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BOOK REVIEW: Giving the political giant his due
Question of the Day
Retrospective political correctness has so infected the groves of academe that the only thing many students know about great figures of the past are their feet of clay: that George Washington was a slaveholder and that one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves was his mistress. When all else fails, the boilerplate smears of racism and imperialism are bandied about to besmirch genuine heroes; judging past giants falsely by twisted 21st-century standards has become standard academic practice and has leaked into the broader culture.
In the wake of a pair of books earlier in the decade claiming that Britain’s suppression of the murderous Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya involved a “British Gulag” and was virtually genocidal, it was no surprise to find a recent book claiming that Winston Churchill also had been guilty of genocide in his handling of the catastrophic 1943 Bengal famine. So it is a genuine joy to encounter the mature, intelligent, thoughtful, judicious “Churchill’s Empire” and all the more so because it is written by a 30-something English historian, who looks even younger than he is.
Richard Toye does not bandy about buzzwords like racism and empire for cheap effect: He takes them seriously, examining them in the context of their time while not shying away from moral judgment. No idolater, he does not brush away or attempt to minimize Churchill’s unabashed imperialism or his tendency to think in racial terms; rather, he confronts them, subjecting them to clear-eyed, hardheaded scrutiny, showing their provenance and then their evolution over a long career that saw the world change radically.
And so he does Churchill a service by showing him warts and all while never losing sight of the essential largeness of spirit that made him one of the great figures of all time.
Mr. Toye rightly points out that Churchill was born into - and formed by - an age of empire, the Victorian era, and had lived more than a quarter of a century by the time it ended. It was a worldwide phenomenon: Theodore Roosevelt, the apostle of American progressivism, was a convinced imperialist. Mr. Toye shows how Rudyard Kipling’s views on the British imperial role, especially in India, influenced Churchill, even though the great writer was no admirer of his political disciple. Indeed, compared to the great bard of the empire, Churchill was plus royaliste que le roi (more royalist than the king). But, from the outset of his book, Mr. Toye demonstrates his measured view of his subject:
“We should not, in fact, use Churchill’s Victorian background as an historical ‘get out of jail free’ card for him any more than we should use it as a blanket label of condemnation. In order to understand its true importance, it is necessary to appreciate that his Victorian heritage accounted for many of the apparently ‘enlightened’ elements of Churchill’s thought as well as many of the ‘reactionary’ ones. At the same time, his attitudes in later life were not always a straightforward extension of the ones he held earlier. He himself said that he ‘had inclined more to the right as he got older,’ but there were some changes in his views that cannot be easily located on a left-right spectrum.”
When directing his government’s suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion, for example, Churchill cautioned against mass executions, partly because of their negative propaganda backlash but also as part of a lifelong clemency with regard to the application of the death penalty, which on the whole he supported. As home secretary in H.H. Asquith’s government before World War I, he had been responsible for commuting an unusually high number of executions. Now, even though faced with Mau Mau intransigence, he had a surprisingly subtle attitude, as Mr. Toye notes:
“In the background too was Churchill’s concern about press attacks regarding the use of the death penalty in the fight against Mau Mau. … Churchill told his colleagues that there was much in the criticisms. Executions, he said, should ‘serve a public service,’ the implication being that sometimes a greater good could be served by giving a reprieve.’ “
In the late 1940s, Churchill was one of several members of Parliament who petitioned the governing Labor Party not to carry out their planned hangings for ritual murder in the Gold Coast colony. Sure, one can see this as an example of Churchill’s racism, albeit of the more benign paternalistic variety, in saying that it was not fair to condemn what he would have called “savages” for carrying out their admittedly rebarbative customs.
But it is, equally, a surprising instance of cultural relativism on his part and, most of all, an indication of his essential humaneness. Far from being murderous with regard to the Mau Mau, he vetoed executing one of their captured generals whom the British authorities had tried unsuccessfully to turn: “You can’t bargain with a man under sentence of death and hang him if he doesn’t come across.”
On the vexed topic of the Bengal famine, Mr. Toye admits Churchill’s callousness. However, he is also careful to examine just where blame should lie and to put the premier’s role in perspective, given the wide range of responsibilities he bore at the time, when he was engaged all-out in winning the war on multiple fronts.
Throughout his book, Mr. Toye does not shrink from quoting Churchill’s bad-tempered outbursts to intimates, which often revealed unpleasant attitudes, but he realizes the limitations of their significance. He demonstrates that Churchill seldom acted on these unworthy impulses and instincts, drawing rather on his better nature and on the qualities that made him such a towering figure. The book’s holistic portrait of the great statesman takes account of his tendency toward rhetorical flights but keeps its focus on the measured nature of his actual policies and governance, thus performing a service to both Winston Churchill and the reader.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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