Churchill Essay

An Indigenous Perspective on Winston Churchill, the British Empire’s Political Legitimacy and the Unfinished Business of Australian Governance

Written by Professor Tom Calma AO
Patron Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

I consider Winston Churchill as an advocate of the British Empire’s political legitimacy in this short article. I also consider his legacy in Australia in this context, and the implications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) self-governance.

‘The consent of the governed to their government’ is the basis of the political legitimacy concept[i]. However, tradition, culture and other factors shape why the governed might give their consent in any context. Because of this, politically legitimate governments have taken many forms in history.

Consent to Elder governance of Indigenous collectives, for example, arose from tradition and any given Elder’s demonstrated knowledge of culture, wisdom, experience and care for the collective. European monarchs traditionally ruled from the top of what the Christian Church promoted as a God-established social hierarchy, and that, arguably, legitimated their rule in the eyes of their subjects. Enlightenment philosophers understood the consent of the governed as part of a social contract: that the governed would consent to a government that provided them with stability, protection, prosperity, and so on.

Human rights have reframed the idea of political legitimacy, the consent of the governed to their government, as all peoples’ collective human right to self-determination. That is, to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development[ii].

That the British Empire was initially established by threat or use of overwhelming force is not in dispute. Countless people died in massacres, battles and of introduced diseases as the empire grew. Even the treaties signed with many Indigenous peoples were coercive in nature. Such treaties were usually ignored as soon as overwhelming numbers of non-indigenous people were in place.

Churchill was born into the heart of this imperial machine in 1874. By then, Britain had been the world’s sole superpower for 60 years, following its defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The British Empire would become, and remains, the largest ever in history by Churchill’s fiftieth birthday. In 1925 it contained 412 million people, or 23 per cent of the world population. It covered 35,000,000 square kilometres or just under a quarter of the Earth’s total land area.

Against this background, a major drive of successive British leaders and governments (indeed, all European governments engaged in empire building) was to achieve the perception of political legitimacy.

These efforts were partly an attempt to pacify colonised peoples by their potential internalisation of propaganda that ‘explained’ their situation as beneficial to them (or to ‘manufacture consent’). But perhaps more importantly, it was a way for Britain’s empire builders to create something akin to a moral framework that helped explain the empire’s origins, and their own actions in keeping it going. It was a way for such to imagine that the empire’s subject peoples either consented, or would consent if they knew better, to British rule.

That uses and abuses of institutional power can give rise to moral distress in those involved, defined as when one knows the right thing to do, but institutional constraints make it nearly impossible to pursue the right course of action, is now recognised as a psychological phenomenon in some contexts[iii]. In extremes, ‘moral injury’ defined as perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations such that a person could be deleteriously psychologically, behaviourally, spiritually, or socially affected is recognised as a significant contributor to post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers involved in atrocities’[iv].

Britain’s involvement with the slave trade highlights the moral distress and injury that accompanied empire building for significant numbers of the British involved. Britain was the second biggest trader of enslaved African people after the Portuguese. It shipped an estimated 3.3 million enslaved African people to its vast sugar and other plantations in the Americas and elsewhere over 250 years[v].

Yet the trafficking of slaves would be banned empire-wide in 1807 following a decades long campaign by abolitionists, with all the empire’s slaves granted manumission in 1833. That British engagement with the slave trade, while cruel beyond measure to those enslaved, was also profoundly immoral and, as such, injurious to the British nation’s ‘soul’ was much of the rationale[vi].

It is into this context – a vast empire seeking political legitimacy and a moral foundation – that I want to place Churchill the man’s documented racist attitudes and statements. To start with, Churchill as a child and young man would have internalised these attitudes as norms in his aristocratic familial and social circles. Yet that such a ferociously intelligent, long-lived and well-travelled man apparently let these attitudes go unexamined, let alone repudiated, must also be acknowledged.

I identify three interrelated elements in Churchill’s documented opinions and writing that appear to have provided him with a sense of the political legitimacy of the British Empire, and which he promoted across his life.

The first, British exceptionalism, was not only that the British were of a superior race, culture and nation, but that God or nature itself (by social Darwinism) had anointed the British to rule over other races, cultures and nations. The second, the inferiority of other races, cultures and nations to the British, was the other side of the coin.

The third inter-related element was paternalism by logical extension of the first two elements. This paternalism acted as a proxy to the consent of the governed. In essence, this conceived of the empire as a civilising vehicle whereby the inherently superior British civilisation could be spread to, absorbed, and ultimately practiced by subject peoples who would be assimilated into the British way of life. As such, the empire could be imagined as benign at heart: enabling the heathen to be baptised, and their soul saved; enabling the uneducated to read and write; and extending industrial revolutions technologies to hitherto ‘primitive’ parts of the world. This has been pithily described as ‘the white man’s burden’[vii].

A clear-eyed view of Churchill the man is, in my opinion, that he was a product of the British Empire, an inheritor and promoter of its warped moral framework, and thereby secure in the political legitimacy of the British Empire on that basis.

As an Indigenous person whose ancestors suffered atrocities in the name of the British Empire Churchill whole-heartedly supported, I unreservedly condemn his racist and imperialist attitudes. Indeed, I have dedicated my life to healing and resolving the unfinished business of British colonisation and its contemporary legacies including dispossession of lands and waters, intergenerationally transmitted trauma and poverty, present day racism, social exclusion and social determinants of physical and mental health conditions among Indigenous peoples in Australia.

But I also acknowledge Churchill the leader’s critically important role as British wartime prime minister and in the allied victory over Hitler. And further, I take into account Churchill the social reformer’s efforts in introducing the 8-hour day for coal miners; a minimum wage; and sickness and unemployment benefits — just as I acknowledge his apparent role in disasters such as 1943 Bengal famine in which millions died[viii] and the Gallipoli campaign[ix]. In other words, I acknowledge the good and the bad in a complex man who looms large in recent history.

In my opinion, the Black Lives Matter protesters spraying ‘racist’ in red paint on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, London (among other calls for statues to fall) had the potential to open up a much broader debate about Churchill and other historical figures, but that opportunity was largely subsumed into yet another front of the ‘culture war’: this time being whether such statues should be torn down or not.

My broad position on the statues is that they should stay but be re-contextualised and explained in situ. I believe that by being re-contextualised, such statues offer tremendous educational opportunities on race, empire and, critically, our present-day Australian political system and its legitimacy for Indigenous peoples. Such debate will enhance the opportunity to progress truth telling and reconciliation and create an environment where First Nations heroes can be identified, immortalised and celebrated.

I also believe that if we are to understand the situation facing First Nation peoples in Australia today, and achieve change and politically legitimate forms of governance for us into the future, too much focus on past foreign historical figures also carries significant risks. That is that the focus on symbols, while important, nonetheless takes away energy from our deeper and ongoing struggle with the Australian political system as it is today, noting that this is, just as much as Churchill the man, a product of the British Empire.

In that sense, Churchill’s documented attitudes and statements on race and empire can help illuminate (or perhaps confirm) our understanding as how the Australian state evolved, the attitudes that informed it, and what we should be alert to as signs of colonial paradigms that are still operating, even unconsciously: coloniser exceptionalism, racism, paternalism and assimilation.

While things are slowly improving, Indigenous peoples in Australia are still living under a paternalistic system in which a centralised and overwhelmingly non-Indigenous set of governments decides too many things for us. We are homogenised into a broader ‘Australian people’ paradigm that denies us recognition as the First Peoples of Australia who culturally and otherwise thrived here for 65,000 years prior to colonisation. Combined, they work to deny our right to self-determination, to decide how we are governed.

Article 3 of the Australian Government-ratified 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) re-affirms self-determination is a collective right for indigenous peoples living in territories now occupied by overwhelming majorities of non-indigenous peoples. As the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Articles 4 and 5 elaborates:

Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions… Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.

Establishing politically legitimate Indigenous governance in Australia is something I have been involved with throughout my career. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I led a national consultation process to establish the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. And, more recently with Professor Dr Marcia Langton AO, I have Co-chaired the Senior Advisory Group on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament that is akin to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Yet our right to self-governance is still being debated and paternalism persists, as does the elements that underpin it, a combination of non-Indigenous exceptionalism and racist views about Indigenous peoples.  Indeed, in addition to my personal experience, as Reconciliation Australia (RA) Co-chair I can testify that Indigenous people are still subject to significant interpersonal and systemic racism illustrated in the Reconciliation Barometer survey results RA publish bi-annually[x].

These insidious, often unspoken, contemporary legacies of the sustained efforts of British Empire builders, including Churchill, to provide their empire with political legitimacy remain systemically entrenched barriers to progress.

In my opinion, all three of the elements I discussed above: non-Indigenous exceptionalism, Indigenous racism and the unwillingness of Australian governments to relinquish paternalism and share power must be addressed at the same time. Efforts made in relation to one element will support progress in the others. In other words, decolonisation is multifaceted and requires an address to whole systems and mindsets today, not so much an address to the individuals who epitomise those systems in history.

It is for the above reasons that I also am happy to support the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (the Trust) as Patron. First, knowing that the Trust is clear eyed about Churchill’s racist and imperialist attitudes and statements and has publicly rejected this part of his legacy. But, second, I support the Trust as an active promoter of Indigenous scholarship including that which is concerned with promoting legitimate Indigenous governance in Australia through power sharing by governments and in the context of the child protection, education and justice systems. Indeed, there have been 57 Indigenous scholarly recipients of Trust support since 1967.

Trust Fellowships enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to, among other opportunities, explore first-hand experiences of colonised indigenous peoples, effective racism strategies and the plethora of social and cultural interventions that could positively impact on Indigenous Australians. The fellowships also enable non-Indigenous people to undertake similar endeavours in the interest of impacting positive societal change.

And in relation to these, it is my hope that a Trust Indigenous alumni network will form in the near future to both pool their wisdom and experience and help guide the Trust’s ongoing promotion of Indigenous scholarship.

As is often observed, if we can understand the past, we can better understand the present and work to a better future. Truth telling and coming to terms with our past as a nation, and the legacies of the British Empire and Winston Churchill operative today, is, I believe, critical to understanding the challenges we as First Nation peoples face today. In particular, these understandings are a key to understanding what politically legitimate governance means to Indigenous peoples in Australia in the future.


[i] Locke, J. (1690).  Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter 8, Section 95.

[ii] Articles 1 of both the United Nations’ 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[iii] Morley, G., Ives, J., Bradbury-Jones, C., & Irvine, F. (2019). What is ‘moral distress’? A narrative synthesis of the literature. Nursing Ethics,26(3), 646-662. https://doi.org/10.1177/0969733017724354

[iv] Molendijk, Tine (2018). “Toward an Interdisciplinary Conceptualization of Moral Injury: From Unequivocal Guilt and Anger to Moral Conflict and Disorientation”. New Ideas in Psychology. 51: 1–8.

[v] Eltis, D., Richardson, D. (2010). Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven: Yale University Press, p.32.

[vi] Huzzey, R. (2012). The Moral Geography of British Anti-slavery Responsibilities. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 22, 111-139. doi:10.1017/S0080440112000096.

[vii] The term comes from an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling: The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands” intended to justify imperial conquest as a mission-of-civilisation.

[viii] Safi, M. (2019). ‘Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study’. The Guardian, 29/3/2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/29/winston-churchill-policies-contributed-to-1943-bengal-famine-study

[ix] Imperial War Museum. (Undated). Churchill’s First World War (webpage):  https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/churchills-first-world-war [Verified 6 April 2021].

[x] See the Reconciliation Australia website https://www.reconciliation.org.au/australian-reconciliation-barometer-2020/.