Churchill, Cambridge and the battle for history

19 June 2021

4:09 PM

19 June 2021

4:09 PM

Is the tide in the so-called culture wars beginning to turn? Recent evidence suggests that at least a mainstream effort to push back against activism by a vocal minority is working. Oriel College, Oxford is not going to remove its Rhodes statue. On Thursday, Churchill College, Cambridge announced the disbanding of its ‘Churchill, Race and Empire Working Group’, which was established in the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests last year. The news holds particular resonance for us as the authors of a Policy Exchange paper which was published after an event at the college on 11 February this year.

The event, entitled ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’, took the form of a panel discussion but, as our paper documented, it was no ordinary event. Instead of featuring qualified historians with varied points of view, it brought together four individuals known less for their expertise on Churchill than for their anti-Churchill sentiment. These were Professor Priyamvada Gopal (Churchill College, Cambridge), who chaired the event; Professor Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City University), who recently claimed that the Queen is the ‘world’s number one symbol of white supremacy’; Dr Madhusree Mukerjee, a scientist who published in 2010 a book alleging that Churchill precipitated the Bengal Famine through policies influenced by his hatred of Indians; and Dr Onyeka Nubia (Nottingham University).

Anyone who has watched ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ online will have realised that the overall aim of the panellists was to discredit Churchill and to argue that he had achieved very little in his lifetime. According to the panellists, the Allies would have won without Britain; and in any case Britain’s victory did not hinge on Churchill. After all, as Professor Andrews pointed out, was Churchill out there fighting on the battlefield? Furthermore, it was claimed that the victory over the Nazis was not really that significant after all, because ‘all we really did was we shifted from an old version of white supremacy to a new version of white supremacy’.

The sheer inaccuracy of some of the claims made at the event, both about Churchill and about several major historical events, was staggering. Among these claims were that the British Empire was ‘far worse than the Nazis’; and that the Holocaust was not an outlier in recent history.

Two weeks after the event took place, we wrote a paper for Policy Exchange that highlighted the many historical inaccuracies in the claims that had been made, drawing on research and the insights of a number of respected historians. Sir Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, wrote a foreword in which he lamented the lack of academic rigour and the one-sidedness of the event, writing that it constituted ‘a new low in the current vogue for the denigration in general of British history and of Sir Winston Churchill’s memory in particular’.

In a Twitter thread that preceded the publication of the official statement from Churchill College, Professor Gopal asserted that the College — which she alleged has ‘a serious institutional problem when it comes to race, & the hagiography & mythologies around its founding figure’ — had, in disbanding the group, given in to ‘pressure’ from ‘Policy Exchange & some members of the Churchill family’. By pressure, what we assume she means is that we scrutinised some of the claims made at the event using standard historical techniques. The claims fell apart.

It is possible to pay tribute to the College’s ‘founding figure’, as Gopal terms Churchill, and his contribution to our national story without mythologising him. Good historians are capable of evaluating an individual critically without seeking to destroy his entire character and write off everything he achieved during his life. Our paper did not argue that critics of Churchill should be silenced: opinions from all sides should be aired and debated. Yet presenting a heavily biased and, more pertinently, patently inaccurate depiction of a renowned historical figure leaves prestigious institutions like Churchill College open to ridicule.

Small-c conservatives often feel on the back foot in the culture wars. Yet Churchill College’s decision — and it is not entirely clear, at this point, who made it — shows that defeat at the hands of activists is not inevitable. Good, accurate history can triumph over ahistorical claims. As Churchill himself famously said, truth is ‘incontrovertible’. Untruths should always be challenged.

Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes are the co-authors of the recent Policy Exchange paper ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill: A Review’.

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