Andrew Roberts’ Eminent Churchillians was designed to make the author’s reputation in the way that Eminent Victorians made Lytton Strachey’s. In the chapter called “Churchill, race and the ‘Magpie Society’, the former proved that he was more than capable of mimicking the latter’s iconoclasm.
Churchill, Roberts wrote, was “a convinced white – not to say Anglo-Saxon – supremacist and thought in terms of race to a degree that was remarkable even by the standards of his own time”. Which takes us from the literary smashing of idols to the real vandalism of statues, and that yesterday of Churchill’s himself.
History is the study of the past. One shouldn’t undertake it, as an academic discipline, without having a twin capacity: first, critical distance and, second, imaginative sympathy.
The distance keeps one away from the subject, and stops one from becoming a partisan. The sympathy takes one to it, and opens up a quality that helps to civilise us – the understanding of others. It would be a very odd Professor of Islamic Studies, for example, who either hated Islam itself or was a propagandist for it.
So with Churchill, and everything else. He must be understood as a man of his time, formed as a child during the Victorian era – and thus, in a sense, an Eminent Victorian himself. There is no reason to expect his attitudes to be those of a politician today, any more than those of today’s protesters will be those of tomorrow’s.
Nor does his racism nullify his greatness. Which is a reminder that history is a lived experience as well as academic discipline: it is part of our common British story. In hating Churchill or Edward Colston, whose statue was vandalised in Bristol, those who hate both are also hating themselves.
So what’s new? After all, the Churchill statue has been desecrated before. Even the Cenotaph has not been spared: in 2000, a man was jailed after hanging from it with a union flag, leaping on a car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, and kicking at a window of an Oxford Street branch of Topshop.
He turned out to be the son of David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s guitarist – not exactly one of the wretched of the earth. It is not an unusual story. Has anything really changed since the original protests by young people in modern times – those of the 1960s? The site believes that it has done, in at least one important way.
The left’s grip on our universities has strengthened. And what people say on campus today others will say outside it tomorrow. Our colleges help to set the tone, just as they did here and in America during the 1960s, when Maoism was briefly the rage, or in Germany during the 1930s, when students took up naziism en masse.
Cambridge was a Conservative seat until 1992; Oxford West and Abingdon stayed Tory until 1997. During the 1970s, Howard Kirk, the odious sociologist of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, was unusual enough to merit a novel. Today, Kirk is so unexceptional as doubtless to be serving as a Vice-Chancellor.
As the flow of self-loathing from the universities seeps steadily outwards, capitalism “takes the knee”. Sometimes, firms see the opportunity to cash in: so Lego, for example, has told online affiliates to remove links to 31 mainly police-themed sets of bricks, as part of its own stand “against racism and inequality”.
More often, managers and executives just want a quiet life. What will they say when the rioters come knocking at their door next, clamouring that they back demands to “defund the police” – adding that “your silence will not protect you”?
Mind you, the police themselves are in a bad place. If the good people of Bristol want to remove Colston’s statue, that’s for them to decide. (It has been a focus of debate for many years.) What on earth were the police doing when vandals smashed it up yesterday? Why have some policemen been taking the knee themselves?
The self-hatred is rampaging all over social media. Often, it won’t be easy for a young person to take a stand – questioning, for example, whether there’s more to the Black Lives Matter campaign than revulsion against the horrible killing of George Floyd.
It’s worth adding that the evidence about young people is mixed. Obviously, they are more socially liberal than older ones. But it isn’t altogether clear what that means in this context. In broad terms, Onward says that there is a “large untapped opportunity” among younger voters.
Young Conservative “considerers”, it reports, are close to a new centre ground that is “proud to be British”. That pride doesn’t suggest the renunciation of Britain’s past. And while pride has its pitfalls, it is also essential for survival; it is impossible to live happily, perhaps at all, without a sense of self-worth.
The thugs who attacked Churchill’s statue may not understand this, but most voters do so only too well – not least in the Red Wall seats that fell to the Conservatives last year. They have an intuitive, visceral sense for who holds power – not elected office, which is one thing; but real, raw power, which can be another.
That most of the weekend’s protestors weren’t violent; or that the killing of George Floyd was wrong, or that black lives, like all lives, matter very much is not the point – at least for them, when push, sometimes literally, comes to shove. The more elemental question that many people will ask is: just who exactly is in charge?
Two people will be looked to for an answer. The first is Keir Starmer. The Labour leader knows very well what being seen to be anti-British has cost his party. Big business may be willing to prostrate itself before rioters. Starmer should know that he doesn’t have that luxury.
But the Labour leader isn’t Prime Minister. Boris Johnson says that the protests have been “subverted by thuggery”. That’s a bit of a start. However, voters will ask what’s actually going to change. They don’t want water cannon or French-style riot police or crashing batons. But they do want to hear the smack of firm government.
Churchill’s statue has been defaced before, was yesterday and may be again. If Parliament Square is to become the focal point for thuggery, the Prime Minister may want to mull banning protests from it altogether. Elsewhere, there is unfinished business with University reform (and organising Tory academics: yes, there are some).
None of this will happen if the Party has no coherent response to the Left. On the one hand, there is Matt Hancock saying that “black lives matter” at a press conference. On the other, there is Kemi Badenoch’s avoidance of the slogan, and her push-back against SNP grandstanding, in the Commons last week. Which is it?
Meanwhile, Priti Patel needs to have a good long hard look at policing and priorities. The Extinction Rebellion protests last year snared up London and other cities before they were closed down. Who governs the streets? The answer should be: the Government. The police shouldn’t be taking the knee. They should be taking a stand.