This house believes Churchill is no hero

A reflection on the Union Debate

Churchill debate The Cambridge Union The Cambridge Union Society Winston Churchill

As a historian, and someone who's grown up in Britain, I'm pretty aware of Winston Churchill, as a man and as a trope. He's embedded in the British psyche, I mean he's on the five pound note for Christ's sake. So I was interested to see that in the place of a straightforward debate about decolonisation, the Union chose to do a debate on such a well-known figure instead.

Churchill is the ideal person to have this debate about. The glorification of what he did and the well-tread rhetoric of "just how much good he did for our country" has always made me uncomfortable. As Maya Goodfellow commented, it's all wrapped up in this "unwillingness to engage with our imperial past in a meaningful way."

Goodfellow is a freelance writer and was one of six speakers in the debate. With her arguing against Churchill was Salil Tripathi, a writer involved in human rights work. On the side of the opposition were Conservative MP Bim Afolami and historian Christopher Catherwood. Each side was also joined by a student speaker.

I sometimes find tedium in debate, I enjoyed it. It was interesting, if at times frustrating. Indeed when I asked Maya Goodfellow to sum up the debate in one word, she paused a while before saying "well, large parts of it were inaccurate so I'm going to go with that." A debate on something like Churchill is difficult because on some topics the sources are disputed.

For example, whereas the opposition highlighted Churchill as a zionist, the proposition picked up on a comment he allegedly made in 1937 where he supposedly called Jewish people "incorrigible aliens". As a zionist view does not necessarily exclude antisemitism – and as the source of the 1937 article is debated – it shows an example of a situation where the truth is hard to pin down. But this sort of issue doesn't prevent strong views on the question.

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One of the speakers, Bim Afolami, was captivating to listen to – even if I hardly agreed with anything he had said. His main argument was that despite having unsavoury views he could not be discounted as being a hero. In his opinion Churchill was a man of "utter faith" who showed great bravery. For Afolami it was not about Churchill's perfection or whether he was someone to emulate but about his core values and determination. As one member of the floor added – if you saved someone from drowning you would be a hero, whether or not beforehand you had made some abhorrent remarks.

But to me, and the proposition, this was all a bit of a null point. It is hard to celebrate the core values of a man who ultimately did not believe in freedom for all. In the debate, Churchill was criticised by Salil Tripathi for his lack of action, helping to exacerbate a famine in Bengal that led to the death of around three million people. Churchill even went as far as saying that it was the Indian people's own fault because they "breed like rabbits." Goodfellow noted that when talking about the colonisation of America and Australia he said that they were defeated by a "stronger" white race.

She then went on to look at the fact that the great focus on Churchill as an individual was unhelpful. It erases all those who fought on the ground under his orders. Yes, he may have been important as a leader of Britain in WW2 but he was far from the whole story. A narrative of Churchill as the number one hero discounts many, this including all the colonial forces that came from peoples that he himself shamed.

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If I'm not careful this article could quickly turn into a list of all that Churchill did and said that I don't consider to be heroic. Most of which is not often talked about. But a plethora of racial comments, harsh responses to strikers and those in Ireland, as well as some general ineptness in some of his military postings were points from the debate I could cite.

So, instead I'm prompted to consider why there are those who think of Churchill as a hero, and not even in the nuanced way of Thursday's opposition. It's due to a lack of imperial education and knowledge. Or as Goodfellow referred to it, "imperial amnesia and nostalgia."

In an interview after the debate when I talked to the writer about her opinions as to why this is the case, she noted that there's a "resistance to dealing with it because we'd have to reanalyse British history in a way that would have serious impact on the present." She referenced a YouGov poll where 59 per cent of participants said they thought the British Empire had been positive. And although polls must be taken with a pinch of salt it showed how many people were under educated on what the empire was and how negatively it had affected so many people.

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The glorification of Churchill is unhelpful and having debates such as this are important as the university goes ahead with its desire to decolonise the curriculum. Decolonisation is an important movement that does not seek to erase the history of Britain but needs to put in its context with the rest of the world. Goodfellow talked to me about how interconnected Britain is with the rest of the world and how even with a move for an independent island nation with Brexit we will never be separate as there's such an intertwined past.

Therefore, conversations like this need to keep happening. There is increasing substance in the discourse there is around decolonisation. When asked about it, Maya Goodfellow wanted to highlight that not all of what's being said is superficial but that she agreed with my worries by saying there was a "risk of it becoming a mere slogan."