The Surprising Mr. Churchill

The Imperial & Global Forum is delighted to introduce a collaborative post from Exeter’s History undergraduate students. 

Authors: Jessica Elkington, Hannah Linton, Rachel Smith, William Griffiths, Alice Montague-Johnstone, Leo Springate, William Thomson, Edward Jones, James McCue, Thomas Lambert, Peter Dyson, Gillian Allen, Barnaby Bracher, Katrina Wolfe, Alex Manning, Justin Chan, Adam Collins

Churchill surprising
Winston Churchill. Reg Speller/Getty Images

Winston Churchill is one of history’s most famous figures. But most people’s image of him is derived from a short, if crucial, period of his long life: his campaign against appeasement in the 1930s and his subsequent leadership of Britain in the Second World War. As History students studying the module ‘Churchill and the British Empire’ at Exeter University, we have discovered that he was a figure of greater complexity than most people realise. Here are the most surprising things we have found out so far.

Churchill’s Great Beginning: ‘A blot and several smudges’

According to his own account, ‘A blot and several smudges’ made up Churchill’s Latin paper when he took the entrance exam at the elite Harrow School. This – from the man who later won the Nobel Prize for literature and who became famous for his great oratory, a vast volume of publications, and a long and industrious political career – may seem surprising.

Churchill’s experience at Harrow was less than exemplary. He had little interest in acquiring skills in Latin and thus found himself consistently placed in the lowest form. Attempts at entrance to Sandhurst revealed little improvement, passing only on his third attempt and, consistent with his poor performance, was placed among the cavalry. His recollections in My Early Life (1930), however, reveal a somewhat jovial spirit: a man eager to make the most of what he had. In his school life, for example, his enthusiasm for English overshadowed failures elsewhere, while similar optimism about the opportunity to ride horses formed his response to his cavalry position.

Despite scraping into Harrow and having a poor academic record there, the young Churchill then proceeded to embark on an energetic project of self-education when serving as a soldier in India. He did this to help him to achieve his political ambitions and in the interests of increasing his earning power. Whilst a subaltern in India, Churchill also realised his attitude to education would not suffice to fulfil his career ambition of entering Parliament. He therefore embraced an ambitious project of self-education; he read widely on history, philosophy and economics, among these were Gibbon, Plato and Adam Smith. Realising the economic advantages of this education, he used it to write a great canon which would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 ‘for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values’.

A Pro-Benefits, Anti-Imperialist, American Citizen … Arguably

Churchill’s imperial image was not so much an ‘identity’ as a series of often conflicting elements that challenge modern perceptions. Despite being known as Conservative party leader on the opposite side of the aisle from the Attlee government that introduced the modern welfare state, Churchill was instrumental in introducing unemployment benefits in his early career.  In the 1905-15 Liberal government, Churchill was the cabinet minister who introduced legislation to set up the first labour exchanges and unemployment insurance. As such, he was known as a radical, on the left of British politics.

Though often perceived as the bastion of British Imperialism, Churchill was similarly seen as an anti-imperialist at different points in his career. In 1906, the Secretary of the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, even suggested he should be muzzled in order to prevent conflict with the colonies. He was also criticised by the right-wing Morning Post which called him a ‘national danger’.

churchill malakand field forcePolitical expediency frequently shaped Churchill’s public imperial attitude and he used the Empire as a tool to promote his own career interests. In The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Churchill crossed out that British forces ‘keep up appearances over’ the natives in favour of ‘assert their superiority over’ – demonstrating that he saw through the nature and manifestation of British power abroad. However, he was content to use this power framework to make a name for himself.

In the years following Churchill’s retirement, his iconic status and symbolic identity was harnessed by individuals and governments. Undoubtedly influencing subsequent political rhetoric, Churchill himself reminded the public of his half-American bloodline on his mother’s side, and he was given honorary American citizenship in 1963. As well as profoundly affecting American politicians, and being regarded as a definitive voice on many aspects of policy, it is clear that Churchill’s legacy has manifested itself within western politics.

It seems apparent that the modern perception of Churchill, entrenched by a popular celebration of his life, can be challenged on various levels; in reality, his identity was capricious and deceptively complex.

Churchill and Race

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

– Winton Churchill, reported in Leo Amery’s diary entry for 9 September 1942

Churchill, throughout his career, provided a stark contrast in his policy towards white and non-white colonial subjects. In predominantly white colonies, Churchill was far more willing to grant Dominion status, as in South Africa. He continued to use South Africa, Canada and New Zealand as examples of successful Churchill Irish Home Rulewhite rule during his pursuit of Irish Home Rule. However, this policy did not translate to non-white colonial subjects. For example, his policy in India reflected his suspicions about the ability of the non-white Hindus and Muslims to govern themselves. He suggested that the white colonial rulers had a crucial role to play in mediating between “race and race”. Indeed, on several occasions Churchill even advocated the use of chemical weapons on non-white populations, most notably in Mesopotamia. In a letter to Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, in August 1920, Churchill advocated ‘experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, which would inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without inflicting grave injury on them’. Indeed the previous year he had expressed his confusion at the ‘squeamishness about the use of gas’. It is interesting that Churchill suggests the victims would be ‘recalcitrant natives’, and it seems unlikely that Churchill would ever have directed these attacks on white colonial subjects.

Nor can Churchill’s Victorian background solely be used as an excuse for his racial attitudes as many contemporaries did not accept unqualified racism. In 1899, poet diarist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt made a ‘protest against the abominations of the Victorian Age’, in relation to Kitchener’s campaign in the Sudan, suggesting that he was uncomfortable with the poor treatment of the Dervishes. Similarly, in 1929 Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, warned Stanley Baldwin against appointing Churchill as Secretary of State for India, highlighting that Churchill was  a ‘more vigorous imperialist in the 1890-1900 sense’. This shows that there was not one unanimous belief in racism, but that racial beliefs were far more fluid and complex.

Empire: The Churchillian Constant

Churchill experienced a political life full of turmoil that spanned over half a century. He crossed the floor (twice), endorsed free trade before later accepting imperial preference, and whilst being a major Conservative icon, and championed a raft of Liberal social reforms that would form the foundation for the British welfare state. For Churchill, the single constant was his devotion to the Empire. Whilst Churchill’s way of thinking, writing and speaking about Empire changed over the course of his life the subject of Empire was a constant thread.

From the dawn of his political career, Churchill demonstrated a strong commitment to Empire. In his first recorded public address in 1897 made to the Primrose League in Bath, he noted that ‘our determination is to uphold the Empire’, which was especially important considering part of his message was criticising the ‘croakers’, who were prophesising imperial decline in the wake of the Queen’s Jubilee. This is clear evidence of a strong personal reaction against anti-imperialist sentiment from as early as 1897.

Skip forward over four decades to 1942, and against the backdrop of a conflict which once again threatened to plunge the world into disarray, Churchill famously declared that he had ‘not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire’. In a very different world, and in very difficult circumstances, when combatting the threat of Nazi Germany, Churchill still reached for the rhetoric of a united Empire. In a political career spanning sixty-five years, whether as a Liberal or Conservative politician – and in spite of the fact that some of his contemporaries questioned his commitment to it – it is surprising that the one thing Churchill never changed was his idea of Empire.