Airbrushing Churchill or Historical Revisionism and the British Right

I always laugh when I see Dan Hannan write about the so-called “Anglosphere”. As with Europe and laissez-faire capitalism, the Anglosphere is another one of his obsessions. Sunday, he wrote that “Winston Churchill [was] the father of the Anglosphere” (my brackets).   What really bugs me is the way people on the right continue to fawn over the legend of a man who sent troops into Tonypandy to kill miners and dispatched ships and troops to Liverpool during the General Transport Strike of 1911. But neither am I interested in an imagined union of English-speaking nations. It is largely because of English-speaking nations – particularly the UK and US – that the world is such a mess.

Hannan tells us that,

In many conservative circles, particularly in the United States, Winston Churchill is beyond criticism. Mention his errors – the Gallipoli debacle, the return to gold at the pre-1914 rate, the contracting out of domestic policy to the Left after 1940, the second premiership – and you provoke a Bateman cartoon scene.

No mention here of Churchill’s evident racism or his admiration of Mussolini. Are you surprised? No, neither am I. The fact that Churchill openly expressed an admiration for fascism seems to be ignored. It is an inconvenient truth. It flies in the face of the airbrushed narrative of a man who was a bully, a racist and a thug.

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.

That was Churchill in 1920. He was justifying the use of poison gas – the same poison gas that was used against British troops during World War I – as a means to subdue what he called the “uncivilized tribes” of Mesopotamia.  Of course this is to assume that the very use of the gas was a mark of Britain’s superior civilization. There is nothing “civilized” about using weapons that are intended to cause great pain and suffering. Yet, in the run-up to the Iraq invasion we were told by our media that Saddam Hussein had gassed the Kurds of Halabja without the merest trace of irony. Indeed the West didn’t bat an eyelid when the Iraqi Army used poison gas against Iranian troops in the long and bitter Iran-Iraq War.

Hannan asks,

What makes the Anglosphere special?

Er, it’s smugness and  distorted sense of superiority?

The Anglosphere peoples believed, because their institutions had taught them to believe, that individual liberty, limited government and the rule of law were worth preserving – with force of arms if necessary.

This is starting to read like a fairy story now. First, Hannan assumes that the “Anglosphere” is a collection of English-speaking nations that works synchronously and harmoniously. Second, he suggests that every single inhabitant of these countries supports laissez-faire capitalism and the use of force to ‘open’ markets.

Churchill played a brave role in all three great twentieth century conflicts, fighting in the first, leading the democracies to victory in the second and defining the third.

Here we have Churchill the myth transformed into nature. He is at once presented as a man who singlehandedly fought two world wars and “defined”, as Hannan puts it, the Cold War. All because he said this in a small college in a small town in Missouri,

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.

This statement cemented Churchill’s reputation as a Cold Warrior and it also gave the West a neologism. But,

Churchill’s chief preoccupation was not with the Soviet menace, but with the unity of the English-speaking peoples

What? Like a sort of Anglophone Anschluss?

For every book that presents Churchill as a saint, there is one that shines a light into the dark corners of his real life. The book Winston Churchill – Unrepentant Racist does just that.

“Someone once asked Churchill if he had seen the film Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge. Winston replied that he didn’t like blackamoors and had walked out early in the proceedings.”

When he was told that there was a very high mortality among Negroes from measels he growled ‘Well there are plenty left. They’ve a high rate of production’.

Churchill  was so annoyed by Harold MacMillan’s “Wind of Change” speech that he said,

Harold should not have gone to Africa encouraging the black men.

I could list more examples. Churchill was known to despise American Indians, Australian Aborigines, Bengalis, Punjabis, if they didn’t have white skin, he didn’t like them.

So why do people like Dan Hannan gloss over Churchill’s racism? Good question. I think it is worth noting that Hannan is an open admirer of Enoch Powell, who has been given a similar makeover by the Right. The excuse is that Powell was a free-marketeer and free-marketeers always find some way to cover for their racism. Indeed, a little-mentioned feature of classical liberalism is racism and social Darwinism.

You can watch a video of The Lyin’ King heaping praise on Powell and pouring scorn on the NHS.

Hannan’s choice of heroes is interesting: there’s Churchill, Powell and Ron Paul, all of whom had or have questionable attitudes to difference. He also supports the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an organization that excuses the Jim Crow south and perpetuates the myth that the US Civil War was a “tariff war”.  Now he and his supporters would try to tell you that it is possible to elide or even detach their social views from their respective (yet, similar) economic positions.  But that would be disingenuous. Years ago, I was having a discussion about the Italian Futurists and I asked if it was possible to separate their love of war, misogyny and fascist tendencies from their art. The answer that came back was an emphatic “no”.

The problem with the likes of Hannan and those who subscribe to his brand of capitalism is they deny the racism of those they admire; they excuse it by employing the nebulous discourse of ‘free market economics’ as  means to deflect attention from the less savoury aspects of their chosen hero. Ron Paul’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, for example, was excused with a mere “it interfered with the right of the vendor to sell to whom he/she likes”. This flies in the face of good business practice but don’t tell them that. They can’t stand the truth. They’re fond of talking about “liberty” but on closer inspection, we discover that their idea of “liberty” only extends to the privileged and those with lighter skin tones and fat wallets.

Hannan isn’t the only one. Simon Heffer penned this apology in 2008 in which he claims that the charge of racism against Powell is a “big lie”. Heffer, Hannan and the rest of them are in denial. But then when have any of these people told us the truth about anything?

I found this blog that Hannan had written in 2007 in response to an article that had appeared in the Daily Mirror. It is worth remembering that those who lionize racists often find some way to excuse them or deny their racism even when it is blatantly obvious.

For what it’s worth, I think Enoch Powell was wrong on immigration. The civil unrest that he forecast, and that many feared in 1968, didn’t materialise. Britain assimilated a large population with an ease that few countries have matched. Being an immigrant myself, I have particular cause to be grateful for Britain’s understated cosmopolitanism.

Notice how Hannan says “being an immigrant myself”. Even so, Hannan is white and those immigrants to whom Powell was referring were black or brown-skinned. Powell knew what he was doing when he used Virgil’s “Rivers of Blood” analogy.  Despite his excuses, the Press Complaint Commission supported the Daily Mirror’s position on this blog in which Hannan refers to Barack Obama as having an “exotic” background; a form of Orientalist shorthand for someone who isn’t white.

He had not sought to justify attacks on Obama, he said, and while he did count Powell as a political hero, the article misleadingly implied that he shared his views on immigration.

The Mirror said that some people, such as Labour MP Parmjit Dhanda, who was quoted in the article, had taken offence at Hannan’s choice of words.

The paper said it was entitled to comment on the Hannan’s public pronouncements and suggested he submit a letter for publication to could clarify his position.

The PCC rejected the complaint, arguing that newspapers were entitled under the code to be partisan.

“On this occasion, the commission was satisfied, given the delicate subject matter, and the fact that the remarks were open to some interpretation, that the newspaper’s reporting in this instance was well within the range of political partisanship permitted by the code of practice,” the PCC said in its ruling.

It conceded that the reference to Powell was “arguably slightly misleading”, as the context of Hannan’s regard for Powell was unclear.

Let’s return to the Anglosphere. This book states that the Anglosphere is a racialized construct. That is to say, it is constructed around the notion that “Anglo” equals “white”.  I would agree.

Now the Right would try and claim that those on Left have attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of Joseph Stalin or some other dictator that claimed to be ‘Left’. I would ask them to produce evidence to support such claims. But I could be waiting a long, long time. The Right doesn’t much care for evidence or anything like it. Have a look at the research conducted by IDS’s Centre for Social Justice or the work of Policy Exchange if you don’t believe me.

UPDATE: 16/6/12 @ 0910

Ed West chips in with this blog in which he claims “Enoch was right! He warned ‘us’ about Europe”! Here’s a snippet.

To a later generation, Powell became the bogeyman in a multicultural paradise, a sinister Victorian throwback whose inflammatory words had terrorised defenceless immigrants. Such is the notoriety and “brand toxicity” that in 2007 a Conservative candidate was forced to resign after suggesting that Powell’s immigration warnings were correct.

Naturally, you will find the usual chorus of right-wing commenters expressing their love, admiration and approval. This comment from “torieblue” sums it up but also gets it so badly wrong.

Commenter's avatar
last year when the august riots were raging you could almost hear millions of whispers ”old Enoch was right ” they were all saying it.

And yet, 14 years after his death, Powell should now be recognised as the prophet of an altogether different post-war experiment – the European project. As Jean Monnet’s dream turns to tragedy for millions, Powell’s assertion that “Europe can never be a democracy because there is no European demos” has proved completely true.

“torieblue” still labours under the assumption that last August’s riots were about ‘race’.  Nothing to do with government attacks on the working class, youths, the disabled or the poor.

UPDATE 20/6/12 @ 0853

Braindead Brendan O’Neill chips in with this apology for Enoch Powell. Is there no depth to which people like him will stoop? Is this what really passes for ‘free speech’?

What was the key prejudice in Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech, which everyone is talking about again following Powell’s 100th birthday? It wasn’t actually hatred of immigrants, whom Powell believed to be ambitious, ferociously so. Rather it was fear of native Britons. It was fear of what white Brits, or what Powell referred to as the “ordinary working man”, might do if more and more foreigners turned up in their towns.

Absolutely barking. But it gets worse.

Even Powell’s most notorious line – “like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood” – was a prediction not of immigrant behaviour but of native British violence against immigrants. Powell said native Brits, “for reasons which they could not comprehend” (presumably because they were a bit dim), were feeling dangerously like “strangers in their own country”.

He concludes with this,

Today’s anti-Powellites are obsessed with the same “preventable evil” that Powell was obsessed with: the evil of inter-ethnic conflict stoked by “the sense of alarm and resentment [that] lies not with the immigrant population but with those among whom they have come”. Anti-racists’ predictions of “violence on the streets”, of thuggish antics among tabloid readers, of upsurges in hatred and bloodshed following Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time are only an updated version of Powell’s blather about “rivers of blood”. For all their anti-Powell posturing, they cleave to the very same idea promoted by that most notorious politician: namely that ordinary working communities, being old-fashioned and inward-looking, might be coaxed into violence by immigration/criticism of immigration.

This is, effectively, a re-writing of history as well as a makeover of Powell. O’Neill rails against “the left” and “anti-racists”. He would deny that he is racist but he’s quite happy to attack anti-racists. He tells us that he is on the “left” but then attacks the left for the benefit of his readers. Does that make sense? No. That’s because O’Neill’s obsession with an idea of free speech has driven him to say anything he thinks is controversial. The problem with this kind of attitude is that the speaker, in this case O’Neill, exposes their deepest-held prejudices. This is not, as Foucault might have called it, “fearless speech”, because O’Neill holds power as a ‘journalist’ and opinion-former for a Tory-leaning newspaper. Those with power cannot speak fearlessly. In medieval times, it was the jester/fool who  spoke fearlessly not the king.



Filed under History & Memory, Media, racism, Tory press

3 responses to “Airbrushing Churchill or Historical Revisionism and the British Right

  1. representingthemambo

    An excellent corrective to the Churchill myth……

  2. representingthemambo

    Reblogged this on Representing the Mambo and commented:
    An excellent corrective to the Churchill myth……

  3. Pingback: Enoch was right! | Guy Debord's Cat

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