This article first appeared in The Weekly Standard scrapbook for 21 July 2014.
Every time you realize how badly the media mangles something you know about, you wonder how well they are reporting everything else.
The announcement that a statue of Gandhi would be placed in Parliament Square near that of Winston Churchill unleashed a barrage of ignorance. Would Churchill wish to share space with his “onetime nemesis”?
The Associated Press quoted Churchill’s famous “half-naked fakir” crack (inaccurately), and said he called Gandhi a “middling lawyer.” (Churchill’s term was “Middle Temple lawyer,” something else entirely.)
The Wall Street Journal worried that Parliament Square also includes a statue of Jan Smuts, “a prime minister of South Africa in the early 20th century who favored segregation.”
Dear oh dear.
Smuts was prime minister in 1939-48, not early in the century. He was voted out when he campaigned in favor of relaxing segregation. As a junior minister in 1906 Smuts did oppose equal rights for the Indian minority. But here he disagreed with his longtime friend Winston Churchill, then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Gandhi himself remarked: “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.”
Gandhi said this to his chief lieutenant, Ghanshyam Birla, who lunched with Churchill in 1935 following passage of the Government of India Act, a step toward independence. Churchill had opposed this bill, and had said some pretty rough things.
But Churchill was magnanimous—a quality sadly lacking among politicians today. “Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables,” he told Birla. “I do not like the Bill but it is now on the Statute Book….So make it a success.”
Birla asked: “What is your test of success?” Churchill replied: “…improvement in the lot of the masses….I do not care whether you are more or less loyal to Great Britain. I do not mind about education, but give the masses more butter….Make every tiller of the soil his own landlord….Provide a good bull for every village…. Use the powers that are offered and make the thing a success.”
Among other things, such statements suggest a better understanding of contemporary India than Churchill is said to have had by his many critics, who insist that he thought of it in terms of a 19th century Victorian.
Churchill did have a tic about an Indian independence movement led by the Brahmin class. But before we pigeonhole him as an unrepentant imperialist, consider what he and Gandhi had in common.
Both viewed a break-up of the subcontinent with regret and sadness. Both feared religious extremism, Hindu or Muslim. Both believed in the peaceful settlement of boundary disputes. Both strove for liberty. Such precepts more widely held would be welcome today. In Parliament Square, Churchill will be fine with Gandhi.