Only a handful of photos survive from my first trip to London in 1991, and one of them is of me wearing baggy jeans in front of a towering statue of Sir Winston Churchill.
To a 21-year-old Aussie girl raised on a healthy diet of British-dominated world news and ’70s comedy TV shows, Churchill was as British as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.
I remember taking photos on a characteristically grey London day, thinking Churchill looked so familiar that he might at any time begin thundering one of the speeches that spurred the Allies to victory in World War II. Yet from behind, the iconic Ivor Roberts-Jones sculpture looked more mountain than man – broody, dark, foreboding almost.
Ironically, it was during research for my Churchill Fellowship 25 years later – looking into the life of WWI digger and pioneer aviator Ross Smith – that I began to realise Churchill’s political career didn’t start and end with defeating Hitler, and that his reputation wasn’t as solid as the great bronze statue outside Westminster Palace.
As First Lord of the Admiralty, his disastrous leadership of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 led to 140,000 Allied casualties (including 8100 Australian deaths) and zero gain on the Gallipoli Peninsula in nine horrendous months. Churchill was demoted after the campaign and resigned from parliament to serve on the Western Front.
In parts of Wales he’s never been forgiven for despatching armed troops against striking miners in the early years of his career. His contempt for Mahatma Gandhi and his pacifist resistance movement in India was so at odds with many colleagues that it threatened to end his career before Hitler even came on the scene. Perhaps the most damning charge (although heavily contested) is that during WWII, Churchill ignored a famine in British-governed Indian Bengal in which millions died.
All of which gives pause for thought when you consider Churchill is famous for often quipping that history should be left in the past – and he planned to be one of the historians.
For centuries, the world’s most powerful institutions and the (mostly) white men who ran them were able to maintain their dominance and assert their influence by telling history how they wanted it to be told.
If universal education and independent media helped to dent that power in the 20th century, the internet and social media have blown it apart in the 21st. And just as global institutions from churches to banks are finally being forced to confront past injustices, so too has the historical record of men who ruled the world been brought into question.
It’s been a particularly confronting call to account, too. Suddenly it’s not just scholars and biographers silently contemplating historical documents and cabinet papers in hushed libraries. No – today’s political revisionism is playing out on noisy streets in the shadows of mobbed monuments, and beamed into our homes via the internet and a frenetic, emotive 24-hour news cycle.
It’s loud. It’s visceral. And everyone’s got an opinion.
In America more than 130 statues and monuments memorialising pro-slavery Confederate leaders and institutions have been defaced and torn down in a program of reckoning sparked in 2015 when a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina.
In Australia, as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement swept the world after American George Floyd died at the hands of police in 2020, protesters took aim at Captain Cook’s statue in Sydney.
And in the UK city of Bristol, a statue of 17th century merchant, politician and philanthropist Edward Colston was toppled by BLM protesters because the fortune with which he endowed schools and hospitals was amassed by trading in African slaves.
Churchill’s legacy was not immune. In an act that shocked the world, BLM protesters vandalised his iconic statue in Parliament Square, duct-taping a Black Lives Matter sign around his trademark trench coat before painting a line through “CHURCHILL” and scrawling “was a racist”.
It was an OMG moment, a “How dare they?” moment, made all the more affronting because the condemnation of these young, angry protesters seemed so personal. This wasn’t Churchill’s policies being attacked. It was about the man’s character – a man so deeply respected that he was voted in a 2002 BBC poll as the greatest Briton in history.
The worst bit? If you consider what Churchill said in complete isolation to his actions, the protesters have a point. Churchill’s 65 years of political discourse and his prolific writing of 20-odd million words may have helped to inspire the free world to victory in WWII and later won him a Nobel Prize for Literature, but they now condemn him to controversy and sometimes contempt as language changes and society progresses.
His hierarchical views on race, for instance. They were widely held among contemporaries raised at the height of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but today they’re abhorrent: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
His views were similarly of their time on the topic of women’s suffrage, writing in 1897 that allowing women to vote was “contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states”. Although his stance did change over time, he opposed universal suffrage in 1912 on the grounds that “we have enough ignorant voters and don’t want any more”.
As Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames says, his grandfather was “a child of the Edwardian age and spoke the language of [it]”.
Historical context or not, words matter. But surely actions speak loudly, too?
For all his stated belief in white male superiority, Churchill was one of few willing to stand up against a dictator (at a time when others were advocating appeasement) to fight “racial persecution, religious intolerance, deprivation of free speech, the conception of the citizen as a mere soulless fraction of the State”.
In fact, from early on in politics he was a passionate advocate for the rights of the individual, and in the wake of WWII he was a chief proponent of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In Boris Johnson’s biography The Churchill Factor, the Churchill devotee and British Prime Minister calls him the “begetter of some of the most progressive legislation for 200 years… Together with [former PM David] Lloyd George, he deserves the title of Founder of the Welfare State”.
As a 30-something member of the Liberal Government and President of the Board of Trade in pre-WWI Britain (the son of a Lord and an American heiress no less), Churchill campaigned fiercely for social reforms to improve worker rights and mitigate poverty – even championing taxation reform for wealth redistribution. He wasn’t driven simply by romantic ideals, mind you, but rather a pragmatic belief that contented workers were the key to a healthy economy in a strong, stable democracy.
A decade before the Treaty of Versailles espoused an eight-hour work day as the ideal international standard, Churchill introduced the system in British mines. His Labour Exchanges Act 1909 strengthened labour offices where unemployed people could find work. In 1911, as Home Secretary, he helped to introduce sickness and unemployment benefits through the National Insurance Act.
He also introduced the first minimum wage system in Britain through the 1909 Trades Boards Act, arguing that: “It is a serious national evil that any class of His Majesty’s subjects should receive less than a living wage in return for their utmost exertions.”
He was an advocate of government-run healthcare, too, leading the Conservative Party into the 1945 post-war UK election with a manifesto promising: “a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment from the general practitioner to the specialist … available to all citizens.” (The Labour Party beat Churchill in a landslide, and the National Health Service came into being soon after.)
So, as time moves on and the generation that experienced the horrors of WWII fades away, is it right for contemporary society to question Churchill’s legacy?
Allen Packwood, director of Britain’s Churchill Archives Centre, thinks so. “There’s a danger in Churchill gaining a purely iconic status because that actually takes away from his humanity,” he told the BBC. “He is this incredibly complex, contradictory and larger-than-life human being and he wrestled with these contradictions during his lifetime.”
Churchill spoke his mind and he spoke it often. He did not do things by halves. He rarely apologised. He lived by the rule of one of his most famous quotes: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
The fact is, Churchill’s views were wrong on race, wrong on Gandhi, wrong on Gallipoli and wrong that women were incapable of casting a sensible vote. But he was also a strident advocate for individual rights and looking out for those less fortunate. And here’s another fact: Nazism, if left to flourish, would have been catastrophic. Churchill was among few who immediately saw that threat for what it was – and helped to save the world (and our freedom to protest, incidentally) as a result. When other UK Conservative leaders were suggesting it was time to make a deal with Hitler, Churchill came out fighting: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
As former US President Barack Obama has noted about historical reckoning more generally: “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
So I say we should savour Churchill’s great bronze statue standing sentry outside the mother of all parliaments. Wander around his towering form and take the time to consider all sides of a complex, extraordinary man.
 The Churchill Project, 2016, Churchillisms: “Leave the Past to History” (which He will Write) <https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/leave-past-history/>
 BBC News 2002, Churchill voted greatest Briton, British Broadcasting Corporation, <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2509465.stm>
 Langworth R 2018, Churchill, Women’s Suffrage, and “Black Friday,” November 1910, The Churchill Project, <https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/churchill-womens-suffrage-black-friday/>
 International Labour Office 1923, Official Bulletin, Volume One, April 1919 – August 1920, International Labour Office <https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—jur/documents/genericdocument/wcms_441862.pdf>
 Wheatcroft G 2017, Republicans love Churchill. Too bad Churchill loved government-run health care, The Washington Post, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/08/09/republicans-love-churchill-too-bad-churchill-loved-government-run-health-care/>