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.

In 2002, Winston Churchill was voted the “greatest Briton” in a BBC poll. His statue stands in Parliament Square. His face looks out from £5 notes.

However, not everyone is a fan of the Second World War prime minister. 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.

He was referring to riots which took place in Tonypandy, South Wales, in 1910. Churchill was home secretary at the time. He sent in the army to break up the fighting between striking miners and the police. One person was killed, and around 580 were injured.

McDonnell’s words sparked outrage. “It’s a very foolish and stupid thing to say,” Churchill’s grandson told The Telegraph.

However, other criticisms have been made of Churchill in recent years. He was a passionate defender of colonialism, even as other politicians of his time were ready to dismantle Britain’s empire.

In 1937, he said he did not think any “great wrong” had been done to Native Americans or Australians 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. Last year he argued that when it came to “mortal threats” like the Nazis, “Churchill’s judgement stood far above” others.

Never surrender

So is he a hero or a villain? Perhaps this is the wrong question. As Daniel Finkelstein wrote in The Times this week, it is wrong to “insist that the world is divided into good and bad people and you can only be one or the other.”

But is the idea that you can be both a racist and a hero simply a cop-out? Is it better to hold firm in your opinions, as Churchill himself often did, or to try to find a middle ground?

You Decide

  1. Was Winston Churchill the “greatest Briton” in history? If not, who was and why?


  1. If you could ask Winston Churchill one question today, what would it be? Write down your question and share with the class.

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”.
What do we not know?
Whether the criticisms being made against Churchill will ever change his positive reputation amongst the general public.

Word Watch

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.
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.
The Nazi Party ruled Germany between 1933 and 1945, led by Adolf Hitler. It was responsible for the death of millions of Jewish people in the Holocaust.

PDF Download

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