Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics briefly united the world in Anglophilia. The Britain celebrated there seemed amused, multicultural, cool — the Britain of the Beatles, the National Health Service, Shakespeare and Mr. Bean. There was, however, one strong dissonant note: the moment when, as a camera follows the Queen’s supposed helicopter from Buckingham Palace to the East End, Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square smiles and waves its stick in greeting. That had no place in this warm celebration of Cool Britannia.
Those who abhor Churchill do so for good reason. Shashi Tharoor has explained that Churchill was “a war criminal and an enemy of decency and humanity, a blinkered imperialist untroubled by the oppression of non-white peoples, a man who fought not to defend but to deny our freedom.” When angry Londoners attacked this same statue last week, many cheered here in the colonies Churchill struggled all his life to keep.
Boris Johnson disagrees. The statue, says the British prime minister, “is a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country — and the whole of Europe — from a fascist and racist tyranny.” His achievement? I suppose America, Russia, the rest of Europe, not to mention the rest of the Empire, had nothing to do with it?
The war was won thanks to half the world’s determination and to the superior innovation of free societies — not a few speeches. I am as much of a historian as is Johnson — that is, not at all, in spite of his awful book on Winston — but unlike him, I read actual historians. And, as the historian Richard Toye has so painstakingly demonstrated, the myth of Churchill’s speeches stiffening the spine of a half-defeated world is just that — a myth. In a world where Winston Churchill never existed, the war would still have been won.
Naturally Johnson would have to defend Churchill. The entire movement that has catapulted Britain out of Europe and Johnson into No. 10 is based upon a painstaking preservation of various absurd myths about British history. The notion that Churchill saved Europe is an unsubtle claim that Europe owes Britain. The idea that Britain, with its vast overseas empire, stood alone in 1940 is an equally unsubtle reminder that it could stand alone today.
Beyond Brexit, the notion of Britishness that Churchill embodies is one that has no place for racial minorities and which, as my colleague Therese Raphael has pointed out, dismisses their justified complaints. Without an honest reckoning with its past, the Britain of 2020 will continue to be adrift in a world with few allies, uncertain of what its own economic advantages are and with an increasingly unclear sense of itself as a modern nation.
This is a Britain whose mind has been poisoned by such myths and, yes, held back by the weight of statues of slavers and imperialists. Johnson said that statues “teach us about our past, with all its faults.” Statues do not teach; schools do.
So, take down such statues — Churchill, of course, but also Clive “of India” on Whitehall and the generals of the British Indian Army in Trafalgar Square. But if we are to leach this poison from the British mind, then it is school curricula that will have to change. A University of Liverpool lecturer pointed out her students “know very little about Britain’s past, let alone Britain’s connections with the wider world or the history of the world outside Europe. … They therefore know practically nothing about empire and its legacies — including in Britain.”
While the British Empire is taught in schools, it makes up a tiny part of the high school syllabus. Of 15 heads of school history surveyed by one academic in 2016, only one taught the Empire as a study of exploitation. The rest “taught the controversy,” as creationists would put it. It’s 2020: There is no controversy. Empires aren’t things to be proud of. When protesters attacked Churchill’s statue, they were not attacking just him, but this state-sanctified notion of Britishness that centers and renders indispensable a racist, imperialist warmonger.
This doesn’t mean Britain must replace a cartoonish Land of Hope and Glory narrative with something unremittingly dark and equally cartoonish. As with any country, there is a broader, more inclusive and more nuanced narrative to be told. Gladstone, whose name is being removed from the University of Liverpool’s halls of residence, was indeed the son of a slave trader. But eventually he saw slavery as a taint on national history and spoke of an invasion of Afghanistan as “uniting criminality and folly in a higher degree than any undertaking in my recollection”; his Cabinet “saw real danger in investing self-interested white settler minorities with power over black majorities anywhere in the Empire.”
This works both ways: The crusading anti-imperialist economist J.A. Hobson was also a blazing anti-Semite and racist, as Jeremy Corbyn belatedly discovered. But there are forgotten heroes, too. From a small fountain by the Thames looks out the blind Hackney MP Henry Fawcett, called the “Member for India,” who for two decades single-handedly held Whitehall to account for its profligate spending of the colony’s taxes. If Johnson had written a biography of Fawcett instead of Churchill, he would be an infinitely better prime minister.
Any country’s history is what they make of it. A history that remembers how unimportant many of Churchill’s constructive acts were, and how awful his destructive ones, would better fit the Britain of the 21st century. It would also be truer.
By Mihir Sharma, Bloomberg