Churchill and Racism: Think a Little Deeper

Churchill and Racism: Think a Little Deeper

racismQ: Anoth­er new movie, A Unit­ed King­dom,  sad­dles Churchill with racism. It’s the sto­ry of Seretse Khama 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 is adopt­ing Apartheid, is trou­bled by the inter­ra­cial mar­riage. It press­es the Attlee gov­ern­ment in Britain to exile Khama, which they do. 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 win, but now we are told he has exiled Khama for life. 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.


A: It is not. I heard about this and bounced it off oth­ers, because I 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 replies: 

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 return 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.

Con­trary to the film, Churchill did not promise to end Khama’s exile if elect­ed, then with­draw it and exile him for life. Com­mon­wealth Rela­tions Min­is­ter Lord Ismay warned the incom­ing Churchill cab­i­net that his return would pro­voke South Africa’s racist gov­ern­ment. They would resort to eco­nom­ic sanc­tions and demand annex­a­tion of Bechua­na­land, kept out of their hands since the Union of South Africa in 1910. (The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Vol. 23, 34.) Khama and Ruth returned home in 1956. In 1966 he was elect­ed first pres­i­dent of inde­pen­dent Botswana. Under Khama (1966-80), Botswana devel­oped one of the world’s fastest grow­ing economies. It boasts a record of unin­ter­rupt­ed democ­ra­cy. Their son Ian was Botswana’s fourth pres­i­dent, serv­ing 2008-18.


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. Any­one read­ing this may do so. 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 two-thirds 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”

4 thoughts on “Churchill and Racism: Think a Little Deeper

  1. It is true that the British gov­ern­ment did not cave to Jan Smuts, either under Labour or the Tories. By the Fifties, the Nation­al Par­ty was in pow­er in South Africa. I think there is a case to be made that the British gov­ern­ment did cave to the NP, which, of course, had no legal pow­er to annex what was at that time British pro­tec­torates. The Afrikan­ers believed that South Africa was sov­er­eign, and that the sov­er­eign­ty of her neigh­bors was a fit top­ic for dis­cus­sion. That’s why they con­sid­ered the annex­a­tion of South West Africa, and sent troops into the Repub­lic of Ango­la to fight for Jonas Sav­im­bi. British pol­i­cy on South Africa was to denounce Apartheid while cash­ing in on it.
    I think those are valid points and thank you for mak­ing them, though Smuts was out of office after 1948. My point is that Churchill rebuffed Malan’s and the Nation­al Party’s efforts to annex Bechua­na­land (and two oth­er black pro­tec­torates) when he was in office (1951-55). South Africa nev­er annexed South West Africa but ille­gal­ly treat­ed it as a province in the high-tide of Apartheid, and did send troops into Ango­la, but this was well after Churchill’s time. My focus is on Churchill’s actions while in pow­er. These are dis­cussed in more detail in “The Art of the Pos­si­ble: Churchill, South Africa, Apartheid, Man­dela.” RML

  2. I was also curi­ous about this point in the film, and an alter­na­tive source states:
    Unmoved, the gov­ern­ment announced its deci­sion on 27 March I952. Min­is­ters argued that their pre­de­ces­sors, hav­ing quite right­ly con­clud­ed that Seretse was ‘not a fit and prop­er per­son’ to be chief, had then been guilty of ‘ a clas­sic exam­ple of pro­cras­ti­na­tion in pub­lic affairs’. Peace was hard­ly like­ly to be achieved by con­tin­u­ing uncer­tain­ty’; ‘tem­po­rary exclu­sion’ must there­fore now be turned into per­ma­nent non-recog­ni­tion. This was a line of argu­ment the Labour oppo­si­tion found hard to rebut.
    (THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF SERETSE KHAMA: BRITAIN, THE BANGWATO AND SOUTH AFRICA, 1948-1952. Author: RONALD HYAM. The His­tor­i­cal Jour­nal, 29, 4 (I986), pp. 92I-947)
    Thanks, point tak­en. Hyam is a reli­able his­to­ri­an. -RML

  3. 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.

  4. 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, instead of just view­ing the movie.

    A quick read of the 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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