Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Winston Churchill

Here's an article I wrote for the Toronto Star.


A freedom fighter, but not for all; Winston Churchill favoured restricting justice and liberty to white people: Author

Daniel Tseghay Special to the Star
1092 words
4 September 2010
The Toronto Star
Copyright (c) 2010 The Toronto Star


On the southwest corner of Nathan Phillips Square stands a statue of Winston Churchill, arms akimbo, his bulldog face in a defiant scowl.

At the base of the statue, a plaque quotes from one of his most famous speeches - the June 4, 1940, address to the House of Commons in which he called on England to defend its territory against Hitler when many in his party still supported negotiations. "Whatever the cost may be," he said, in his distinctive slur, "we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." And they never did.

When the skies of Europe's future seemed bleakest, it was Churchill who stood firm and fashioned the words that would galvanize a just resistance to one of the greatest existential threats.

Another plaque at the statue's base, however, makes a more contentious statement about Churchill: "His faith and leadership inspired free men to fight in every quarter of the globe for the triumph of Justice and Liberty."

Although he undeniably fought for the triumph of justice and liberty, it was not waged in every quarter of the globe, for he "wanted to restrict it quite heavily to white people," says Richard Toye, a professor at the University of Exeter and author of the new book Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made.

Born in 1874, at the height of the British Empire, Churchill unabashedly believed that Britain's duty was to civilize and preside over the affairs of the global south, particularly the peoples of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. It was a belief he shared with many in his generation; yet few had the opportunity to give voice to it at such high levels of public office.

He did as he believed. In the face of growing agitation for independence among the members of the British Empire's dominion, Churchill proved a stalwart defender of the empire. "We mean to hold our own," he said in 1942. "I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire."

The story of the two Churchills - the man who fought tyranny in the form of Hitler and the man who would withhold the freedom of many others - is finally being told in Churchill's Empire. It's a story that will come as a revelation to many of us, since it does not fit our image of him - "a skewed view of Churchill which is based on 1940," according to Toye.

The book details the ways in which he lent his considerable gifts for a phrase (he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953) to the project of disparaging various races. Upon being elected to parliament in 1900, he said "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph." In 1942, only five years before India would gain formal independence from Britain, he said, to Leo Amery, secretary of state for India: "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

As much as this may clash with Churchill's established public image, it is a long-recognized depiction in many places. "As far as people living in Kenya or Sri Lanka or India," notes Toye, "they will be much less surprised about this side of Churchill than Westerners will."

And the same may go for many people in Iran, according to Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Long before the Gulf oil spill, British Petroleum (BP), when it was called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, was the cause of great destruction and eventual animosity, and Churchill's role proved substantial.

Britain and its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had, during most of the first half of the 20th century, complete access to Iran's huge oil reserves and were unwilling to give an equitable share of the profits to their host. The resentment this caused led Iran's Majlis, or parliament, to elect as prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a reformist who took office in 1951 to nationalize and gain complete control of the country's oil.

As prime minister of Britain at the time, Churchill recognized what a threat this would be to their access to oil, or to what he once described as their "prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams." And he did not take it in stride. "The idea that leaders of poor countries would stand up and claim control of their own resources was something Churchill could never grasp or sympathize with," says Kinzer. "The mere fact that some valuable resource was sitting under the soil of another country instead of British soil did not mean that Britain shouldn't have it."

And so Churchill pushed to have Mossadegh deposed. After failing to convince Harry Truman, the president of the United States, to help overthrow the leader, he found success with Dwight Eisenhower after he took office in 1953. The coup took place that year and the Anglo-American forces subsequently installed the Shah, who ruled with an increasing repression "that produced the uprising of the late-'70s, the Islamic Revolution," says Kinzer. "Had we allowed politics in Iran to unfold on its own, democracy might well have survived there and it's hard to imagine how different the Middle East might be had that been the case."

Churchill's efforts to protect "British interests around the world regardless of the costs" certainly "caused horrific suffering to huge numbers of peoples over generations," says Kinzer. Paradoxically, however, he might ultimately have played a role in undoing the empire he held so dear.

"The important things he said about freedom were sufficiently powerful that they could take root elsewhere," says Toye, "and that was why a considerable number of people felt able to be critical of his racial attitudes but also feel affection towards him and respect for him when he retired and after his death."

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