On 11th February 2021, we hosted the second event in our Churchill, Empire & Race series. Professor Priya Gopal, Professor Kehinde Andrews, Dr Madhusree Mukerjee and Dr Onyeka Nubia were joined by a virtual audience of 500 people to look at ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’.
Speaking ahead of the event, Master of Churchill, Professor Dame Athene Donald said. “This event is part of a whole range of actions and activities across the College aimed at ensuring we remain the welcoming, diverse and inclusive community we aspire to be, as we always have, and forms part of an ongoing conversation between past, present and future. This has to include giving voice to Black and ethnic minority scholars who are often excluded from these discussions.
This is not a question of attempting to trash Churchill’s reputation, but of looking beyond the familiar tropes. We can recognise him as the man who defeated Hitler and Fascism, and admire that leadership, but need to look further and with a scholarly lens at his wider actions and the consequences of those actions around the world.”
In her opening remarks, Professor Priya Gopal echoed this sentiment, stating that the panel discussion was less about Sir Winston as an individual, and more about examining a national narrative around him, and not least what we don’t talk about. There is no denying that some of the decisions made by Sir Winston adversely affected communities both at home and abroad, and there is often pressure to leave out the less glorious parts of history, but it takes courage to see history and historical events and characters in their fullness. Sir Winston is often presented as the embodiment of WWII and the UK’s identity, and so to some extent, to critically reassess Churchill is to critically reassess a nation’s identity. It is an uncomfortable, but necessary conversation.
During a lively discussion, where each panellist took the time to present their own understanding of Sir Winston’s words, actions, and their consequences, it ultimately came down to separating history from mythology, and providing logic to the emotional attachment the British have to Sir Winston. Professor Andrews discussed how because Sir Winston is seen as the man who defeated the Nazis, who were racist, the suggestion then becomes that he himself could not have been racist. But Churchill firmly believed in the superiority of the Aryan race, the very same ideas with which Nazis came to power. Professor Andrews then argued that while Britain should be proud of its role in the war, it should be celebrating all who were involved. We’d be in a much better place if we stopped focusing on one individual at the expense of the collective.
The conversation then moved on to monuments and memorials, and what should be done with them in the case of controversial histories. And in this, the panellists agreed that statues were only a small part of the story. They are not history in and of themselves, and Professor Andrews argued that simply removing them doesn’t change anything. We shouldn’t dismantle them if we aren’t willing to dismantle white supremacy. They serve as a reminder of what needs to change.
So how could the UK look forward? Unlike other European countries, we have a tendency not to teach the parts of our history that are not seen as glorious. Is it time that we find a new identity that isn’t based on a false idea of glory? Because as Dr Mukerjee stated, the sooner we can grapple with ugly truths, the stronger we could become. To move forward as a species, we have to look at that which has been disabling a large percentage of that same species. We need more history, and less mythology.