The College set up a working group in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, with the intent of exploring Churchill, Empire and Race in a scholarly fashion, not least using the archival material we hold, including Sir Winston Churchill’s own papers. We knew that this would require some difficult conversations, and would hold us up to scrutiny by the international press, but we were quite prepared to manage this as we know how much these conversations matter. We have a responsibility, as Churchill College and as a memorial to him, not simply to mythologise our wartime leader, but to engage in an honest and critical engagement with history in all its fullness.
The Working Group’s outline plans for a series of activities during the academic year 2020-21 were set out in a paper received by Council last October, where they were enthusiastically endorsed. A range of activities were planned, including a Black History Exhibition of our black alumni (which is currently under development); flying the Pan African Flag for Black History month (which was done); internal student discussion events (which went ahead); plus a series of talks, only one of which was fleshed out with the names of speakers, although titles for the other events, providing a clear indication of their scope, were given for the remainder. The first event, Opening the Conversation, set out some of the key issues intended for further debate.
In the usual way of College governance, the Working Group was intended to have a finite lifetime, in this case the current academic year, and to report to College Council as the Trustee body, made up of students, staff and Fellows, elected by their respective constituencies. This was clearly understood by the Working Group in the report received from them by Council. Council, as the College’s Trustee body, would expect to have oversight of the programme. Despite there being some contact with Churchill’s family, whose support (not least for the Archives) has always been very important to the College, they are not involved in the College’s governance processes, and the implication made in some quarters that they, Policy Exchange or the national press might have been steering matters, is to misunderstand our governance arrangements.
Churchill College fully recognises, as we have said from the outset, that there is a need to look at Churchill’s legacy in the round. The second event received a great deal of, often hostile, attention because it did address some of parts of his life that are often not looked at in depth in the UK, and which do not play well to some of the standard views about his life. That hostility was also directed at the participants, who received unacceptable racist abuse, something the College utterly deplores.
The talks this year were intended to kickstart an ongoing discussion through different channels, as the title of the last planned talk made clear in the Working Group’s report: Churchill, Empire and Race: Where does the debate lead us? However, at some point the Working Group seem to have changed direction, with the second event not aligning with the initial proposals that Council saw; nor did their suggestions for the third.
Professor Gopal, in her excellent article in the Guardian this spring, highlighted why this work is difficult, thereby precisely highlighting also why the second event led to such a furore. However, last month she expressed her frustration that the Council had not immediately accepted the Working Group’s proposals for a further event this term, but instead they had proposed alternative suggestions which they felt fitted better with the aspirations originally set out, including the names of further speakers previously identified by the Group themselves. Consequently, she wrote at that point that the group might as well dissolve themselves and I was told that, at their meeting of 20th May, the group decided that they would not make further recommendations on a third event. Rightly or wrongly, as Master, I took that statement at face value: that they had in fact disbanded themselves, and that Council would instead need to take the next steps in moving the explorations of Churchill, Empire and Race forward.
Unfounded allegations are now being levelled both at the broad College community and at me personally. I would nevertheless stress that the College will continue engaging in debates, examining the actions of important historical figures including Churchill himself, and working on challenging attitudes. It will not stop us looking at all aspects of our community and our work to ensure we create an environment welcoming to all. Our work here has only just begun.
— Professor Dame Athene Donald, Master of Churchill College.