Churchill in focus

A life of contradictions on race and national superiority mirrors shifting views on empire

By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2010

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He was born in the British Empire, employed his energies and power to preserving it, and in his last years witnessed its rapid decline. But while Britain may have acquired its vast collection of territories in a fit of inattention, the nation’s Empire did not suffer from inattention during the life of perhaps its greatest booster and most powerful champion, Winston Churchill.

Indeed, it is not too much to say that the story of Churchill’s life is the story of his view, vision, and valiant defense of the British Empire — the duties of empire and the maintenance of empire, the idea of empire and the ideals of empire. So it is surprising that, until Richard Toye took on the task, little has been written in book form about Churchill and the British Empire.

Churchill believed in the natural and national superiority of the British, ironic in so visceral an opponent of the ethos of national superiority espoused by the Nazis. He was skeptical of the abilities of blacks, problematic in an advocate of broad freedoms. An ardent nationalist, he was above all a sentimentalist — about the past, about the poetry of his youth, about the valor and character of his nation’s past. He sought to preserve or restore them all, and in placing himself squarely in that tradition, he was the last troubadour of Empire.

Toye’s “Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made’’ is not the only notable Churchill book of the season. In one of the other leading volumes of this ever-growing genre, “Churchill’s War,’’ Max Hastings makes this unavoidable point in the penultimate page of his book: “Churchill’s view of the British Empire and its peoples was unenlightened by comparison with that of America’s president [Franklin Roosevelt], or even by the standards of his time.’’

But what is not generally or popularly recognized — but rectified by Toye — is that there were many Churchillian views on empire. Indeed, he started as a Little Englander and ended up worrying more about Britain’s subject peoples than about the Empire itself. His life spanned the high and low points of that empire but, Toye argues, as “the public journalist’’ of the Empire and then as the defender of the Empire “he did not merely represent the Empire to the British people but affected the way it was seen throughout the world.’’

As a young man he was steeped in the notion that progress and empire were two sides of the same British coin. But is it fair to say that Churchill, who in 1929 said Britain had fought “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples,’’ was stuck in time and viewpoint, as a World War II field marshal and post-war viceroy of India suggested when he said that Churchill “has still at heart his cavalry subaltern’s idea of India; just as his military tactics are inclined to date from the Boer War?’’

He knew, after all, the microeconomic underside of imperialism. “The inevitable gap between conquest and dominion becomes filled with the figures of the greedy trader, the inopportune missionary, the ambitious soldier, and the lying speculator, who disquiet the minds of the conquered and excite the sordid appetites of the conquerors,’’ he wrote in 1899. Later he came to believe, as Toye says, that the nonwhite races “had the potential to advance in the future and deserved guidance, in the form of British rule, towards that end.’’

Toye argues convincingly that Churchill’s views on empire were not a fixed thing — and were not designed simply to enhance Britain’s role in the world. In 1945 Churchill recalled the Boer War, saying, “It was great fun galloping about.’’ But, just as important, Churchill came to despise the Boers in large measure because of their treatment of native blacks. “The only thing one can say for it,’’ Churchill said in reference to the British Empire in 1909, “is that it is justified if it is undertaken in an altruistic spirit for the good of the subject races.’’

That said, the Empire had been his political launching pad. Later it would be his North Star. There were constants, to be sure — India, for example. But Churchill had as many views as the Empire had subject peoples. For a time Churchill thought the threat to Empire (he summarized that threat as “imperial ruin and national decay’’) came from social instability and inequality at home. Later he saw dark conspiracies between Leninism, Sinn Fein, and Indian and Egyptian nationalists. For a time he identified a connection between altruism and imperialism. He spoke increasingly of the English-speaking peoples, hoping to enlist Americans into preserving the Empire.

Churchill did, to be sure, summon the Empire to the Allied side in World War II; as he became prime minister he spoke of a “solemn hour for the life of our country, of our Empire.’’ But the cause for which World War II was fought — human freedom — inevitably raised questions about those who comprised the Empire and who pointedly and poignantly did not enjoy freedom.

Churchill believed, as he put it in 1940, that “[a]lone among the nations of the world we have found the means to combine Empire and liberty.’’ But he, and his countrymen, could not find the means to support empire, even with liberty. The Empire faded as Churchill’s life did. But there was triumph after all, perhaps even a bit of poetry. The glory of them both — Empire and Churchill — survives them both.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at

CHURCHILL’S EMPIRE: The World That Made Him and the World He Made
By Richard Toye
Henry Holt, 423 pp., illustrated, $32