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Churchill’s Empire

David Stafford looks at a study of Winston Churchill’s relationship with the empire

Published: March 29, 2010 at 4:02 pm
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Reviewed by: David Stafford
Author: Richard Toye
Publisher: Macmillan
Price (RRP): £25


Churchill fans who applaud his bulldog stance against appeasement and Nazism often struggle with his equally truculent defence of the British empire. Usually their response is that his imperialism was merely a reflection of his times and that he frequently spoke up for the welfare of indigenous peoples. Critics, on the other hand, denounce him as a racist who embodied and supported the brutal violence inherent in imperial rule.

Neither side will find its views wholly supported in Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made, although each will find some scattered ammunition for its case. There have been numerous studies of various aspects of Churchill’s relationship with the empire, but this is the first attempt at a comprehensive treatment in a single volume. It’s a complex and fascinating story.

The defence that Churchill was essentially a Victorian (he was born in 1874) and that his imperial views should be judged by standards of the time only goes so far because it ignores the wide range of opinion in Victorian Britain itself about the empire. Likewise the argument that he was a racist reactionary ignores both the complexity of his views and their change over time. Even the term imperialist obscures more than it enlightens. Churchill never, for example, supported imperial tariffs in the way that his contemporary Leo Amery did, and for this he was denounced for weakening the empire. Indeed, as Toye remarks, Churchill’s empire, the picture he relayed in speeches and writings, was a selective and sometimes superficial construct. For all his defence of imperial rule, he never visited India after he left it in the 1890s, nor South Africa after 1900, and he never set foot at all in West Africa, Australia, New Zealand or in any of Britain’s far eastern possessions such as Singapore. His diehard resistance to Indian independence in the 1930s sprang not from any affection for India but from his passionate belief that it was not a nation at all and that its loss would be fatal to Britain’s authority elsewhere.

Churchill combined contradictory strands of Victorian thought. First, its confident and Whiggish belief in human progress, and second its pessimistic view of life as a harsh and evolutionary process. The former permitted him to believe that enlightened rule under a benevolent empire could eventually lead to self-rule and independence for its subject peoples. The latter led him to predict disaster for an independent India and to doubt whether “savage tribes” in Africa could ever embody democracy or self-rule. Indeed, he frequently used racist and derogatory terms to describe black Africans. Yet even here he was no last ditch reactionary. During the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya under his final premiership in the 1950s, for example, he pressed for negotiations and spoke critically about the hangings of “men who fight to defend their native land”. Yet, although he had little time for the country’s white settlers, ultimately he was not prepared to face them down. Similarly, in South Africa, he was content to accept Boer rule despite its obvious racism.

Churchill famously once said that he had not been made the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the empire. But, as everyone knows, the Second World War fatally loosened its bonds and by the time he died it had virtually disappeared. What emerges from this densely argued book is that his support for the empire was not for its own sake but as a means of keeping Britain itself as a factor on the world stage. As it declined, his concept of the commonwealth of English-speaking peoples as a major world force took its place. In the end, perhaps his greatest achievement was to accept the empire’s fall and dress it up as victory.


Dr David Stafford is the author of Churchill and Secret Service (Abacus, 2007) and Roosevelt and Churchill (Abacus, 2000)


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