Winston Churchill: His times, his crimes

By Tariq Ali
Published by Verso, 2022, hardback, rrp £25
Available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road

Review by Tim Barton

‘A most intolerable ruffian, a disgrace to human nature and a blot of blood and grease upon the History of England’. That is not about Churchill (or Johnson, who reveres Winnie) it is Dickens’ view of Henry VIII from his A Child’s History of England but  in differing ways could as well be. Meanwhile, some wag at the Bank of England and his cronies, when adding Churchill to the new fiver, chose an oddly topical quote in a bit of disarming honesty from our elites: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. This seems an odd choice of quote, and puts the icing on what Tariq Ali’s book describes as ‘the cult of Churchill’, which he dates from the patriotic fervour drummed up to support Thatcher’s Malvinas adventure. 

There are reams of more damning quotes. Long before Prince Philip, Winnie said ‘I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them’; ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ (it was indeed used, for example, against the Chinese in Shanghai in 1927, and Mesopotamian Kurds in 1920, with some enthusiasm from Churchill); ‘Keep England White’ (now there’s a terribly apropos post-Brexit quote they might have chosen for the fiver).


A refusal to accept the genocide of Native Americans or antipodean aboriginals was wrong, on the grounds that we are ‘a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race’ that has quite reasonably ‘come in and taken their place’ – no wonder Hitler was surprised we declined to ally with Germany. Many others seemed friendly to Hitler at the time, including Hastings’ own Winifred Williams, who married Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried, but was later tipped to marry Adolph); attacks on ‘atheist Jews’ when invading Russia in 1918 (yes, that happened); a strong stance against women’s suffrage, ‘the small edge of the wedge’…

This is, of course, the tip of a huge toxic iceberg. As the winners write history, there will no doubt be a clamour of ‘well things were different then’, ‘you can’t judge him by today’s standards’ or, from a few: ‘and he was right’. However, if you bother to actually study the period, there was considerable opposition to such views. At the time of Churchill’s rise in the Tory party, Nancy Dugdale (wife of MP Tommy Dugdale) noted much distrust of him within the party, and said ‘WC really is the counterpart of Goering in England, full of the desire for blood, Blitzkrieg, and bloated with ego and over-feeding, the same treachery running through his veins, punctuated by heroics and hot-air.’

Tariq Ali’s book is a necessary curative to Winnie Worship, and, frankly, is a fair and reasoned account of the man. Many will be up in arms, how dare we attack a ‘great British hero’, mainly because of the fact he led us through the Second World War. Again, at the time, he was roundly hated by many, another reason to actually study history and not the headlines of the Mail, Times, and Telegraph etc. When asked how Churchill had been so roundly defeated in the 1945 elections, Lawrence Daly, the Scottish miners’ leader said in the 60s ‘It’s not a mystery. Thanks to the Tories, the country was neck-deep in shit. People felt that if they elected Churchill, he would force them to do sit-ups’.


The war aside, Churchill must be judged across a far wider canvas. Ali looks at his whole career, which spans decades. It is no accident his book is subtitled ‘his times, his crimes’. Daly would no doubt have had much to say about Churchill’s suppression of the miners in 1910, one mirrored in America where too military assault and demonisation of union activists was the standard response to strike action. He remained an ‘anti-union hawk’ all his life, and was especially hard-line during the 1926 general strike. Again, it is no surprise that Thatcher lionised the man. She broke the 1980s strikes by importing American strike-breaking tactics under the wholly unsavoury Ian MacGregor: Winnie would have approved, and sympathised with MacGregor’s complaint that he ‘wished I had some of my scruffy, sometimes ill-disciplined, sometimes loud-mouthed American police by my side in this country, and some of the curious ways of the law to back them up’.

As XR Cambridge said when attacking the ‘legacy’ of Wellesley, Curzon, Churchill et al: ‘we have learned so much from anti-racist activists – we won’t let Britain’s racist history be swept under the rug’. Half of Hastings and
St Leonards has streets named after various functionaries of the state – no doubt they too will be ‘reassessed’ in time. Cornwallis was not the worst of our shared past, though Ireland will not forget his execution of Irish rebels. Unlike some of those criticising our imperial legacy, Ali does not favour tearing down statues but, rather, adding placards giving a more objective history of these formerly venerated English ‘heroes’. We need a deeper and truer understanding of our history and, indeed, much needed it in 2016 when debating exiting the EU. So far as Churchill is concerned the book to turn to is not Johnson’s The Churchill Factor but Ali’s excellent Winston Churchill:
His Times and Crimes

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