There has been heavy debate in the past week, as street battles have raged in central London between the working class of the city, the police and the right wing.
While protests initially began in support of the movement in America, they have since evolved here into a national struggle against systemic racism and police oppression of working class communities. In the media coverage of this movement, statues have become a focal point, as both the working class and the right wing protesters have formed around them, each making their own marks, whether they be with paint and placards, or with urine and beer. Now, as parliament has unilaterally put forward a bill giving a ten year prison sentence to anyone who commits an “act of disrespect” towards “any object created to commemorate those involved in or affected by war or conflict, including civilians or animals” (double the maximum sentence for GBH), we must understand which statues have become a cultural battleground, and why.
No statue has been more central to this dispute than that of former prime minister, Winston Churchill. Today the subject of a media editorial by our current prime minister, the statue in parliament Square was the meeting point for a right wing demonstration, apparently to protect the statue from the working class Londoners who had protested in the area the previous week, having added, “was a racist,” in paint to the former leader’s
marble plinth. Churchill’s was by no means the only statue impacted by the protest, “ACAB” slogans were initially sprayed on the cenotaph as well as other statues on Whitehall. Downing Street, bus stops and police vans were also the victims of graffiti, and this was certainly not the first or the worst painting that Churchill had received. At the Mayday protest in 2000, the statue was sprayed with red paint to give the appearance of blood dripping from its mouth and a strip of turf was placed on top of the head, giving the statue a Mohican hairstyle. During the 2010 student protests the statue was sprayed with graffiti and urinated on. But it was last Saturday that a large right wing demonstration assembled to “defend” the statue, complete with marching drills and even the odd seig heil.
The timing of the demonstration makes the core motivations of the right wing clear. When the left wing marks the statue, they rest. When students mark the statue, they rest. But when working class Londoners make a desperate protest for racial equality and against systemic oppression, the right wing will mobilise every useful idiot and stooge that they can muster.
We must also ask why it was Churchill that the right wing chose to rally behind.
The government and media of this country has worked hard to sanitise the image of the wartime leader as the stalwart defender of democracy who defeated fascism, and while Churchill was the figurehead who ran the government during the war, he showed consistently throughout his life that he stood neither for democracy nor against fascism. Educated at Harrow School, he read arguments against democracy put forward by Plato and Aristotle. In the first volume of his autobiography, Churchill wrote: “All experience goes to show that once the vote has been given to everyone and what is called full democracy has been achieved, the whole political system is very speedily broken up and swept away.”
As a young man he argued: “I shall unswervingly oppose this ridiculous movement (to give women the vote)… Once you give votes to the vast numbers of women who form the majority of the community, all power passes to their hands.” Churchill, as Home Secretary played a leading role in preventing women achieving the vote, arguing in Parliament 1911 against the conciliation bill for women’s suffrage.
After leaving the liberal party in 1924 Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative Party government. Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister, wanted the party to develop a more liberal image and in March 1927 he suggested the enfranchisement of nearly five million women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. This measure meant that women would constitute almost 53% of the British electorate. The daily mail complained that these impressionable young females would be easily manipulated by the Labour Party.
Churchill was totally opposed to the move and argued that the affairs of the country ought not be put into the hands of a female majority. In order to avoid giving the vote to all adults he proposed that the vote be taken away from all men between twenty-one and thirty. Churchill lost the argument and in Cabinet and asked for a formal note of dissent to be entered in the minutes. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections.
In 1931 when Baldwin, joined the National Government, he refused to allow Churchill to join the team because his views were considered to be too extreme. This included his idea that “democracy is totally unsuited to India” because they were “humble primitives”. When the Viceroy of India, Edward Wood, himself a colonial overlord of the subcontinent told Churchill that his opinions were out of date and that he ought to meet some Indians in order to understand their views, he rejected the suggestion: “I am quite satisfied with my views of India. I don’t want them disturbed by any bloody Indian.”
Churchill was a social Darwinist with a hierarchical perspective of race, believing the white Anglo Saxon to be the most superior and black people the least. Churchill held views on the British populace that were eugenic in perspective, and was a proponent of forced sterilisation to preserve “energetic and superior stocks”.
Churchill was a great admirer of Benito Mussolini and welcomed both his anti-socialism and his authoritarian way of organising and disciplining the Italians. He visited the country in January 1927 and wrote to his wife, Clementine Churchill, about his first impressions of Mussolini’s Italy: “This country gives the impression of discipline, order, goodwill, smiling faces. A happy strict school…The Fascists have been saluting in their impressive manner all over the place.”
Churchill met Mussolini and gave a very positive account of him at a press conference held in Rome. Churchill claimed he had been “charmed” by his “gentle and simple bearing” and praised the way “he thought of nothing but the lasting good… of the Italian people.” He added that it was “quite absurd to suggest that the Italian Government does not stand upon a popular basis or that it is not upheld by the active and practical assent of the great masses.” Finally, he addressed the suppression of left-wing political parties: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to the finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”
In 1935, Mussolini sent 400,000 soldiers to invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia). As might have been expected, given his views of black people, Churchill had little sympathy for one of the two last surviving independent African countries. He told the House of Commons: “No one can keep up the pretence that Abyssinia is a fit, worthy and equal member of a league of civilised nations.”
The League of Nations condemned Italy’s aggression and imposed economic sanctions in November 1935, but the sanctions were largely ineffective since they did not ban the sale of oil or close the Suez Canal , that was under the control of the British. Despite the illegal methods employed by Mussolini, Churchill remained a loyal supporter. He told the Anti Socialist Union that Mussolini was “the greatest lawgiver among living men”. He also wrote in The Sunday Chronicle that Mussolini was “a really great man”.
Adolf Hitler knew that both France and Britain were militarily stronger than Germany. However, their failure to take action against Italy convinced him that they were unwilling to go to war.
The British government accepted Hitler’s Rhineland coup. Sir Anthony Eden, the new foreign secretary, informed the French that the British government was not prepared to support military action. The chiefs of staff felt Britain was in no position to go to war with Germany over the issue. The Rhineland invasion was not seen by the British government as an act of unprovoked aggression but as the righting of an injustice left behind by the Treaty of Versailles. Eden apparently said that “Hitler was only going into his own back garden.”
Winston Churchill agreed with the government position. In an article in the Evening Standard, he praised the French for their restraint: “instead of retaliating with arms, as the previous generation would have, France has taken the correct course by appealing to the League of Nations”. In a speech in the House of Commons he supported the government’s policy on appeasement and called on the League of Nations to invite Germany to state her grievances and her legitimate aspirations so that under the League’s auspices “justice may be done and peace preserved”.
Winston Churchill also supported General Francisco Franco and his Fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. He described the democratically elected Republican government as “a poverty stricken and backward proletariat demanding the overthrow of Church, State and property and the inauguration of a Communist regime.” Against them stood the “patriotic, religious and bourgeois forces, under the leadership of the army, and sustained by the countryside in many provinces… marching to re-establish order by setting up a military dictatorship.”
Churchill believed that the right strategy to deal with the rising fascist tide was to try and encourage Adolf Hitler to order the invasion of the Soviet Union. He wrote to Violet Bonham-Carter in 1936 suggesting an alliance of Britain, France, Belgium and Holland to deter Germany from attacking in the west. He expected that Hitler would turn eastwards and attack the Soviet Union, and he proposed that Britain should stand aside while his old enemy Bolshevism was destroyed: “We should have to expect that the Germans would soon begin a war of conquest east and south and that at the same time Japan would attack Russia in the Far East. But Britain and France would maintain a heavily-armed neutrality.”
As late as September, 1937, Churchill was praising Hitler’s domestic achievements. In an article published in The Evening Standard after praising Germany’s achievements in the First World War he wrote: “One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations. I have on more than one occasion made my appeal in public that the Führer of Germany should now become the Hitler of peace.”
Churchill went further the following month. “The story of that struggle (Hitler’s rise to power), cannot be read without admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled him to challenge, defy, conciliate or overcome, all the authority or resistances which barred his path.”. He then considered the way Hitler had suppressed the opposition and set up concentration camps: “Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds, history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim and even frightful methods, but who nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.”
While Churchill had been heaping praise upon fascism across Europe, Clement Attlee and the Labour Party had tirelessly opposed it. From Ethiopia, to Spain, to Germany, Attlee had been fighting and speaking tirelessly in parliament and at the League of Nations for more decisive action against the fascists, but with men like Churchill standing in full support of the fascist movement, Attlee’s struggle was not enough. Churchill’s racialised denigration of Mahatma Gandhi in the early 1930s contributed to fellow British Conservatives’ dismissal of his early warnings about the rise of Adolf Hitler.
In October 1938, after Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless the Sudetenland was given to Germany. At the Munich agreement, Britain , France and Italy conceded to Hitler’s demands.
Attlee again attacked the disastrous appeasement policy in a fiery speech in the House of Commons, saying, “We have felt that we are in the midst of a tragedy. We have felt humiliation. This has not been a victory for reason and humanity. It has been a victory for brute force. At every stage of the proceedings there have been time limits laid down by the owner and ruler of armed force. The terms have not been terms negotiated; they have been terms laid down as ultimata. We have seen today a gallant, civilised and democratic people betrayed and handed over to a ruthless despotism.”
Two days after Attlee’s speech, Churchill finally broke from the government policy of appeasement, in a milquetoast and conciliatory speech, “If I do not begin this afternoon by paying the usual, and indeed almost invariable, tributes to the Prime Minister for his handling of this crisis, it is certainly not from any lack of personal regard. We have always, over a great many years, had very pleasant relations, and I have deeply understood from personal experiences of my own in a similar crisis the stress and strain he has had to bear; but I am sure it is much better to say exactly what we think about public affairs, and this is certainly not the time when it is worth anyone’s while to court political popularity.”
Churchill went on to say the negotiations had been a failure: “No one has been a more resolute and uncompromising struggler for peace than the Prime Minister. Everyone knows that. Never has there been such instance and undaunted determination to maintain and secure peace. That is quite true. Nevertheless, I am not quite clear why there was so much danger of Great Britain or France being involved in a war with Germany at this juncture if, in fact, they were ready all along to sacrifice Czechoslovakia. The terms which the Prime Minister brought back with him could easily have been agreed, I believe, through the ordinary diplomatic channels at any time during the summer. And I will say this, that I believe the Czechs, left to themselves and told they were going to get no help from the Western Powers, would have been able to make better terms than they have got after all this tremendous perturbation; they could hardly have had worse.”
Churchill’s late conversion to anti-fascism is one of the reasons why he suffered such a heavy defeat in the 1945 General Election.The British people had the opportunity to show their gratitude for his role in winning the war, but they remembered his pro-fascism before October 1938. He suffered a humiliating defeat and Clement Attlee became the new prime minister. It was a high turnout with 72.8% of the electorate voting. With almost 12 million votes, Labour had 47.8% of the vote to 39.8% for the Conservatives. Labour made 179 gains from the Tories, winning 393 seats to 213. The 12.0% national swing from the Conservatives to Labour, remains the largest ever achieved in a British general election.
Across the entire world, Winston Churchill has left a devastating legacy. From his time as a young cavalry officer in Afghanistan, where he said “all who resist will be killed without quarter” because the Pashtuns need “recognise the superiority of race”. He would reminisce in his writings about how he partook in the burning villages and peoples homes,
“We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”
When a movement for self determination and independence around Suez began in Egypt in the 1950s, Churchill remarked simply “Tell them that if we have any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter, from which they should never have emerged”
Perhaps Churchill’s greatest atrocities were committed in India. Very few in Britain know about the genocide in Bengal let alone how Churchill engineered it. Churchill’s hatred for Indians led to four million starving to death during the Bengal ‘famine’ of 1943. “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion” he would say.
Bengal had a better than normal harvest during the British enforced famine. The British Army took millions of tons of rice from starving people to ship to the Middle East — where it wasn’t even needed. When the starving people of Bengal asked for food, Churchill said the ‘famine’ was their own fault “for breeding like rabbits”. The Viceroy of India said “Churchill’s attitude towards India and the famine is negligent, hostile and contemptuous”. Even the imperialist British Secretary of State in India Leo Amery said he “didn’t see much difference between his [Churchill] outlook and Hitler’s”. Churchill refused all of the offers to send aid to Bengal, Canada offered 10,000 tons of rice, the U.S 100,000.
In Guyana in the 1950s, Churchill organised a coup, sending British troops to occupy the island, overthrow and arrest the democratically elected but left leaning prime minister.
Churchill also aided the CIA heavily with their coup of Iran in the 1950s, using the BBC to send coded messages to the Shah of Iran, who had been paying Britain and Churchill tax on his country’s oil since 1914.
Across the border in Iraq, Churchill had committed further atrocities against the Kurdish and Arab tribes of the region that rose up against British rule. Appointed secretary for colonies in 1921, Churchill led an aerial bombing campaign against the people of the area, being the first leader to use poison gas against a civilian population. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes… it would spread a lively terror.” Arthur “Bomber” Harris described Churchill’s campaign of terror
“The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape”.
When an anti colonial movement began to take hold in Kenya in 1952, Churchill was again swift to act. Designating fertile highlands as white only areas, at least 150,000 men, women and children from the areas, nicknamed “blackamoors” by Churchill were forced into concentration camps. Children’s schools were shut by the British who branded them “training grounds for rebellion”. Rape, castration, cigarettes, electric shocks and fire all used by the British to torture the Kenyan people on Churchill’s watch.
Churchill was also a key advocate of a Jewish state in Palestine, saying, “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger.” He would express to the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937 that he does “not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place”.
Churchill also helped to create Saudi Arabia, providing as colonial secretary a £100,000 a year stipend to the warlord Ibn Saud, lavishing him with gifts including a Rolls Royce. “My admiration for him [Ibn Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us.” He went on to describe Saud and his followers “they hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahhabi villages for simply appearing in the streets… [they are] austere, intolerant, well-armed and bloodthirsty”.
Churchill is also a key figure in South African history. He remarked of his time in the cavalry during the Boer War, “it was great fun galloping about”. He wrote that his only “irritation” during the Boer war was “that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men”. It was Churchill who planted the seed to strip voting rights from black people in South Africa. In June 1906, Churchill argued that Afrikaners should be allowed a self-rule which would mean black people would be excluded from voting. He went on to state to Parliament that “we must be bound by the interpretation which the other party places on it and it is undoubted that the Boers would regard it as a breach of that treaty if the franchise were in the first instance extended to any persons who are not white”.
Even closer to home, Churchill caused further devastation and turmoil in Greece, after their home grown left wing resistance movement managed to rid their own country of the Nazis and collaborators, British forces invaded after the war under Churchill’s orders to prevent the popular militias from seizing power and reinstate the collaborationist monarchy which had supported a fascist dictatorship of the country in the previous decade. Several large scale massacres were committed against civilians by British soldiers in Greece in Churchill’s name, which are still remembered today by the Greek people.
In Ireland, Churchill was responsible recruiting for and establishing the Black and Tans, a brutal death squad renowned for its atrocities, as well as the Auxiliaries, responsible for the Croke Park massacre.He went on to advocate the use of air power in Ireland against Sinn Fein members in 1920. He suggested to his war advisers that aeroplanes should be dispatched with orders to use “machine-gun fire or bombs” to “scatter and stampede them”.
Even among his own people, Churchill displayed a deep hatred for the working class. He suggested “100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised”. And that for “tramps and wastrels there ought to be proper labour colonies where they could be sent”.
Churchill is vilified throughout Wales, Scotland and the North of England for his willingness to send in the army to put down strikes, with one incident in 1911 when he was Home Secretary leading to soldiers opening fire on striking transport workers, killing two men, one of whom had not been a part of the strike.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, in August 1915, Churchill, with poor military planning, led thousands of young working class men from the all across commonwealth – like lambs to the slaughter – to their deaths at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli, an action he never took any responsibility for.
Throughout history, men like this have made their disdain for the working class of this country and the world abundantly clear. But they have used us and our bodies as stepping stones to advance themselves, to amass their great power and treasures; to achieve their ultimate goal, which is apparently to be immortalised in bronze. Where are the statues to the people who really built this nation; the miners, the factory workers, the transport workers, thousands of whom have lived and died for us at their work? Or for the people who sustain it now, the nurses, the cleaners, the transport workers who risk their lives every day to keep the country running? Even for the millions of working class men and women memorialised on the cenotaph. Why do those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their people and their country only merit a faceless stone mass, while such a heinous man who sent so many of them to their deaths while sitting behind warrants a lifelike and iconic work of art?
The movement for racial equality and justice goes far beyond a few insignificant statues, but we must understand why these statues stand, what they represent and who exactly is defending them.