The Real Reason to Pull Down Churchill’s Statue
(Bloomberg Opinion) - Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games briefly united the world in Anglophilia. Britain celebrated there seemed amused, multicultural, cool - the Beatles Britain, the National Health Service, Shakespeare and Mr. Bean. However, there was a strong dissonant remark: the moment a camera follows the Queen's alleged helicopter from Buckingham Palace to the East End, Churchill's statue in Parliament Square smiles and waves the cane in greeting. There was no place in this warm celebration of Cool Britannia.
Those who loathe Churchill do so for a reason. Shashi Tharoor has stated that Churchill "was a war criminal and an enemy of decency and humanity, a blinking imperialist who was not affected by the oppression of non-white peoples, a man who did not struggle to defend our freedom but to deny". When angry Londoners attacked the same statue last week, many cheered here in the colonies that Churchill struggled to maintain throughout his life.
Boris Johnson disagrees. The statue, says the British Prime Minister, "is a lasting reminder of his achievement to save this country - and all of Europe - from fascist and racist tyranny." His performance? I assume America, Russia, the rest of Europe, not to mention the rest of the Empire, had nothing to do with it?
The war was won thanks to half the determination of the world and the superior innovation of free societies - quite a few speeches. I'm a historian like Johnson - despite his terrible book about Winston, that's not at all - but unlike him, I read real historians. And as historian Richard Toye has shown so meticulously, the myth of Churchill's speeches that stiffen the backbone of a half-vanquished world is just that - a myth. In a world where Winston Churchill never existed, the war would still have been won.
Of course Johnson would have to defend Churchill. The entire movement that Britain has catapulted from Europe and Johnson to 10th is based on the careful preservation of various absurd myths about British history. The idea that Churchill saved Europe is an unsubstantiated claim that Europe owes Britain. The idea that Britain stood alone with its huge overseas empire in 1940 is an equally unsubtle reminder that it could stand alone today.
Beyond Brexit, the term Britishness, which Churchill embodies, is a term that has no place for racist minorities and, as my colleague Therese Raphael has emphasized, rejects her justified complaints. Without an honest account of its past, the 2020 United Kingdom will continue to drift in a world with few allies who are unsure of its economic benefits and who have an increasingly unclear self-image as a modern nation.
This is a Britain whose spirit has been poisoned by such myths and held back by the weight of statues of slave traders and imperialists. Johnson said that statues "teach us about our past with all its faults". Statues don't teach; Schools do.
So take off such statues - Churchill of course, but also Clive "of India" on Whitehall and the generals of the British Indian army in Trafalgar Square. But if we want to get this poison out of the British spirit, the curriculum has to change. A lecturer at Liverpool University pointed out that her students “know very little about Britain's past, let alone Britain's connections to the world or the history of the world outside of Europe. ... So you know practically nothing about the empire and its legacies - even in Great Britain. "
While the British Empire is taught in schools, it is a tiny part of the high school curriculum. Out of 15 school history directors interviewed by an academic in 2016, only one taught the empire as an exploitation study. The rest "taught controversy," as creationists would put it. It is 2020: there is no controversy. Empires are not things to be proud of. When protesters attacked Churchill's statue, they attacked not only him, but this state-sanctified notion of Britishness that makes a racist, imperialist warmonger centered and indispensable.
This does not mean that Britain has to replace a cartoonistic tale of Land of Hope and Glory with something that is constantly dark and equally cartoonistic. As in every country, there is a broader, more comprehensive and more differentiated narrative. Gladstone, whose name is being removed from Liverpool University dormitories, was in fact the son of a slave trader. But finally he saw slavery as a flaw for national history and spoke of an invasion of Afghanistan as "an association of crime and foolishness to a greater extent than any company in my memory"; His cabinet "saw real danger in investing self-serving white settler minorities with power over black majorities throughout the empire."
This works in both directions: the crusade of the anti-imperialist economist J.A. Hobson was also a flaming anti-Semite and racist, as Jeremy Corbyn said late. But there are also forgotten heroes. From a small well on the Thames, blind Hackney MP Henry Fawcett, known as a "Member for India", who single-handedly held Whitehall for two decades to explain the colony's wasteful taxes. If Johnson had written a biography of Fawcett instead of Churchill, he would have been an infinitely better prime minister.
A country's history is what they make of it. A story that recalls how unimportant many of Churchill's constructive actions were, and how terrible his destructive actions were, would better suit 21st century Britain. It would be truer too.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mihir Sharma is a columnist in the Bloomberg Opinion. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard and author of "Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy".
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