In Defense of Churchill (2): Precepts -Surrender Nothing, Honor the Whole

In Defense of Churchill (2): Precepts -Surrender Nothing, Honor the Whole

Text of my Zoom address to the Chartwell Soci­ety of Port­land, Ore­gon on 10 May 2021, 81st anniver­sary of Churchill tak­ing office as Prime Min­is­ter. “Cur­rent Con­tentions: Pre­cepts” is part of as an iTunes audio file. For a copy, please email [email protected].

Precepts for defenders (continued from Part 1)

Here are two pre­cepts for us to fol­low when con­fronting per­ver­sions of the truth sur­round­ing Win­ston Churchill.

First, “Surrender nothing”

In pro­tect­ing his good name we can­not dis­sem­ble. As Mark Steyn says in anoth­er context[13], “Unless you’re pre­pared to sur­ren­der every­thing, sur­ren­der noth­ing. When Pres­i­dent Macron declared that no stat­ue or street in France would be renamed, mirac­u­lous­ly the threats against them dis­si­pat­ed.” That takes courage, and the strength of one’s con­vic­tions. Churchill’s exam­ple eight decades ago is apposite.

“Sur­ren­der noth­ing” means nev­er using weak pre­cepts like “Churchill was just a man of his time,” or “every­body was a racist back then.” This is not good enough. It doesn’t do him jus­tice. Churchill was not a man of his time—he was far ahead of it. He was demand­ing human rights for peo­ple of col­or long before it was expe­di­ent to do so. He was, in fact, con­sid­ered a dan­ger­ous rad­i­cal when, ear­ly on, he took up the caus­es of non-whites in the far reach­es of the Empire.

“Traitor to his class”

It didn’t take young Win­ston long to start prod­ding the estab­lish­ment. Aged 25, he was impris­oned as an accused British com­bat­ant in the Boer War. No soon­er was he locked up than he engaged his Boer cap­tors over their treat­ment of native Africans.

“Is it right,” his jailor demand­ed, that they “should walk on the pave­ment [sidewalk]—without a pass too? That’s what they do in your British colonies. Broth­er! Equal! Ugh! Free! Not a bit. We know how to treat them…. We’ll stand no damned non­sense from them.”[14] Record­ing this, Churchill asked:

What is the true and orig­i­nal root of Dutch aver­sion to British rule? It is the abid­ing fear and hatred of the move­ment that seeks to place the native on a lev­el with the white man…. The dom­i­nant race is to be deprived of their supe­ri­or­i­ty; nor is a tigress robbed of her cubs more furi­ous than is the Boer at this prospect.[15]

Churchill labeled his jail time “In Durance Vile.”[16] Ever after­ward he nursed a deep sym­pa­thy for con­victs. As Home Sec­re­tary a decade or so lat­er, he com­mut­ed sen­tences and stopped jail­ing peo­ple for pet­ty offences, caus­ing many a har­rumph from the John Bulls of Edwar­dian Britain.

He was called a “trai­tor to his class” by the Tory aristocracy—even by his cousin Sun­ny, 9th Duke of Marl­bor­ough.[17] Churchill might have replied quot­ing his men­tor David Lloyd George, whose name the Duke had for­bid­den at Blenheim Palace. “A ful­ly-equipped Duke costs as much to keep as two dread­noughts; and Dukes are just as great a ter­ror and they last longer.”[18]

“Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem…”

Con­sid­er India and Gand­hi, which today’s experts wish us to believe Churchill despised. In 1906, when young Win­ston was Under­sec­re­tary for the Colonies, Mohan­das Gand­hi appealed to him over the oppressed Indi­an minor­i­ty in South Africa. A quar­ter cen­tu­ry lat­er, Churchill lost his bat­tle against the Act which grant­ed India more self-gov­ern­ment. So he invit­ed Gandhi’s friend, Ghan­shyam Das Bir­la, to Chartwell. (Appar­ent­ly he didn’t hate Indi­ans enough not to invite them to lunch.)

“Mr. Gand­hi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouch­ables,” Churchill told Bir­la. Indeed the abysmal treat­ment of Untouch­ables, or Dal­its, had been basic to Churchill’s oppo­si­tion to self-gov­ern­ment. “You have got immense pow­ers,” Churchill con­tin­ued. “So make it a success.”

Bir­la asked, “What is your test of suc­cess?” Churchill replied—as he often replied when such ques­tions arose: “Improve­ment in the lot of the mass­es, moral­ly as well as mate­ri­al­ly. I do not care whether you are more or less loy­al to Great Britain…but give the mass­es more but­ter…. Make every tiller of the soil his own landlord….Tell Mr. Gand­hi to use the pow­ers that are offered and make the thing a suc­cess.” Does that sound like a man who hat­ed Indians?

Bir­la went home and repeat­ed the con­ver­sa­tion to the Mahat­ma. Gand­hi replied: “I have got a good rec­ol­lec­tion of Mr. Churchill when he was in the Colo­nial Office and some­how or oth­er since then I have held the opin­ion that I can always rely on his sym­pa­thy and goodwill.”[19]

On Segregation and Africans

Here is anoth­er quote which his detrac­tors always ignore. In 1942, Churchill was con­front­ed with an influx of Amer­i­can forces in Britain, accom­pa­nied by the seg­re­ga­tion of black troops. In cab­i­net he declared:

We need not, and should not, object. But they must not expect our author­i­ties, civ­il or mil­i­tary, to assist them…. So far as con­cerned admis­sion to can­teens, pub­lic hous­es, the­atres, cin­e­mas, and so forth, there would, and must, be no restric­tion of the facil­i­ties hith­er­to extend­ed to coloured per­sons as a result of the arrival of Unit­ed States troops in this country.[20]

One more example—because we must be armed to the teeth against the charge that he was racist. In 1954, when he was still Prime Min­is­ter but near­ing retire­ment, the Apartheid gov­ern­ment in Pre­to­ria made one of its peri­od­ic demands to annex three black-run British pro­tec­torates with­in its bor­ders. Once again, Churchill’s pre­cepts were con­sis­tent, and he minced no words:

There can be no ques­tion of Her Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment agree­ing at the present time to the trans­fer of Basu­toland, Bechua­na­land and Swazi­land to the Union of South Africa. We are pledged, since the South Africa Act of 1909, not to trans­fer these Ter­ri­to­ries until their inhab­i­tants have been con­sult­ed [and] wished it. [South Africa should] not need­less­ly press an issue on which we could not fall in with their views with­out fail­ing in our trust.[21]

With­in a few years, Britain had grant­ed all three pro­tec­torates inde­pen­dence. Today, Botswana, the for­mer Basu­toland, is one of the most pros­per­ous and demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries in Africa.

Second, honor the whole

Among pre­cepts fre­quent­ly for­got­ten is Churchill’s broad­ness and moder­ni­ty of thought. His noto­ri­ety rests on the 18 months that began 81 years ago today. Of course he didn’t win the war. His achieve­ment was that, when Britain and the Com­mon­wealth stood alone, he didn’t lose it.

“Take away Churchill in 1940,” wrote Charles Krautham­mer, “and Britain would have set­tled with Hitler—or worse. Nazism would have pre­vailed. Hitler would have achieved what no oth­er tyrant, not even Napoleon, had ever achieved: mas­tery of Europe. Civ­i­liza­tion would have descend­ed into a dark­ness the likes of which it had nev­er known.”[22] And Churchill him­self declared: “Noth­ing sur­pass­es 1940.”[23]

Nev­er­the­less, like the Nobel Prize Com­mit­tee who insist­ed on con­sid­er­ing not just the war but his life’s work, Churchill can­not be remem­bered only in terms of his finest hour. This is the mis­take almost every casu­al admir­er makes. Unlike us, they don’t know the whole story—one of the key pre­cepts. It is up to us to tell it.

The whole of Churchill’s phi­los­o­phy con­cludes in Part 3


[13] Mark Steyn, “Sur­ren­der Noth­ing,” Mark Steyn Show, 18 Decem­ber 2020 accessed May 2021.

[14] Win­ston S. Churchill, Lon­don to Lady­smith via Pre­to­ria (Lon­don: Long­mans Green, 1900), 60.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Win­ston S. Churchill, My Ear­ly Life (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1930), 273.

[17] R.W. Thomp­son, The Yan­kee Marl­bor­ough (New York: Dou­ble­day, 1963), 127.

[18] Non-Churchill quotes in Richard M. Lang­worth, ed., Churchill by Him­self (New York: Roset­ta Books 2016) Kin­dle edi­tion, 273.

[19] Remarks by Bir­la, Churchill and Gand­hi are in Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 5, The Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2008), 618-19.

[20] War Cab­i­net: Con­clu­sions (Cab­i­net papers, 65/28) Octo­ber 1942, in Mar­tin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 17, Test­ing Times, 1942 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2013), 1278.

[21] WSC, House of Com­mons, 13 April 1954, in Mar­tin Gilbert & Lar­ry Arnn, eds., The Churchill Doc­u­ments, Vol. 23, Nev­er Flinch, Nev­er Weary, Octo­ber 1951-Jan­u­ary 1965 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2019), 1538.

[22] Charles Krautham­mer, Things That Mat­ter (New York: Crown Forum, 2013), 23.

[23] Win­ston S. Churchill, The Sec­ond World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1949), 555.

Further reading

For Churchill’s life­time sup­port of native rights in South Africa see “‘The Art of the Pos­si­ble’: Churchill, South Africa and Apartheid, in two parts start­ing here.

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