Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
Servant of Crown and, er, Commonwealth
Churchill’s Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made, by Richard Toye. Henry Holt, hardbound, illus., 448 pp., $32, member price $25.50.
By Piers Brendon
Piers Brendon is a Fellow at Churchill College Cambridge and was Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre. This review first appeared in the Literary Review.
In 1957 Sir Winston Churchill, who had visited East Africa fifty years earlier as a junior minister in the Colonial Office, provided a short prologue to an MGM film about the Mau Mau revolt entitled “Something of Value,” starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. WSC’s message, that Kenya’s current problems were those of the world, was innocuous. But he did not go down well at MGM, where a studio executive said: “You have got to get rid of this f—ing Englishman.” The director asked if he was referring to the greatest statesman in the world. “Whoever the f— he is, I don’t care!” came the reply. “Out of the movie!”
This was crass even by the fine standards of Hollywood. Churchill was famous on both sides of the Atlantic for most of his adult life: When he left on his 1907 safari, Punch asked who was left to govern England. And if he was best known in America for his opposition to fascism and communism, he was notorious for his defence of imperialism. “We mean to hold our own,” he had memorably pronounced in 1942. “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”
The Empire had been the main bone of contention between Churchill and Roosevelt during the war. The President found it hard to believe that they were fighting Axis tyranny but not working to free people from colonial oppression. FDR openly disagreed with Churchill’s assertion that the promises of self-government in the Atlantic Charter did not apply to the British Empire. WSC thought it was “pretty good cheek” for the Americans, who had blood on their hands in the Philippines, to try “to school-marm us into proper behaviour” in the Empire. Harry Hopkins said that Roosevelt’s plea that India should be allowed to rule itself rang from Churchill a “string of cuss words [that] lasted for two hours in the middle of the night.”
The young Winston had vowed to devote his life to maintenance of the Empire. As warlord during the struggle against Hitler, he fought to preserve it even though that meant testing the American alliance he desperately needed. As an old man he lamented that his life had been for nothing since “The Empire I believed in has gone.”
In view of all this. it is remarkable that no substantial scholarly work on this subject has hitherto appeared. There have been essays and a couple of partial studies. And the topic has been aired in some of the many volumes about Churchill published since the opening and electronic cataloguing of his papers. But Churchill’s Empire is the first book to cover all the ground. It does so in a masterly fashion, drawing on much fresh evidence, teasing out the nuances of Churchill’s attitudes, and providing a marvellously illuminating appraisal.
Lord Beaverbrook once said that Churchill had held every opinion on every subject and Toye demonstrates that his opinions on the E mpire were anything but simple or consistent. Of course he was a Victorian—especially during the 1930s, when Baldwin said that he had reverted to being an 1896 subaltern of hussars. But some Victorians were more liberal than he.
Churchill, Toye says, was “antiblack,” hated “people with slit eyes and pigtails,” and damned Hindus as a foul race “protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due.” He defended “punitive devastation” against the Pashtuns. In South Africa he justified harsh measures against the Boers, including farm burnings and concentration camps. In Ireland he favoured machine-gunning Sinn Fein meetings from the air. He hoped for “bitter and bloody” communal violence in India to make the Raj seem essential, and he reacted callously to the 1943 Bengal famine.
On the other hand, Churchill genuinely believed that British rule, benevolent, humane and just, would bring progress, commerce and civilisation to backward countries. He condemned abuses: the killing of wounded Dervishes at Omdurman, the exploitation of Africans by European settlers, “the disgusting butchery of natives” in Natal, which he dubbed “the hooligan of the Empire.” He warned that the gap between conquest and dominion was being filled by “the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier and the lying speculator.” He appeased the Boers, conciliated the Irish and denounced the Amritsar massacre in India. He sometimes opposed imperial expansion. Moreover, he issued a caveat of profound present relevance: the North West Frontier is ideal guerrilla territory since regular troops are sitting ducks and cannot “catch or kill an impalpable cloud of skirmishers.” (See Ben Macintyre, page 22.)
Paradoxically, Churchill’s fight to save the Empire led to its loss. As Toye shows, he was both pragmatic and contradictory. After the war he acknowledged that India “must go,” and did not oppose its going; but he occasionally condemned the “cowardly abandonment of our duties.” He showed surprising sympathy for Mau Mau rebels and criticised the “execution of men who fight to defend their native land”; but he disliked Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech. He embraced the Commonwealth, though without marked enthusiasm. He was ambivalent about Egypt but he became reconciled to the Irish Republic and to India, calling Nehru “The Light of Asia.”
Toye traces Churchill’s shifts and velleities with skill and erudition, using a vast range of contemporary newspapers to particularly good effect. He might perhaps have dwelt on the rhetorical and psychological importance of the Empire to Churchill. The great man’s real tyrant, as Sir Robert Menzies said, was the glittering phrase; and the greatest Empire in history not only inspired him but gave him the opportunity to declaim globally. Vitally, too, the Empire helped to invest Churchill with the copper-bottomed confidence and armour-plated toughness he needed to combat the Third Reich. Nevertheless, Richard Toye deserves all credit for producing an important and original book.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.