Thursday, September 2, 2010

Winston Churchill and the lure of Empire

As a student of history at high school and University I was fascinated by the swirling tide of historical events (and thankfully still am). History was the first subject at school that engaged a passion for learning and inquiry and my success in history enabled me to get enough marks to be accepted to University. My undergraduate studies included plenty of units on British, European and Australian history.
The figure of Winston Churchill loomed large and I remember reading everything I could in the 70's and 80's about Churchill. The more I read about Churchill the more difficult it became to reconcile the contradictory nature of his achievements, particularly for us in Australia. Who could forget his role in the debacle at Gallipoli?. So many failures, so much hubris and yet such success at a time of great crises. And he was such a remarkable writer and chronicler of history (from the victor's perspective that is).

So I was interested to read Johann Hari's piece, The Two Churchills, in which he reviews the new book  Churchill's Empire by British historian Richard Toye in which Toye documents the contradictory aspects of Churchill's career, particularly his career devoted to fighting to save the British Empire. Hoye's books shows how Churchill's fight to save the British Empire, was paradoxically, instrumental in its collapse.

Here is the final paragraph of Johann Hari's insightful and beautifully written review of Toye's book:
"This is the great, enduring paradox of Churchill’s life. In leading the charge against Nazism, he produced some of the richest prose poetry in defense of freedom and democracy ever written. It was a check he didn’t want black or Asian people to cash, but as the Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah wrote, “all the fair brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.” Churchill lived to see democrats across Britain’s imperial conquests use his own hope-songs of freedom against him.

In the end, the words of the great and glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the world’s people of color. Toye teases out these ambiguities beautifully. The fact that we now live at a time where a free and independent India is an emerging superpower in the process of eclipsing Britain, and a grandson of the Kikuyu “savages” is the most powerful man in the world, is a repudiation of Churchill at his ugliest — and a sweet, unsought victory for Churchill at his best.

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