Multiperspective History: The life and legacy of Winston Churchill

Multiperspective History: The life and legacy of Winston Churchill

Winston Churchull, 5 July 1943

​The resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week lead to us thinking about how the legacies of public figures are constantly being reinterpreted and contested.

In this short article, we want to revisit the life of one of the more divisive political figures in recent times: Winston Churchill.

Churchill is most famous for being the British Prime Minister during World War II and is widely praised for defeating Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In the years after, he received a knighthood for his contributions to the UK, an honour given to those deemed to have done something extraordinary and inspirational for the country.

Upon his death in 1965, Churchill's body lay in state for 3 days at Westminster Hall. This was done to give Britons the oppurtunity to come pay their respects and to say farewell to the former Prime Minister, much like in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II's death in 2022. In total, around 300,000 Britons were said to have visited Churchill's coffin before a televised state funeral took place, in which the coffin was placed on a gun carriage before being processioned through the streets of London. State funerals are a custom normally only bestowed to monarchs or a consort, but was deemed appropriate given Churchill’s status as a national symbol.

This memory of Churchill as one of Britain’s greats was further solidified in 1973 when a statue was unveiled on Parliament Square, London. This was a ceremony celebrating Churchill’s life and his service to the UK with then Prime Minister Edward Heath and Queen Elizabeth II in attendance. In the moments before Churchill’s wife and Queen Elizabeth II unveiled the statue, Churchill’s figure loomed over Parliament Square draped in a British flag, making clear that the man and the country were inseparable.

For many Churchill is associated with Britain’s ‘finest hour’ and is a clear marker of British identity, in which World War II features so prominently.  A sense of Britishness that is tied up with this period and is still referenced today through discourses on ‘Blitz Culture’ and ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

The idealisation of Churchill in popular culture was captured in a 2002 survey carried out by the BBC, in which over 1 million Britons participated. In this survey Churchill was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’, ahead of the likes of Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton and John Lennon. This figure of Churchill as a key symbol of British history and of Britishness was further underlined when the statue became a grade II listed structure in 2008, used to describe buildings that are “of special interest and warranting every effort to preserve [them]".

However, discussions in recent years have expanded beyond Churchill’s role in World War II and have shifted onto his racist and sexist views and his responsibility in the events such as the Bengal famine, in which around 3 millions Bengalis are said to have died. In talking about the women’s suffrage movement, Churchill was alleged to have said, "If we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun".

And commenting on colonial practices in 1937 Churchill stated, “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”.

A critical reexamination of the legacy and memory of Winston Churchill reached a high point in 2020 when Black Lives Matter protestors repeatedly targeted Churchill's statue, writing on it that ‘Winston Churchill was a racist’.  In response, police decided to board up the statue to protect it from vandalism. This triggered outrage among some with then Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling the protests the “height of lunacy” and declared Churchill as, “one of the country’s greatest ever leaders”, whilst others praised the emergence of critical discussions about the legacy and memory of a man who is a key marker of British identity.

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The very fact that the statue of Churchill has gone from being unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II to being covered up by the police to protect it from vandalism shows that the legacy of historical figures is constantly undergoing a process of reinterpretation. It also highlights that there is no single homogenised national story and memory.

Of course, whilst we don’t expect the legacy of Jacinda Ardern to be quite so controversial, the resignation of political figures always serves as a moment to remember that memory is not fixed or unchanging.

To learn more about the remembrance and memorialisation of events from World War II, see our lesson material on the topic.

by Noah Harris

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