In the introduction to his new book Churchill and Empire, Lawrence James refers to Winston Churchill’s ‘essentially liberal imperialism’. James does not really explain what he means by this, but his comment is intriguing. Previously, in a Daily Mail article, he decried the ‘hand-wringing and breast-beating’ of modern-day critics of Empire, or, as he describes them, the ‘tribunes of political correctness’. From this, one would not think that he is someone who would in general view ‘liberal’ as a term of praise; yet his use of it in this instance is clearly not intended as a criticism of Churchill. Rather, one deduces, he sees ‘liberal’ in this particular context as a synonym for ‘moderate’ or perhaps ‘humane’. If that is indeed what he means – in other words, that if Churchill was a liberal imperialist then his imperialism must have been benign – the equation is highly problematic.
Nevertheless, the issue that James highlights is an important one. Churchill did spend nigh on twenty years of his career as a Liberal, and, when it suited his purposes in later years, he would remind audiences of the fact. Furthermore, as I showed in my own book Churchill’s Empire (2010), there was a time during his Liberal phase when some people even perceived him as a Little Englander and a Radical who posed a danger to the Empire. Although ‘liberal’ cannot be taken as the equivalent of ‘beneficent’, the description of Churchill as a liberal imperialist is therefore one that demands to be taken seriously.
Yet there is another side that must be considered too. Churchill spent most of his career in the Tory party – his Liberal phase was an interlude, albeit a lengthy one. His first political speech attacked the ‘croakers’, who even in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year were already warning of British imperial decline. He was also the man who in 1942 famously declared: ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ His remark appears deeply Conservative and emblematic of the ‘diehard’ point of view. In contrast to his earlier reputation, he now made conscious efforts to project himself as an opponent of modern liberalizing trends, who would never cede an inch of imperial territory.
In the years of his political maturity he positively relished striking attitudes that seemed old-fashioned or offensive to many contemporaries. His privately expressed racial views do not merely seem unacceptable by today’s standards, but appalled plenty of people at the time. Churchill’s Conservative credentials were never absolutely unimpeachable: as far as some Tories were concerned he could never live down his Liberal past, and indeed he generally did not want to. But surely we should take the conservative aspect of his imperialism at least as seriously as the liberal one. Denying it, even implicitly, does poor justice to the complexities of his policies and thought.
There is no virtue, however, in attempting to weigh up the conservative and liberal elements of Churchill’s imperial thinking and, as it were, attempting to allocate percentages to each. Ideological labels are inherently flexible. ‘Liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ have meant decidedly different things depending on time and place, and their meanings certainly shifted dramatically within Churchill’s own lifetime.
Is it futile, then, to attempt a definitive response to the question, how ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ was Churchill’s view of Empire? The answer depends on the period, the issue at stake, and often, apparently, on Churchill’s particular mood at the time in question. The decline of the Liberal party and the rise of Labour were also important factors. Whereas previously Liberalism had been the enemy, from the 1920s onwards former Liberal voters had to be co-opted into what Tories hoped would be a broad anti-socialist front. In the domestic sphere, Churchill was an enthusiast for this process. But when Conservative leaders moved towards a reforming and seemingly liberal policy towards India, he parted company. During World War II, he was an ambivalent internationalist, on the one hand playing a significant role in the foundation of the United Nations, and on the other hand fearing that the new organisation would seek to poke its nose into the British Empire’s own business.
The different elements of his thought – the atavism and the seeming progressivism – can be reconciled to a degree. His view of human development and international relations was an evolutionary one which contained a strong element of Social Darwinism. A better world – perhaps even ultimately a world state – would emerge through the conflict of individuals and nations. In his own mind there probably seemed no contradiction between the vigorous, even selfish, promotion of British national interests and aspirations to global harmony. What is certain above all, though, is that the tensions between Churchill’s liberalism and his conservatism were at the core of his political (and imperial) identity and that he exploited the resulting ambiguities to their fullest.