair and the Iraq war, as we should. But when the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was discussed in Churchill’s war cabinet, up went Attlee’s hand. Yet, the Labour leaders of that time are the heroes for Paul Mason and his ilk. They think what they are doing now is very new. Nothing is new—neither the Labour left nor the betrayals.

Donny: You say Churchill was trying to maintain the British Empire at a time of irreversible decline, and you describe the disastrous tactics he pursued, which were indeed disastrous even for his own side. So, is the Churchill cult purely a contemporary political manoeuvre, or is it a tribute to a genuinely effective class warrior for the ruling class?

Tariq: There was no Churchill cult during the Second World War. Even inside the army there was a lot of opposition to him. Take the example of Dunkirk in 1940. This huge disaster has entered British history as fairy-tale myth: the little boats gallantly rescuing the retreating British Expeditionary Force in France. Bullshit! Basically, it was the British Navy that conducted the rescue. Obviously, one is glad that they did. But it was not the happy business portrayed in cinemas as a huge triumph.

Britain was lucky. Hitler’s generals were livid with their Führer’s decision not to finish the British army off when they had the chance. German general Heinz Guderian said they were within half an hour of taking all the port towns but were ordered to halt. Hitler stopped it for political reasons. If they carried on, destroyed the British army and took Britain itself, Germany would have had the responsibility of running the British Empire, and it was not prepared for this. It was better to let the British deal with what they knew best.

Then came 1942, which witnessed the twin disasters of the vast British garrison in Singapore falling to the Japanese and the defeat at Tobruk, which allowed the German armies to advance all along the Arab front. Conservative Party diarists reveal there was a serious plot to get rid of Churchill, and he only just survived. Bevan was at his best during that time. He stood up in the House of Commons and said, “Do not blame the soldiers; blame the officer corps. These people are recruited from your own class and are only promoted on the basis of their birth.” Bevan claimed that, had Field Marshal Erwin Rommel been born an Englishman, he wouldn’t have been promoted beyond a sergeant. Bevan referred to British volunteers in the International Brigades that had fought in Spain. An example was someone who had famously defeated a fascist army so that Republicans could cross a key river. Where, asked Bevan, was he now? A lowly sergeant in obscurity.

So, Churchill’s standing during the war was not as people imagine. The propaganda machine had to work full time. His famed speeches were delivered direct to the BBC recording studios. They didn’t record parliament in those days, and so the criticisms of him made in the House of Commons were only to be found in Hansard.

Then what happens in 1944-45? There’s real pressure inside the British army, not from the upper classes, but from younger middle-class officers and from working-class soldiers. They asked what the hell is going on. Why hasn’t a second front been opened to relieve the Soviet Red Army, who were carrying out the bulk of the fighting? When, reluctantly, the army commanders authorised a mock parliament in Cairo in 1944, Labour swept the field—if only symbolically. The Commonwealth Party, a party of radical left-liberal intellectuals was second, and the Tories came last. That was an indication of which way the wind was blowing.

Yet the Tories were still not prepared for the big election defeat of 1945. If Churchill was so popular, how come this didn’t translate into a triumph for the Conservative Party? Many years later, I was with Lawrence Daly, the Scottish miners’ leader, and he explained why. The country was up to its neck in shit; the organisation responsible for that was the Conservative Party and people thought, “If we elect this monster to power again, Churchill will tell us, ‘Do press ups now!’” It was a class response to a ruling-class politician who had taken them from one disaster to another.

During Churchill’s lifetime, many people spat at the very mention of his name. Richard Burton, who played Churchill in the Hollywood biopic, was questioned by the New York Times. They asked, “Mr Burton, your performance was really great. What do you think of the man?” Burton said he was a murderer and a vindictive toy soldier. Burton had grown up in the valleys, and Churchill’s reputation in Wales had never recovered from Tonypandy. So, the cult of Churchill was designed to wipe out all this history and present him as the one great hero, the greatest Englishmen. That is the view that is being propagated today.

Donny: I’d like to finish by asking you about the political and social crisis in Britain today. Towards the end of the book, you say, “There needs to be a concerted effort to find an alternative to the neoliberal system.” What do you mean?

Tariq: One thing that has happened over the last 25 to 30 years has been the emergence of what I describe as the “extreme centre”, which dominates Western Europe and North America. Here, there is virtually no difference on key issues between the major political parties. That means a real hollowing out of democracy on every level, politically and ideologically. The mainstream media plays a supine role, and there is no serious opposition. We all got excited with Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the States. But Bernie was actually a non-starter in terms of capturing the Democratic Party because that system is so tied up to big corporations. It’s good there are these young women, “the squad”, still fighting back in Congress but they are not completely immune to the same pressures as Barack Obama experienced.

In Britain everyone was staggered that Corbyn won the Labour leadership by securing a sort of political semi-uprising by the young. They joined Labour because they liked what Corbyn was saying. The whole of Britain’s establishment was shaken. The chief of staff of the British army was wheeled onto breakfast television at the height of the campaign against Corbyn together with Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for defence. He actually said there was a great deal of unrest in the military and that, were Corbyn elected prime minister, there would be mutinies. Reaction from the liberals? Nothing. When Corbyn wrote to David Cameron, who was then the prime minister, to complain about this sort of behaviour, Cameron replied, “Well, one of your colleagues was sitting next to the general during this discussion, and she agreed with him. So, what are you complaining about?”

The experiment in young people getting politicised and radicalised through Labour is over, and the party is really on the way out sooner or later. I’ll probably be dead when it happens, but there is no hope there.

So, the big point is this—the British state is really in a very bad way. It’s in a bad way economically. It’s in a bad way politically. What is going to make the difference now?

I remember arguments I had with Labour people who were then on the left, who later moved to the right. This was long after I was a member of any group. Their main argument was put to me by the right-wing Labour leader Neil Kinnock. He said, “It’s not Marxists we are opposed to—it’s people who don’t accept the primacy of parliament.” That sums it up really. You need to argue back by asking, where was the primacy of parliament when people like the Chartists fought for the vote and when women campaigned for their rights? No demands are just won via parliament. Parliament puts a rubber stamp on them. It has never actually initiated any major struggle of benefit to the left or to progressive causes.

Tariq Ali is a veteran socialist activist, author, journalist and historian. He is a member of the editorial committee of the New Left Review and contributes to The Guardian and the London Review of Books. His latest book is Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes (Verso, 2022).