Winston Churchill: New book emphasises the dark side of Britain’s best-loved war-time leader
‘Winston Churchill – His Times, His Crimes’ by Tariq Ali (Verso, 419 pp. £25.00)
Trevor Grundy reviews a book that could open the eyes of a new generation of readers who are anxious to unravel the past in order to pave the way for a truth-tested post-imperial Britain
TARIQ ALI, author of this new book about Winston Churchill which is raising conservative eyebrows twenty years after Britain’s Second World War prime minister was voted the best loved Briton of all time, is no stranger to controversy.
After les Événements of May1968, the Pakistani-born son of a well-connected upper-class journalist was seen as the public face of British revolutionary socialism.
In 1965, Tariq Ali was elected President of the Oxford Union.
He was the sort of person every Northumbrian housewife wants to see on her doorstep at midnight on December 31 to bring good luck in the new year – tall, dark, handsome and rich.
Endlessly interviewed on TV, he appeared on the front-pages of tabloid newspapers waving a clenched fist.
Often, he stood next to the tall, aristocratic-looking actor Vanessa Redgrave who bought her clothes in Chelsea’s King’s Road and her books about Mao, Lenin and Stalin from Collets (the Communist bookshop) in Tottenham Court Road.
They were followed by hundreds of bright-eyed wanabee Trots and Maoists from Britain’s finest universities and most expensive private schools.
A journalist from The Observer (who would not thank me for naming him) exclaimed when he saw them parading down Oxford Street on their way to Trafalgar Square one Saturday afternoon – “God protect me from another fucking Marxist Etonian.”
Tariq Ali: ‘Pampered revolutionary’ or a public intellectual of value with the courage to rock the Churchill Clan’s boat?
So, what does this erstwhile leader of a revolution that never took off have to say that’s new about a man once branded the greatest Englishman?
Is there really any more we want to know about the man who has already inspired historians and journalists to write over 1,600 books about him?
Tariq Ali says his book is little more than a ‘pebble in the pond.’
Historian Andrew Roberts thinks it’s more like a boulder in the bath tub of the pro-Churchill Fan Club.
Tariq Ali: A lifetime of standing at a different angle from the rest of the universe
This is Andrew Roberts in The Spectator –
“Tariq Ali, the Marxist writer and activist, believes that a ‘Churchill cult’ is ‘drowning all serious debate’ about the war-time leader and that ‘an alternative was badly needed.’ He has therefore written a book that parrots every earlier revisionist slur about Churchill – war criminal, evil imperialist, mass murderer, pro-fascist – from detractors such as Caroline Elkins, Priya Gopal, Richard Gott, David Irving, Madrushee Mukerji, Clive Ponting, Richard Toye and Geoffrey Wheatcroft. If there were indeed a Churchill cult, it has done a singularly bad job of drowning out criticism of its hero.”
He signs off by describing himself as the ‘high priest of the Churchill cult.’
Mukerji’s book is truly sensational and a must to read if you are anxious to know more about India in the last century and its role during World War Two.
Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II is her book about the Bengal famine of 1943 during the period of British rule in India.
That book examines Churchill’s role in the famine that killed anything between 1,5 million and three million people.
But, the author of this new book that highlights what he calls Churchill’s ‘crimes’ insists, that what he has written is much more than a standard biography.
Churchill: ‘History, with its flickering lamp, stumbles across the trails of the past trying to re-construct its themes, to revive its echoes and kindle with pale gleams the passions of former days.’
“This little book is another pebble in the pond. It does not concentrate exclusively on Churchill and is not a biography in the traditional sense. It situates Churchill within the ruling class that fought against workers and dissidents at home and built a huge empire abroad. It was this combination that enabled defeats of working-class organisations in Britain and the colonisation of large tracts of Asian and Africa. Without understanding the histories of those who resisted at home and abroad it is not easy to understand the hostility towards Churchill that still exists in this country.’
If you’re short of time the back of the book is full of rich Churchill quotes.
- WSC’s alleged anti-Semitism. “There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and in the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheist Jews; it is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others. With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews.”
- His misogyny. “The women’s suffrage movement is not only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers and husbands.”
- His attitude towards poisoned gas in war. “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
- His flirtation with Fascism before World War Two. “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you (Mussolini) from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism. But in England we have not yet had to face this danger in the same deadly form. We have our own way of doing things.”
- WSC on ‘other’ races. “I do 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 world-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
- And, to top them all . . . “I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them but I suppose it does no great harm to have to look at them.”
We are also reminded that WSC thought that British voters would walk his way towards the Conservative Party’s ballot box in 1951 with a slogan worthy of the late Colin Jordan, Enoch Powell or Oswald Mosley – “Keep Britain White.”
And there are dozens – maybe hundreds- more examples of Churchill’s upper-class scorn for people he described (in private) as little more than working-class scallywags or to use the German word much favoured by Hitler, unter Menschen.
Did a million plus Brits know what they were doing or what Churchill really thought when they hailed him as the greatest ever Briton?
Perhaps they did and liked what they read.
Tariq Ali’s book opens with a lengthy Introduction written by the author.
That is followed by sixteen chapters that tell us that WSCs crimes were so large they cast a long shadow over so much we do now.
So many quite un-talented people climbing the greasy pole want to be seen as the re-incarnation of WSC, especially the joke figure who leads the out of touch and soon to be massively unpopular Tory Party, Boris Johnson.
The last chapter (16) is headed: “What’s Past is Prologue: Churchill’s Legacies.’
And it’s there that you can take note of everything he did that was wrong and learn the names of all the people he hated, scorned, was devastatingly rude to. The list is long.
Nicknamed ‘Trigger Happy,’ Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clemmie on the eve of the First World War (1914-1918) and said to her – ‘Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built that way? The preparations have a hideous fascination for me.’
And at the end of a rather long read, one is left with the question Andrew Roberts asks?
What would Britain be today if Winston Churchill had not become prime minister in 1940?
Without him at the helm, would British children be speaking German as a second language and reading Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler instead of Normal People by Sally Rooney?
Undoubtedly, Tariq Ali’s new book will be welcomed by young men and women in the fast- growing Black Lives Matter movement.
But hopefully they will also read other books about this strange, talented but often inwardly tormented man.
- The shortest and (for what my opinion is worth) the best is Winston Churchill (Sutton Publishing, 1998) by Robert Blake, the highly respected historian and author of the magnificent Disraeli (Eyre Methuen, 1966) and A History of Rhodesia (Eyre & Methuen,1977). In it, every racist remark Churchill ever made, every military blunder he organised and every confrontation with working class/non-white nationalists or political opponents who opposed and disliked the man is recorded.
- Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye (Pan Books, 2010) is a brilliant study of the world WSC was born into and his undying love for an Empire which is now another word for saying ‘disgraceful’ for the men and women with pots and paint-brushes.
- Six Months in 1945 – From World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs (Hutchinson, London, 2012) tells you more than anything you’ll find in Ali’s book about Churchill’s role as statesman and borders re-arranger with Stalin.
- Winston Churchill: The struggle for Survival 1940-1965 (Sphere Books, 1966) by Lord (Charles) Moran is the most moving account of the man’s struggle with alcoholism, heart problems and a painfully long mental depression mainly after the Second World War which WSC himself called his ‘ black dog.
And the above doesn’t mention the colossal work done on the subject of Churchill by the Big Man’s official historian, Martin Gilbert.
So, the over-arching question remains – What’s new in Tariq Ali’s latest book?
I’d say, very little unless you want an easy-to-read catalogue of Churchill’s most outrageous racist comments.
To know more, writers must dig deeper, otherwise they repeat one another ad nauseum using different phrases to describe the same thing. Sadly, this is what Tariq Ali does, not once and again but again and again.
Yet there’s so much more out there to write and wonder about.
Sweet Lord, the man has been dead since 1965. Surely we don’t want to hear about Dardanelles for the millionth time.
With Churchill’s backing, the British created a network of prison camps in Kenya in the 1950s which Tariq Ali says were ‘much worse than anything Winston Churchill himself witnessed during the Boer War in South Africa.’
A few years ago, while I was researching the life and times of the last of the great white liberals in Rhodesia, Sir Garfield Todd, I attended a lunch at the Biographer’s Club in London.
Sitting next to me was a couple who specialised in writing books about famous British politicians.
The following week I received a signed copy of The Churchills – A Family Portrait (Palgrave Macmillan 2010) by Celia and John Lee.
In it are stories I’ve never seen anywhere else and so it’s surprising this amazing book isn’t mentioned in Tariq Ali’s latest.
Surely in any truly valuable biography of a great and important figure, the personal is as important (perhaps even more so) than the public/political.
We scramble and fight for the tiniest crumb of fresh information about the childhood of Hitler and anyone else we dislike, while often ignoring the traumatic and torturous childhoods of our own aristocratic great and good.
Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, and his American mother Jennie Jerome had little time for their son and rarely visited him at his school, St George’s at Ascot.
Lord Randolph Churchill (top right) paid little attention to his two sons Jack and Winston pictured here with their mother, the American heiress Jennie Jerome. WSC is the boy on the right. (From the back cover of ‘Winston and Jack – The Churchill Brothers’ by Celia and John Lee).
Two stories touch the hardest of anti-WSC hearts.
At home, Lord Randolph ignored his son and told him he’d never make anything of his life.
To gain attention, WSC arranged some of his 1,500 tin soldiers into battle formations and before lights out, he asked one of the maids to call his father to see if he had done everything correctly.
Napoleon had to be beaten time and time again on Churchillian bedroom carpets.
Now, reach for your handkerchief.
The Churchills wrongly thought that their son was happy at St George’s.
How little they knew (or cared) what was going on there.
Maurice Baring of the famous banking family went to St George’s shortly after Churchill left.
In adulthood, Baring wrote –
“Dreadful legends were told about Winston Churchill. He had been flogged for taking sugar from the pantry and so far from being penitent, he had taken the headmaster’s famous straw hat from where it hung over the door and kicked it to pieces.”
Winston suffered from a weak chest and was prone to bouts of severe asthma. He was treated by the Churchill family doctor, Robson Rose. During the course of treatment, he discovered that Winston’s bottom showed terrible signs of beatings. It was yellow and blue and the wounds had festered. The headmaster was a man called the Rev. Sneyd-Kynnersley and the way he abused children was well known not only by the boys but also by their parents. But the great sin was to whistle-blow (to snitch) even when boys were being buggered by their teachers.
Winston Churchill never spoke or wrote about what happened to him at St George’s, though he begged his parents to get him away from the place.
WSC went on to Harrow, then Sandhurst. But before he climbed the greasy social pole that led to fame and fortune, the Lees tell us that WSC, an experienced swordsman at Harrow Public School, decided to return to St George’s and settle old scores with Sneyd-Kynnersley.
“He set out to St George’s School, Ascot, to tackle the headmaster, unaware that he had died of a heart attack the year after Winston left the school.”
What might have happened had WSC found his abuser and carried out his revenge?
Like so much concerning the lives of those guarded by barbed-wire family secrets, we shall never know.
Winston and Jack Churchill in the South African Light Horse, 1900 The Churchill legend started in South Africa.
The Churchill myth is full of stories about the Great Man’s physical courage. One of the most famous of all is his escape to Nairobi after being captured by Afrikaner soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.
What courage. What heroism. Above all, what modesty when he decided to share the story with the rest of mankind.
Britons applauded but as we all know, no man is a hero to his valet . . . or his wife.
In his memoir, Lord Moran recalled the day Clemmie Churchill said that her famous husband wasn’t all that he was cracked up to be by adoring newspaper editors who endlessly repeated the Great Escape from South Africa story and how he so loved ‘common’ people.
She said, “You probably don’t realise Charles, that he knows nothing of the life of ordinary people. He has never been on a bus and only once on the underground. But that was during the General Strike (1926) when I deposited him at South Kensington, He went round and round, not knowing where to get out and had to be rescued eventually.”
After reading of Tariq Ali’s book, I agreed with Mrs Churchill that when it comes to understanding and evaluating WSC, we (like Churchill on the underground train) have been all going round and round in circles for far too long.
Never has such sycophantic guff been written by so few for so many.
Hopefully, Tariq Ali’s re-appraisal of the man the British have been encouraged to see through rose-tinted glasses for so long, will open the eyes of a new generation of readers, desperate to undo the past and pave the way for a truth-tested post-Imperial Britain. If it can do that, then Tariq Ali will have achieved something of lasting value.
(This article first appeared in the July edition of the Canadian/USA online magazine ColdType).