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 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. 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”

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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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