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Professor Lester’s Defence of “The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill”

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Written by Herbert Anderson

The dispute over a seminar at Churchill College, Cambridge in 2021 on ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ has recently been reinterpreted by Professor Alan Lester. Here, Herbert Anderson answers his points.

Professor Alan Lester recently re-examined the brouhaha surrounding the “Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill” discussion hosted by Professor Priyamvada Gopal at Churchill College, Cambridge in February 2021. This event provoked considerable backlash, the most prominent of which was a paper published by Policy Exchange by historian Andrew Roberts and researcher Zewditu Gebreyohanes (R&G). Lester’s critique of R&G’s paper has four key elements.

  1. R&G’s defence of Churchill against the charge of racism relies on a false dichotomy.
  2. R&G’s criticism of the factual accuracy of remarks made by the meeting attendees was off the mark.
  3. The comments made by one of the attendees on the lethality of the British Empire compared to Nazi Germany were reasonable.
  4. R&G’s report was a prime example of cancel culture which “block[ed] the ‘national conversation that…the panel had sought to initiate”.

This essay will assess the validity of Professor Lester’s critique.

Churchill’s Racism

R&G distinguished between “notions of cultural superiority…[and] biological superiority” and wrote that Churchill possessed the former but lacked the latter. Lester dismisses this as a false dichotomy. But whether one accepts this distinction as valid ultimately depends on the ideological biases of the reader. Churchill would have been an outlier if he had held the modern egalitarian view that race is merely a sociological construct. Churchill unquestionably believed that not all civilizations were of equal merit. Lester correctly concedes that for much of Churchill’s life, this would have been taken for granted by “most British people” but doesn’t reject outright the view that Churchill was an extremist in his time. Lester writes that “[Churchill’s] racism was particularly pronounced” and cites an article written by Andrew Roberts in 1994 saying that Churchill frequently used racial slurs. But in the Policy Exchange paper, R&G cited more recent research carried out by Richard Langworth which shows that Churchill’s use of racial slurs was “extremely infrequent”.

Lester adds “as [Walter] Reid shows, Churchill repeatedly referred to Indians as ‘Baboos’”. I looked up “Baboo” in the index of Walter Reid’s recent bookFighting Retreat which has been reviewed very critically in History Reclaimedby Zareer Masani and Andrew Roberts (See  https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/the-churchill-paradox/ andhttps://historyreclaimed.co.uk/churchill-and-india/) There are five references to it[1] By my count, one is by Churchill[2], one is in a book Churchill read[3], and three are by Reid himself.[4] By Reid’s account, on the only occasion when Churchill uttered that word he also stated that his harsh remarks on India were conscious exaggerations that shouldn’t be taken at face value.

The same can be said about Amery’s remark that “I didn’t see much difference between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s”, to which Lester refers. Amery admitted that he said this during an argument with Churchill after losing his patience, and it “annoyed [Churchill] no little”, which was probably Amery’s intention. The preceding rant which provoked Amery doesn’t strike me as particularly Hitlerian. Churchill spoke of removing the landlords and “oppressive” industrialists, “uplifting peasants and untouchables” and replacing most of the then-current British officials in India.[5] The idea that Amery seriously considered Churchill a murderous tyrant doesn’t accord with his biographer’s view of the “mutual respect” they shared for each other.[6] Like all those arguments in the pub, someone eventually compares someone or something to Hitler.

Professor Lester also accepts that Churchill never supported the infliction of wanton cruelty on non-whites. “Churchill was vehemently opposed to Hitler’s genocidal policies and he professed a paternalistic desire to ‘improve’ other races”. This view is perfectly in line with what R&G argued.

Factual Inaccuracies

The stated object of R&G’s paper was to “analyze and highlight the many historical inaccuracies of the assertions that were made at the conference” and so Lester devotes a good portion of his essay to some of these alleged mistakes. Others he ignores entirely. A whole section of R&G’s report was devoted to the refuting claims of two attendees that Churchill was unpopular during the war. Lester doesn’t comment on this.

At times, Lester misses R&G’s point. For example, he describes R&G as tilting at windmills in accusing one attendee, Professor Kehinde Andrews, of questioning Churchill’s courage. But when one examines R&G’s remarks in their context it seems obvious that they were trying to work out what Professor Andrews meant by this comment:

Was it Churchill out there fighting the war? ’Cause I’m pretty sure it wasn’t; I’m pretty sure he was at home. I’m pretty sure that if Churchill wasn’t there, the war would have still ended in the same way, right? [emphasis added]

Substitute the words “Hitler” for “Churchill”, replace “War” with “Holocaust” and swap “fighting” for “executing” and the absurdity should be obvious.

Despite the main theme of the meeting being “Churchill, Race and Empire” most attendees also deprecated Churchill’s contribution to the Allied victory. Dr. Nubia said that “Churchill was part of a collection of individuals… part of a policy”, a remark Lester defends as “relatively uncontroversial” had [R&G] been inclined to note it. R&G did note it, in fact, on page 10 of their report, and they gave compelling reasons for disagreeing with Dr. Nubia. What role does Dr. Nubia suppose the British Prime Minister had in contributing to Allied policy? He was one of the ‘Big Three’, along with Roosevelt and Stalin.

R&G certainly don’t attribute the entirety of the Allied victory to the efforts of Churchill but they correctly recognize his significant contribution to its achievement. Downplaying this aspect of Churchill’s legacy represents a major failing of the panellists. It shouldn’t be too surprising they made this error though, since not a single one of them can be described as an expert on the Second World War.

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Genocide Olympics

During the discussion, Professor Andrews declared that “the British Empire was worse than the Nazis”. This sloppy remark has the (presumably) unintended effect of suggesting that the Nazis in 1939 held the moral upper hand over the Allies. Lester defends Professor Andrews, saying that his arguments are correct:

  1. The British Empire “lasted longer” than the Third Reich
  2. The British Empire killed more people than Nazi Germany
  3. The British Empire inspired the Nazis

The first point is irrelevant since the duration of the existence of a political entity has no bearing on whether that entity is “worse” or better than another. It arguably undermines Professor Andrew’s point if it can be shown that the Nazis crammed more murders into a shorter timeframe.

Regarding the second point, Lester concedes that Professor Andrews “overestimated the numbers killed in the imposition and maintenance of British rule, but not those killed by European colonialism in general”. But R&G didn’t discuss “European colonialism in general”, so this is a sleight of hand.

Lester then justifies Professor Andrew’s statement by referring to the indigenous population decline in the Americas. Let’s ignore whether a population decline driven largely by unintentional disease transmission can be called genocide. The demographic data from 1940s Europe is considerably more robust than said data from the New World during its colonization. We are confident of the numbers of Jews, Slavs and others murdered by the Nazis. But demographers can’t agree if the population of the Americas in 1492 was less than 10 million or, indeed, over 100 million. On the other hand, most of them agree that the area the British colonized was vastly less populated than Ibero-America. So, in any case, most of the indigenous American population decline cannot be attributed to the British Empire specifically.[7]

Cancel Culture

Lester concludes that R&G’s review was part of a successful “cancel culture” campaign. However, genuine “cancel culture” aims at getting academics dismissed or making it impossible for them to conduct research. Such was the fate of academics such as Napoleon Chagnon and James Enstrom. Such was the aim of three academic petitions directed at the research of Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford. At the most extreme, it manifests in physical violence, as when Charles Murray was assaulted at Middlebury College in 2016. It has never referred to forceful criticism. If Professor Gopal’s account of receiving abusive and racist correspondence is true (and I have no reason to disbelieve her on this point) then it is deplorable, but it cannot be blamed on R&G.

According to Professor Gopal, the authorities at Churchill College kowtowed to pressure from Churchill’s family and financial pressure from donors, causing them to disband the Working Group. While I concede Gopal’s expertise in cancelling people should carry weight, her account strikes me as far-fetched. Churchill College was anxious to “engage in an honest and critical engagement with history in all its fullness”. Amidst the moral panic surrounding racism that engulfed much of the world in 2020-21, the College was keen to have some “difficult conversations” about Churchill’s legacy and “not simply mythologize” him. If they had a bias, it was likely to be in favour of Professor Gopal. In the immediate aftermath of the event, Churchill College defended the panel. The Master of Churchill College has emphatically rejected accusations that undue pressure from Policy Exchange or Churchill’s family had a role in the disbandment of the Working Group and criticised the Working Group’s account of the disbandment as containing “significant dimensions of misinformation and factual inaccuracy”.

It appears that what happened after the event sealed the fate of the Working Group. When Professor Gopal tried to invite Akala – a hip hop musician and race activist with no expertise on Churchill or the Second World War but who complains a lot about white people – Churchill College proposed an alternative speaker “who had previously been identified by the [Working] group themselves”. Professor Gopal’s reply was to threaten to disband the Working Group, an offer that the Council accepted. Presumably, had she been more diplomatic it wouldn’t have been disbanded. Professor Gopal appears to have cancelled herself.

It’s worth remembering that an earlier discussion on the same theme between Gopal and historian Richard Toye generated barely a ripple of controversy.Professor Gopal isn’t even the first person named Gopal to discuss critically Churchill’s attitude to colonialism.[8] So it is unfair of Lester to suggest that the subject itself provoked people’s ire, rather than what was actually said during the seminar.

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Conclusion

Professor Lester deserves credit for being the first to compare R&G’s report with the opinion of the panellists. He also deserves credit for describing Churchill’s views without caricaturing them. However, at times he crosses the line from impartial assessment to advocating for the panel’s point of view. Some of their remarks cannot be supported, and the critique by Roberts and Gebreyohanes is robust.


Bibliography

Barnes, John, and David Nicholson, editors. The Empire at Bay: The Leo Amery Diaries, 1929 – 1949. Hutchinson, 1988.

Dreger, Alice. “Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale.” Human Nature, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 225–246.

French, David. “A Good Day for Academic Freedom.” National Review, 22 March 2013, https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/good-day-academic-freedom-david-french/

Accessed 17 April 2024.

Gopal, Sarvepalli. “Churchill and India.” Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War, edited by Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis, Clarendon Press, 1996, pp. 457-471.

Langworth, Richard M. “Hearsay Doesn’t Count: The Truth About Churchill’s “Racist” Epithets.” The Churchill Project, Hillsdale Colllege, 2 July 2020, https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/churchills-racist-epithets/  Accessed 15 April 2024.

Lester, Alan. “Winston Churchill in the Culture War: Defending an Icon.”Sussex Blogs, 28 February 2024, https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/snapshotsofempire/2024/02/28/winston-churchill-in-the-culture-war-defending-an-icon/ . Accessed 15 April 2024.

Louis, William Roger. In the name of God, Go!: Leo Amery and the British Empire in the age of Churchill. W. W. Norton, 1992.

Reid, Walter. Fighting Retreat: Churchill and India. C. Hurst (Publishers) Limited, 2024. Accessed 15 April 2024.

Roberts, Andrew, and Zewditu Gebreyohanes. Policy Exchange, 2021,https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/%E2%80%98The-Racial-Consequences-of-Mr-Churchill-A-Review.pdf . Accessed 15 April 2024.

Rubinstein, W. D. Genocide: A History. Pearson Longman, 2004.

Saul, Stephanie. “Dozens of Middlebury Students Are Disciplined for Charles Murray Protest (Published 2017).” The New York Times, 24 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/us/middlebury-college-charles-murray-bell-curve.html . Accessed 17 April 2024.

“A Statement from the Master.” Wikipedia, Churchill College, Cambridge, 17 June 2021, https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/news/news-and-events/statement-master/ . Accessed 15 April 2024.

Tharoor, Shashi. “In Winston Churchill, Hollywood rewards a mass murderer.” Washington Post, 10 March 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/03/10/in-winston-churchill-hollywood-rewards-a-mass-murderer/ . Accessed 15 April 2024.

Walsh, Clare. “Members of Churchill Race and Empire Working Group condemn college for disbanding the group.” Varsity, 2 July 2021, https://www.varsity.co.uk/news/21715 . Accessed 15 April 2024.


[1] Walter Reid, Fighting Retreat, pp.16,159,163,281,282

[2] Ibid., p.282

[3] Ibid., p.16

[4] Ibid., pp.159, 163, 281

[5] Barnes & Nicholson (eds.), Empire at Bay, pp.992-993

[6] Louis, ‘In The Name of God Go’, p.179

[7] Cf. Rubinstein, Genocide, chap. 3

[8] Gopal, Sarvepalli, ‘Churchill and India’ in Blake & Louis (eds), Churchill, pp.457-471

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Herbert Anderson