Churchill and Racism: Think a Little Deeper

by Richard Langworth on 13 March 2017

racismQ: Another new movie, A United Kingdom,  tries to paint Churchill as the bad guy. It’s the story of Seretse Khama, a member of the Bechuanaland royal family and heir to the throne. After studying in England, he meets and marries a British woman, Ruth Williams. The South African government, which was adopting Apartheid, was troubled by the interracial marriage and pressed the Attlee government in Britain to exile Khama, which they did. Churchill is not a character in the film, but we are told that he supports Khama and will restore him if Churchill’s party wins the 1951 election. Churchill does return to power, but now we are told he will not return Khama as promised. The movie as usual compresses history and tells us at best a version of the truth. I am wondering if the Churchill part of the story is accurate. —P.L., Richmond, Va.

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A: I heard about this and bounced it off others, because I knew nothing offhand and am a bit busy fending off nonsense about Churchill in “Viceroy’s House,” “The Crown,” and other Drama that Goes Bump in the Night. A colleague replied: 

It’s broadly true. The Labour government exiled Khama in 1951, when he returned to England where he had been a Law student. In 1956 he was allowed to  go home as a private citizen before entering politics in 1961. As for the charge of racism, you can’t compare today with the 1950s; it was a different world.

Racism?

But another Churchill scholar, author of a recent book on Churchill’s thought, challenges even the “different world” excuse. by responding as follows. This is certainly something to think about. I thanked him and said I’d mull it over—anyone reading this may do likewise. Note particularly the bold face:

Of course, and you can quote Abraham Lincoln in precisely the same sense, and also most of America’s founders (who abolished slavery in 60% of the union during their lifetimes). The remarkable thing is not that any of them, or Churchill, had the standard view of questions like intermarriage. There was almost no experience with that and the prejudice against it was universal or nearly so.

The remarkable thing is that Lincoln, for the slaves, and Churchill, for the Empire, believed that people of all colors should enjoy the same rights, and that it was the mission of their country to protect those rights.

Therefore to say that Winston Churchill was “a man of his time,” or that “everyone back then was a racist,” is to miss the singular feature.

We spend a lot of time arguing that Churchill was remarkable. Then when something comes along that we do not like, we excuse it or explain it as typical of the age. I do not think Churchill was typical of the age on this question, if the age was racist.

Another thing to remember was that Lincoln and Churchill were political men. Also they were democratic men. They needed, and thought it was right that they needed, the votes of a majority. If they lived in an age of prejudice (and every age is that) then of course they would be careful how they offended those prejudices.

See also “Churchill as Racist: A Hard Sell”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Langworth April 15, 2017 at 08:43

As my correspondent noted, it is broadly true. I have not read the book and would be interested in your take on it. We do know that Smuts, a segregationist when young, extended old age and disability payments to native blacks and Indians, and lost the 1948 election (in which only whites voted) after supporting the Fagan Commission, which recommended relaxing segregation. But Smuts died in 1950, so he could not have influenced the 1951 Churchill government. South African ruling circle opinion may however have been a factor. As another scholar writes (last paragraph above), Churchill, like Lincoln, was a politician, needing the votes of a majority in an age of prejudice, and that has to be borne in mind.

phil lyons April 14, 2017 at 17:46

Is it accurate that when running for office, WSC said he’d lift the ban, then, once elected as PM, the ban was extended to life? I have bought the book specifically to read about it( vs just the movie).

A quick read of just pages with WSC’s name connected, appears as though he “caved” to Smuts of South Africa. Will read more thoroughly when I have time but that’s my quick read.

Thus, questions aren’t whether WSC was a man of his times and/or a racist, but, rather was he a person who took a very liberal position when running and then a horribly harsh one once elected?

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