Why Protesters Want To Tear Down Statue Of ‘White Supremacist’ Winston Churchill

Britain is confronting its imperialist past. Should the nation’s revered wartime prime minister face the same fate as Colston and Milligan?

“Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin,” said the doctor of former prime minister Sir Winston Churchill, once voted the “greatest Briton of all time” in a BBC poll.

As honorary vice president of the British Eugenics Society, Churchill’s views on race were extreme even for his time. At a cabinet meeting he once suggested that “Keep England White” would make a good Conservative Party slogan in the 1955 election.

“He was awful. He was a white supremacist,” said Professor Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University.

“If the Germans had won the war, Churchill would have been given a castle.

“We tend to think of the Nazis as being anti-modern, but the reality of race science is that much of it came from the UK. That’s where [the Nazis] got their inspiration from.”

The toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston has ignited calls to remove statues across the UK that symbolise or celebrate Britain’s colonialist past.

Anti-racism protesters have drawn up a map of 60 “statues and other memorials to slave owners and colonialists need to be removed so Britain can finally face the truth about its past – and how it shapes our present”.

Monuments on the “Topple the Racists” list include statues of slave pioneers, Francis Drake, Robert Blake, and Horatio Nelson, at Goldsmiths College, the University of Oxford’s notorious likeness of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and statues of Christopher Columbus and William Gladstone.

Winston Churchill, who in 2002 was voted “the greatest Briton of all time” in a BBC poll, is not on the list. However, a statue of his on Parliament Square in London was sprayed with the words “was a racist” and a Black Lives Matter sign taped to his stomach over the weekend.

“I tagged up ‘Churchill as a racist’ on the statue of Churchill because he is a confirmed racist. He didn’t fight the Nazis for the Commonwealth or for anything else or for any personal freedoms,” an impassioned anti-racist protester tells a BBC reporter.

“He didn’t do it for Black people or people of colour. He did it sheerly for colonialism. People will be angry but at the end of the day I’m angry that for many years we’ve been oppressed.

“You can’t enslave people, have the largest colonial empire ever in history and then try and come like: ‘Yeah, let’s be peaceful, let’s talk.’

“It don’t work like that. We’re pissed off. Fuck that.”

So should Churchill follow in the steps of other previously celebrated figures and be toppled, too? Was he as guilty as the others?

Britain’s wartime leader was “a racist in the very literal sense of the word”, said Professor Hakim Adi, professor of the history of Africa and the African disapora at the University of Chichester.

“He believed that human beings could be divided into different categories and that some were superior to others.”

In his view, white protestant Christians were above white Catholics, who were above Indians, who were above Africans. “The Aryan stock is bound to triumph,” he said in 1909.

Leo Amery, who was secretary of state for India and Burma at the time, once described Churchill’s attitude to India as “not quite sane” and said he did not “see much difference between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s”.

Up to three million people are believed to have died from the Bengal Famine of 1943 - and Churchill's actions, or lack thereof, have been the subject of criticism.
Up to three million people are believed to have died from the Bengal Famine of 1943 - and Churchill's actions, or lack thereof, have been the subject of criticism.
William Vandivert via Getty Images

To this day in India, Churchill is remembered for his part in the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943. Up to three million people starved to death after he refused to direct food supplies to the region. Instead he blamed the famine on the fact that Indians were “breeding like rabbits”.

Historians have pointed to Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Russia, Iraq, Kenya, South Africa, Palestine and Ireland as evidence of his racist and imperialist policies.

“Churchill had a global impact. His policies had an impact in India, in Africa, in Kenya, in Ireland, in Iraq, in Palestine,” said Professor Adi. “If you actually look at his career there isn’t much to recommend him.”

Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper, a teaching fellow in sociology at the University of Greenwich, agrees.

“Britain feels a lot more comfortable telling itself that it was the country that saved itself from racism than the fact that it was the country that exported racial governance and apartheid,” he said.

Dr Elliott-Cooper, who was at the London protest and tweeted a photo of the Churchill statue, said we should be “unsurprised” by the protesters’ actions. “It’s vital for Britain to have a conversation about racism and its legacy.

“No matter how the British establishment tries to keep a lid on [its legacy], it always comes to the surface in one way or another.”

“We don’t really have an understanding of this country’s history,” said Dr Onyeka Nubia of Edge Hill University, who specialises in Tudor, Stuart and Georgian history – periods that are generally presented to us “devoid of colour”.

“We may well presume that the history of England was all white, and the only people who were not white were enslaved or travelling through,” he said.

He argued this “warps” our understanding of every part of British history, creating a “romantic pastiche” of “imagined perspectives”, “so people talk of ‘going back to England when it was such and such’.”

As a child, the history lecturer was once scolded for “defaming the dead” when he put up his hand after a teacher asked who had relatives who had fought in the Second World War.

″[The teacher] wanted the class to have a perception of history – that everyone who fought was white and that the victory against Nazism was fought by people of white ethnicity.

“By raising my hand, I had set a trajectory that countered that perception.”

The whitewashing of the history of the Second World War means the contribution of 8.5m people from across the British Empire has been erased.

For Dr Nubia, the question should not be about whether Churchill was racist, but how and why that period of history was airbrushed white.

“The story of World War Two is about the diversity of representation of the people who fought against Nazism and fascism – the men, women and children. The sacrifice of those diverse people.”

“We’re presented with a history that is completely inaccurate,” said Professor Adi. “A Eurocentric history that denies Africans and Asians played a part in it or contributed to anything worthwhile.

“That’s the legacy of empire.”

He argues that history taught today is about “the ‘great’ white men of property” which serves to reinforce the idea that “the great and the good are responsible for everything, and the rest of us should accept that they are destined to be rulers”.

This wrong version of history has a real impact on the young people of colour growing up in Britain.

“I grew up in a world that denies your existence, that says your family and ancestors are useless and never contributed to anything,” said Professor Adi. “That is an attack on you, your being, your whole identity.

“It’s the same today – young Black people are growing up and the only time they hear about Africans is about slavery. It has an effect on people’s thinking of themselves.”

In his opinion, toppling the statues of former "great men" is a positive action. “Young people have decision making into their own hands. It’s very democratic. Now everybody is talking about Colston, about Churchill. It’s brought attention to these characters.

“A new decision-making mechanism has been established. And that’s a good thing.”


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