Winston Churchill is a complicated figure. He’s also a cherished one for the British, and for white dads across the English speaking world. He’s seen completely differently by the Indians, millions of whom starved to death on his watch, and there are very few others in the broader British empire that would have had much good to say about him. These historical arguments are important, and I don’t really have all that much interest in them one way or the other. But Winston Churchill is not just a historical figure. He’s a symbol. That glorious year and a half, between Churchill’s coming to power, and successfully convincing the US to save Britain, are worth emulating and celebrating. But for US politicians, the vital belligerence that made Churchill so valuable for that destroyed world, is something that should constantly be applied to our infinitely safer, happier world. That’s nuts. Which is why I made today’s video.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. I am a big fan of Winston Churchill. I think his behavior during World War II was heroic. Churchill was right about Hitler long before everyone else, and he played a key role in bringing the Nazis down. But I have a problem with the way that US politicians idolize the guy. Churchill is not an example to follow. He got one crisis absolutely right, but if you look at his entire career, and what it meant for his country, one simple fact is unavoidable. Winston Churchill was a loser.
Winston Churchill was born to run the British Empire. He revelled in the fact that he was descended from one of the greatest British heroes of the 1700s. As a moneyed aristocrat he didn’t have much trouble starting his parliamentary career in 1900 at the age of 25. For the next 55 years, Churchill played a leading role in the decline and fall of the British Empire.
This was not what Churchill intended. If you review his positions and many, many comments and policies that are today considered racist or even genocidal, you’ll realize that he was a passionate believer in the British Empire. He failed completely in his efforts to keep the empire together, and played a number of key roles in its destruction. A famous part of the Churchill myth is the fact that he was booted out of power in the run-up to World War II, disrespected by British governments and by his own Conservative party. He was a Lion Alone. What’s left out is how richly deserved this isolation was.
Before finally getting the crisis with Adolf Hitler absolutely right, he got almost everything else absolutely wrong. He pushed the series of dumb wars that bankrupted the British Empire and brought about its end. His one job prior to government was as a soldier and propagandist for Britain’s disastrously expensive wars in Sudan and South Africa. As first lord of the Admiralty he was an enthusiastic participant in the arms race that helped bring about the First World War. Churchill lost his job running the British Navy after pushing the Gallipoli campaign early on in that war. It was a horrifically costly failure that helped form a national identity for Australia and New Zealand that was distinct from the British one. Again, not what he had in mind. Churchill crept back into government in the 1920s when his economic management was bad enough to bring the Great Depression to Britain a number of years earlier than elsewhere. This, combined with views on India that were seen as racist even back then kept him out of government in the 1930s.
Had Britain adopted Churchill’s extreme anti-independence policy towards India, World War II might have gone very differently in Asia. Instead, with the promise of self-government, most Indians helped fight off the Japanese. So it’s probably a very good thing that Churchill was a Lion Alone in the 1930s. Churchill was a fighter. Finally, in 1940, a fighter was exactly what Britain needed. The world should always be grateful that he was there in that dark time. But I think that US politicians should pay a little more attention to the rest of Churchill’s career. A fighter is not what was needed while Britain was on top. In fact it wa[s the belligerence of Churchill and many leaders like him that destroyed the British Empire.
We need to look at the full arc of Churchill’s career. Throughout that career, he had a goal, the preservation and expansion of the British empire. In 1900, at the start of Churchill’s career, Britain was the most powerful country in the world, and if it had played its cards right, there was no reason it couldn’t have continued. In 1956 with the Suez Crisis, Winston Churchill’s chosen successor made it painfully clear that the British Empire was no longer capable of independent action. On his own terms, Winston Churchill was a spectacular loser.
This video may seem unfair. Winston Churchill was a great hero. But his career, and the fall of the British Empire aren’t just some distant historical events we can put up on a bookshelf and admire. The United States today faces the same sorts of decisions, and the same sorts of perils that the world-leading British Empire faced 150 years ago. We really shouldn’t be reaching for Churchill’s answers to these questions. Should the United States ever have to face a Hitler again, Winston Churchill is a great example to follow. But for absolutely anything else, Churchill’s example should be avoided like the plague.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe and If you want to know more about these questions, I suggest you check out my new book, Avoiding the British Empire, available now on the Amazon Kindle and in paperback form. And come back next time when we’ll ask whether the British were nicer Imperialists than the French were.