Winston Churchill twice served as Conservative Prime Minister: from 1940 to 1945 and then 1951 to 1955.
He is remembered by most people as an inspirational statesman, writer, orator and leader, the man who kept the nation’s spirit up and led Britain to victory in the Second World War against Nazi Germany.
Regarded as a hero and great statesman, he was voted the greatest Briton in the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons – from a list containing solely white people and only 12 women.
Now, Hollywood has awarded an Oscar to Gary Oldman for his portrayal of Churchill in The Darkest Hour.
The reality is, however, that Churchill was far from a hero. Alternative definitions could be war criminal, mass murderer, racist, odious imperialist!
In the words of Shashi Tharoor, author of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India: “He was one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, yet is the only one, unlike Hitler and Stalin, to have escaped historical odium in the West.”
Churchill was born at the height of the British empire. At Harrow and then Sandhurst, he was told the story of the white man’s burden and he embraced it as his own.
Its narrative was of the superior white man conquering the primitive, dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilisation.
Churchill was a militarist at heart and once he’d joined the Royal Cavalry he couldn’t wait to get out there to charge off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”.
This was founded on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”. He travelled widely, served his early career in India, the Sudan and South Africa fighting in imperialist wars.
While First Lord of the Admiralty, he orchestrated the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns during the First World War, where more than 130,000 lost their lives.
Heavily criticised for this error, he resigned from his position and travelled to the Western Front to fight himself.
When talking about the Kurdish uprising against British rule, he postured: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes. It would spread a lively terror.”
He ordered large-scale bombing of Mesopotamia, wiping out an entire village in 45 minutes.
During the Irish fight for independence in the 1920s, as Secretary of State for War and Air, he commanded the notorious Black and Tan thugs to terrorise Ireland’s Catholic civilians.
He was even in a minority in favouring the bombing of Irish protesters, suggesting that airplanes should use “machine-gun fire or bombs” to scatter them.
He was vehemently opposed to Indian independence. As the resistance against the British regime surged, he announced: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Time and again he showed his refusal to see indigenous and non-white people as entitled to equal rights. “Gandhi-ism and all it stands for,” he declared, “will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed.”
During the 1943 famine in Bengal, widely believed to have been caused by British policies, Churchill refused to allow supplies into the region, instead diverting them to well-supplied British soldiers and even to add to European stockpiles.
His rationale was that the famine was the fault of the local people due to their “breeding like rabbits.”
During the Second World War, Churchill declared himself in favour of “terror bombing.”
He wrote that he wanted “absolutely devastating, exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers”. Results were terrible raids like the firebombing of Dresden.
In post-colonial Kenya, Churchill either directed or was complicit in policies involving the forced resettlement of local people from the fertile highlands to make way for white colonial settlers and the forcing of more than 150,000 people into concentration camps: “Britain’s Gulag”.
On Churchill’s watch, various forms of torture were used by British authorities against Kenyans which included Barack Obama’s grandfather: among them rape, castration, lit cigarettes on tender spots and electric shocks.
Churchill was responsible for the creation of Iraq, forcing together disparate and conflicting groups of people within an artificial state, with the resulting violence and unrest that has been this country’s story for the decades since.
He also offered the “Promised Land” to both the Jews and the Arabs, despite his racist contempt for both groups.
But wasn’t Churchill simply a man of his time? Didn’t most people think this way then? The answer is that they did not and that the majority of his colleagues felt his views extreme and dangerous.
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was warned by Cabinet colleagues not to appoint him. Even his own secretary of state for India, Leopold Amery, said that he could see very little difference between Churchill’s attitude and Adolf Hitler’s.
However, in resisting Nazism – maybe he recognised a greater thug than himself – Churchill wrote some of the most outstanding prose in defence of freedom and democracy.
It was never intended to include people of colour but, ironically, his words have been used by democrats and freedom-fighters all over the world, including the colonies and ex-colonies.
As Shashi Tharoor notes: “Words, in the end, are all that Churchill admirers can point to. His actions are another matter altogether.”
So, with all this evidence, why would the British public place Winston Churchill as the Greatest Briton ever?
We are a tolerant, open, liberal, welcoming nation, are we not? But we have short memories and defeating the Nazis is our most recent victory.
State and media propaganda is not the sole preserve of our enemies, the bad guys, the “Other”. Winston Churchill and his rhetoric has been subsumed as the symbol for this propaganda.
Jo Kidd is a member of the Green Party and lives near Canterbury. She organises Canterbury’s annual Vegan Festival.