Priyamvada Gopal in Prospect:
On the back cover of Tariq Ali’s new book on Winston Churchill, a less flattering and so less familiar portrait of the wartime icon comes into view. Here, the man voted the Greatest Briton ever by over a million of his compatriots in 2002 fulminates against everything from women’s suffrage and liberal causes to “international Jews,” “uncivilised tribes” and “people with slit eyes and pigtails.” Ali also alludes to Churchill’s approval of the Conservative slogan “Keep England White”—at the same time MPs like Fenner Brockway were bringing the Race Discrimination Bill to parliament—and includes an extract from the cringeworthy praise he heaped on Mussolini in 1927. Such pronouncements will not be new to anyone familiar with the subject, but to invoke them in rarefied British company is usually to elicit the dismissive claim that they are not representative of Churchill or that they were simply “of their time.” “Nobody’s perfect” goes the more casual response, as if a view of the world in which Anglo-Saxons were “a higher grade race” entitled to rule the rest was simply a charming upper-class foible.
Nobody’s perfect, indeed, but not everyone had the power to make such a worldview consequential for the lives of millions of people across the globe, often lethally so. At the heart of Ali’s account is this historical reality, one that is evaded in Britain today in favour of a burnished and bullish mythology in which both Churchill and his beloved British Empire emerge with untarnished courage and virtue.