The Darkest Hour, a film which emphasizes the courage and iron will of Winston Churchill through the first weeks of the Second World War, is drawing audiences and praise on its release in North America. It shows new generations that this man – mocked and marginalized in the 1930s by his party – was an inspirational leader during those bleak days, and beyond. Yet the acclaimed war-time prime minister was also an imperialist and a racist.
Churchill was not out of step with his time. It was widely accepted in the first half of the 20th century that the world was composed of strata of humanity which could be ranked according to their quality. That view, the crudest misreading of Charles Darwin, had seemed, at least in the West, to have died, or at least been consigned to the fringes of political and intellectual life. But it hasn’t.
Churchill as a racist?
In 1937, Churchill told a royal commission that he did not think that a great wrong had been done to either the “Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.” Referring to whites, he added: “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.”
One of his biographers, John Charmley, said that Churchill believed white Protestant Christians were top of the heap, followed by white Roman Catholics, while Indians were higher than Africans. His famed “This was their finest hour” speech, delivered at the time of what was indeed Britain’s darkest hour in June 1940 – when the British army was trapped at Dunkirk and a Nazi invasion of the UK seemed imminent – invoked both Christian civilization and the Empire as precious institutions which must be saved.
For the imperialist British, the renunciation of empire after World War Two was recognition, at least by the Labour government that replaced Churchill’s Conservatives, that imperial rule could no longer be afforded by a government that had earmarked huge expenditure for the construction of the welfare state. Social democracy trumped imperial glory; reluctantly, the latter was progressively given up, transmuted into a Commonwealth of independent states. The certainties of racial superiority and a right to rule justified by a higher civilization floundered and seemed to drown in the years following, as liberals and leftists and a new generation of young radicals repudiated and sneered at their imperialist elders.
Yet civilization as a marker of differences never went away. In 1992, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine whose core was a few short sentences: “The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” With these, he inserted a new perspective into the policies within and the debate among nations.
As the Cold War ended, Huntington argued, the West had ceased to dominate. Non-western civilizations, combining millions, even billions of people, “join(ed) the West as movers and shapers of history.” Some groups were relatively tiny, such as the Anglophone Caribbean. Others were much larger. The Slavic world, with Moscow as its capital, reckoned tens of millions. The Islamic civilization had Arab, Turkic and Malay subdivisions. Western civilization had two large parts, separated by thousands of miles, closely linked by culture - North America and Europe.
The idea was immediately challenged – especially by liberals, whose vision was of a more fluid world, with peoples striving for free, democratic politics. Huntington’s idea was conservative, but it was not defined by race, nor did he give the civilizations a hierarchy. They were different, neither above nor below each other. Liberals – and others – could disagree, but respect it.
But now the old meaning, or some of it, is back, in a form with which liberals cannot live. In another article in Foreign Affairs this month, Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, detects a new ideology – civilizationalism – developed by far right, anti-immigrant parties, mainly in Europe. According to Brubaker, it’s a warrior ideology, “a pan-European civilizational identity”, threatened by and ready to threaten another civilizational identity – Islam. In doing so, it “poses grave dangers to liberal democracy.”
Mr Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow
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