Row erupts over claim Churchill was a villain

The bulldog: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something,” Churchill once said.

Can you be a hero and a villain at the same time? Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is under fire for branding Winston Churchill — once voted the “greatest Briton” — a villain.

“By your death we have been impoverished,” wrote an ex-serviceman in a card on the day of Winston Churchill’s funeral. “But […] your name will ever be enshrined in the hearts of all who value Peace, Freedom and Honour.”

In the half century since, the prime minister’s standing in Britain has only grown. In 2002, he was voted the “greatest Briton” in a BBC poll, beating Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. His statue stands in Parliament Square. His face looks out from £5 notes.

But not everyone is a fan. This week the UK’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, was asked to give a one-word answer on whether Churchill was a hero or villain.

“Tonypandy — villain,” McDonnell said.

His words sparked outrage in the British press. “It’s a very foolish and stupid thing to say,” Churchill’s grandson, MP Nicholas Soames, told The Telegraph.

McDonnell was referring to riots involving striking miners and the police in 1910, which took place in Tonypandy, South Wales. Churchill was home secretary at the time, and — according to his critics — sent in the army to break up the fighting. One miner was killed, and around 580 people were injured, including 80 police officers.

The current MP for the area agreed with McDonnell’s comments. “The Rhondda was the only seat where Churchill was never welcome,” he wrote on Twitter.

Other criticisms have been made of Churchill in recent years, particularly his defence of colonialism. He was passionately opposed to Indian independence, even as other politicians of his time were ready to give India home rule.

In 1937, he said he did not think any “great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia” because a “stronger race […] has come in and taken their place.”

But do these views take away from his achievements? Not for biographer Andrew Roberts. “When it came to all three mortal threats to Western civilisation, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgement stood far above” others, he wrote last year.

Never surrender

So is he a hero or a villain? Perhaps this is the wrong question entirely. As Daniel Finkelstein wrote in The Times this week: “To insist that for Churchill to be a great man he must never have thought or done anything bad is to insist that the world is divided into good and bad people and you can only be one or the other.”

Does modern society place too much emphasis on picking sides in these kinds of nuanced debates? Or is the idea that you can be both a racist and a hero simply a cop-out? In short — is it better to hold firm in your opinions, as Churchill himself so often did, or to reach towards a middle ground?

You Decide

  1. Was Winston Churchill the “greatest Briton” in history? If not, who was and why?
  2. Do we always need to pick a side?


  1. If you could ask Winston Churchill one question today, what would it be? Write down your question and share with the class.
  2. Make a timeline of Winston Churchill’s life — including what you consider his best and worst moments.

Some People Say...

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
John McDonnell called Churchill a villain at an event by the news website Politico on Wednesday night. Yesterday he refused to take his comments back, although he said they had been “a little bit tongue in cheek”, as the audience was “getting a bit bored.” Meanwhile, one Conservative MP demanded an emergency debate on Churchill in Parliament.
What do we not know?
Whether that debate will take place, although it is unlikely. (Britain now has just 42 days left until it is scheduled to leave the European Union, and Parliament is yet to approve a withdrawal plan.) We also do not know whether the criticisms being made against Churchill will eventually topple his reputation amongst the general public, which is still overwhelmingly positive.

Word Watch

Churchill was given a rare state funeral in January 1965 after he died of a stroke aged 90.
Shadow chancellor
The UK’s chancellor of the exchequer is in charge of Britain’s finances. The shadow chancellor is the member of the opposition party (in this case Labour) who scrutinises that role.
Some say that Churchill’s role in the riots was inflated by his opponents, and that he first resisted using force.
The valley in South Wales which is home to the town of Tonypandy.
Conquering and ruling other countries. Churchill was first elected as an MP during the reign of Queen Victoria, who had overseen the vast expansion of Britain’s empire abroad.
Prussian militarists
Prussia was a European state and a prominent part of the German Empire before the First World War. It was known for its highly militarised society.
Soviet Communism
The Soviet Union dominated Russia and much of Eastern Europe between 1922 to 1991. Although it was allies with Britain in the Second World War, they were enemies during the Cold War. Millions of people were murdered under Soviet rule.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.