The Unnecessary Book

“To Winston, with affectionate birthday greetings from his old castigator” by David Low, 1954

Centre Director Richard Toye has reviewed Andrew Roberts’s new book Churchill: Walking with Destiny in the newest Times Literary Supplement. Here is a sneak preview:

churchillOn April 9, 1994, the cover of the Spectator boasted a colourful cartoon that depicted Winston Churchill sticking up two fingers to a boatload of Caribbean migrants – “the Windrush generation”, as we would now call them. Inside was an article by Andrew Roberts (who had previously made a name for himself as a biographer of Lord Halifax) which labelled Churchill as an ideological racist. “For all his public pronouncements on ‘The Brotherhood of Man’ he was an unrepentant white – not to say Anglo-Saxon – supremacist”, Roberts wrote. Moreover, “for Churchill, negroes were ‘niggers’ or ‘blackamoors’, Arabs were ‘worthless’, Chinese were ‘chinks’ or ‘pigtails’, and other black races were ‘baboons’ or ‘Hottentots’.”

Roberts’s claims, which were soon to be published at greater length in his book Eminent Churchillians, provoked a storm of criticism. The historian Niall Ferguson wrote that ‘my friend Andrew Roberts has joined the growing ranks of Churchill-bashers’. Bill Deedes, who had served as a junior minister in Churchill’s final government, lamented in the Daily Telegraph that ‘We live in times when greatness draws critics and genius attracts iconoclasts – and iconoclasm sells books.’ Lady Williams, a former personal secretary to Churchill, told biographer William Manchester that Roberts’s ‘scurrilous allegations’ were symptomatic of a form of history that involved ‘shooting down great historic figures’.

The early nineties were an interesting moment in the history of Churchill’s reputation. Some attacks came from the Left (Clive Ponting) but others from the right (John Charmley and Alan Clark). When the Heritage Lottery Fund purchased Churchill’s archive for the nation for £12.5 million, Boris Johnson suggested that punters might conclude that ‘seldom in the field of human avarice was so much spent by so many on so little’.

Roberts, however, denied being a revisionist, and was at pains to insist that he was not a ‘detractor’ of Churchill either. He argued that to draw attention to Churchill’s views was not to denigrate him. ‘Nowhere did I criticise Churchill for his racist assumptions’, he reassured Telegraph readers. Rather, his purpose had been to show why in the 1950s, in spite of the Prime Minister’s own hostility to non-white immigration, his government had failed to restrict it, partly due to his age, ill-health, and lack of focus on domestic policy. There was something refreshing, indeed, about a right-wing historian seeking to explicate his subject’s views on race without feeling compelled to excuse or gloss over them. Because he didn’t feel embarrassed about Churchill’s opinions he didn’t need to sweep them under the carpet. [continue reading at the TLS]