Churchill Archive Platform - Churchill and Empire

Supporting Materials

Documents from the Archive

  • Winston Churchill, draft memoirs, CV V, part 1, p. 1431.
  • Winston Churchill, draft memoirs, CV V, part 2, pp. 25-6.
  • Manuscript of The Story of the Malakand Field Force, CHAR 8/3/2-29, f. 23.
  • Lord Randolph Churchill to Winston Churchill, 27 June 1891, CV I, part 1, p. 248, CHAR 1/2/58-59.
  • Winston Churchill to Lord Randolph Churchill, 22 July 1891, CV I, part 1, p. 260.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 31 August 1895, CV I, part 1, p. 585, CHAR 28/21/65-68.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 14 October 1896, CV I, part 2, p. 688, CHAR 28/22/11-13.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 4 November 1896, CV I, part 2, p. 697, CHAR 28/22/18-23.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 18 November 1896, CV I, part 2, p. 704, CHAR 28/22/26-27.
  • Winston Churchill, ‘Our account with the Boers’, n.d. but 1896-7, CHAR 1/19/1-21.
  • Winston Churchill, ‘Comments on Annual Register, early 1897’, CV I, part 2, pp. 760, 763.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 14 January 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 724, CHAR 28/23/10-11.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 31 March 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 746, CHAR 28/23/29-30.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 6 April 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 751, CHAR 28/23/31-33A.
  • Bindon Blood to Winston Churchill, 22 August 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 780, CHAR 28/54/3.
  • Winston Churchill to Reginald Barnes, 14 September 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 788, CHAR 28/23/55-56.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 19 September 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 792-3, CHAR 28/23/57.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 2 October 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 797, CHAR 28/23/59-59A.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 21 October 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 807, CHAR 28/23/64-66.
  • Winston Churchill to Frances, Duchess of Marlborough, 25 October 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 810.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 2 November 1897, CV I, part 2, pp. 813–14, CHAR 28/23/71-73.
  • Winston Churchill to Lord William Beresford, 2 November 1897, CV I, part 2, p. 821, CHAR 28/23/69-70.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 19 January 1898, CV I, part 2, p. 860, CHAR 28/24/20-25.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 26 January 1898, CV I, part 2, p. 1004, CHAR 28/26/3.
  • Winston Churchill to Jack Churchill, 20 March 1898, CV I, part 2, p. 893, CHAR 28/152B/147-148.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 10 August 1898, CV I, part 2, p. 963, CHAR 28/25/31.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 17 September 1898, CV I, part 2, p. 981, CHAR 28/25/43-45.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 29 December 1898, CV I, part 2, p. 996, CHAR 28/25/56.
  • Jack Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 3 April 1900, CV I part 2, pp. 1165-6, CHAR 28/32/1.
  • Winston Churchill to Lord Rosebery, 4 October 1900, CV I, part 2, p. 1206.
  • Winston Churchill to Joseph Chamberlain, 16 November 1900, CV I, part 2, p. 1216
  • Winston Churchill to J. Moore Bayley, 23 December 1901, CHAR 28/115/29-31.
  • Winston Churchill to Elgin, 8 January 1907, CV II, part 1, p. 610.
  • Winston Churchill to Lord Northcliffe, 24 January 1907, CHAR 28/117/18-19.
  • Winston Churchill to Elgin, 4 October 1907, CV I, part 2, p. 685.
  • Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 6 November 1907, CV II, part 2, p. 693, CHAR 28/27/75-79.
  • Winston Churchill to Edward VII, 27 November 1907, CV II, part 2, p. 712, CHAR 10/27/66-69.
  • Winston Churchill to Lloyd George, 31 August 1920 (unsent), CV IV, part 2, p. 1199, CHAR 16/48B/169-173.
  • Winston Churchill to Edwin Montagu, 8 October 1921, CV IV, part 3, p. 1644, CHAR 17/10/20-22.
  • Winston Churchill to Lloyd George, 1 September 1922, CV IV, part 3, p. 1974, CHAR 17/27/29-36.
  • Winston Churchill to J. C. Robertson, 27 October 1922, CV IV, part 3, p. 2094, CHAR 5/28A-B/20-30.
  • Winston Churchill to Baldwin, 15 December 1924, CV V, part 1, p. 306.
  • Winston Churchill to Baldwin, 24 September 1930, CV V, part 2, p. 186.
  • Winston Churchill to Abe Bailey, 19 December 1930, CHAR 2/169/64.
  • The Secretary of State for India [Leo Amery] to the Viceroy [and Governor-General of India, 2nd Lord Linlithgow], 3 February 1942, CHAR 20/69B/119.
  • Speech of 10 November 1942, CHAR 9/158/56-68.
  • Unused speech notes for Winston Churchill’s broadcast of 21 March 1943, CHAR 9/193A/85-116, ff. 87–92.
  • Speech notes for debate on India, 30 March 1943, CHAR 9/191/1-12, f.10.
  • B. R. Ambedkar to Winston Churchill, 13 November 1946, CHUR 2/52A/41.
  • Statement of thanks re honorary citizenship 9 April 1963. Copy in CHUR 2/539B/157-159

Further Reading

Strange as it may seem, until the publication of my book Churchill’s Empire (2010) there was no single work that attempted to deal comprehensively with all the major aspects of Churchill’s imperialism. Naturally, the many biographies of him include an enormous amount of relevant information, and there are plenty of works dealing with particular countries, periods, individuals or themes, a number of which are detailed below. A number of more general works are also listed, because they help illustrate the context in which Churchill was operating.

  • Paul Alkon, Winston Churchill’s Imagination, Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, 2006

  • David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2005

  • Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan, Allen Lane, London, 2004

  • Christopher Bell, ‘The “Singapore Strategy” and the Deterrence of Japan: Winston Churchill, the Admiralty, and the Dispatch of Force Z’, English Historical Review, 116 (2001), pp. 604–34, <>

  • Geoffrey Best, Churchill and War, Hambledon, London, 2005

  • Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis (eds.), Churchill, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993, <>

  • Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781–1997, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007

  • Carl Bridge, ‘Churchill, Hoare, Derby and the Committee of Privileges, April to June 1934’, Historical Journal, 22 (1979), pp. 215–27, <>

  • Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (eds.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999

  • Raymond A. Callahan, Churchill: Retreat from Empire, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, DE, 1984

  • Christopher Catherwood, Winston’s Folly: Imperialism and the Creation of Modern Iraq, Constable, London, 2004

  • John Charmley, Churchill, The End of Glory: A Political Biography, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993

  • Peter Clarke, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, Allen Lane, London, 2007

  • Michael J. Cohen, Churchill and the Jews, 2nd edition, Frank Cass, London, 2003

  • ——, ‘The Churchill–Gilbert Symbiosis: Myth and Reality’, Modern Judaism, 28 (2008), pp. 204–28, <>

  • David Day, Menzies and Churchill at War, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993 (first published 1986)

  • ——, The Politics of War, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2003

  • David Dilks, ‘The Great Dominion’: Winston Churchill in Canada, 1900–1954, Thomas Allen, Toronto, 2005

  • Warren Dockter, ‘Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Early Encounters’, The Historian, 101 (spring 2009), pp. 19–21

  • Kirk Emmert, Winston S. Churchill on Empire, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, 1989

  • Brian Farrell (ed.), The Last Lion and the Lion City: Churchill and the Making of Modern Singapore, National University of Singapore Press, Singapore, 2011.

  • Graham Freudenberg, Churchill and Australia, Macmillan, Sydney, 2008

  • David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1989

  • Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, Bantam Books, New York, 2008

  • Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918–1968, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006

  • ——, Elgin and Churchill at the Colonial Office, 1905–1908: The Watershed of the Empire-Commonwealth, Macmillan, London, 1968

  • David Jablonsky, ‘Churchill’s Initial Experience with the British Conduct of Small Wars: India and the Sudan, 1897–98’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 11 (2000), pp. 1–25, <>

  • Ashley Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War, Hambledon Continuum, London, 2006

  • Chandrika Kaul (ed.), Media and the British Empire, Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006, <>

  • Wm. Roger Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941–1945, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977

  • ——, In the Name of God, Go! Leo Amery and the British Empire in the Age of Churchill, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1992

  • Michael Makovsky, Churchill’s Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007

  • James Marchant (ed.), Winston Spencer Churchill: Servant of Crown and Commonwealth, Cassell, London, 1954

  • Kevin Matthews, Fatal Influence: The Impact of Ireland on British Politics, 1920–1925, University College Dublin Press, Dublin, 2004

  • Michael McMenamin and Curt J. Zoller, Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor, Greenwood World Publishing, Oxford/Westport CT, 2007

  • Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset: Memoirs of Winston Churchill’s Last Private Secretary, Cassell, London, 1995

  • Penderel Moon (ed.), Wavell: The Viceroy’s Journal, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1997

  • R. J. Moore, Churchill, Cripps and India, 1939–1945, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979

  • Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Forgotten Indian Famine of World War II, Basic Books, New York, 2010

  • Nicholas Owen, ‘The Conservative Party and Indian Independence, 1945–1947’, Historical Journal, 46 (2003), pp. 403–36, <>

  • Attila Pók (ed.), The Fabric of Modern Europe: Essays in Honour of Éva Haraszti Taylor, Astra Press, Nottingham, 1999

  • Clive Ponting, Churchill, Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1994

  • Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, <>

  • Roland Quinault, ‘Churchill and Black Africa’, History Today, June 2005, pp. 31–6

  • John Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend since 1945, HarperCollins, London, 2002

  • Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1994

  • Brian Roberts, Churchills in Africa, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1970

  • Douglas S. Russell, Winston Churchill: Soldier, Conway, London, 2006 (first published 2005)

  • Celia Sandys, Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive, HarperCollins, London, 1999

  • Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, Little, Brown, London, 2000

  • Andrew Stewart, Empire Lost: Britain, the Dominions and the Second World War, Continuum, London, 2008

  • Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World he Made, Macmillan, London, 2010

  • ——, ‘“Phrases make history here”: Churchill, Ireland and the rhetoric of Empire’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 38, 4 (2010), pp. 549-70, <>

  • ——, ‘The Riddle of the Frontier: Winston Churchill, the Malakand Field Force, and the rhetoric of imperial expansion’, Historical Research, 84 (2011), pp. 493-512, <>

  • Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008

  • M. S. Venkataramani and B. K. Shrivastava, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Churchill: America and the Last Phase of India’s Freedom Struggle, Sangam Books, London, 1997 (first published 1983)

  • Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire, 1939–1965, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, <>

  • Auriol Weigold, Churchill, Roosevelt and India: Propaganda During World War II, Routledge, London, 2008

  • Frederick Woods (ed.), Young Winston’s Wars: The Original Despatches of Winston S. Churchill, War Correspondent, 1897–1900, Leo Cooper, London, 1972

Churchill’s youth coincided with the high-water mark of Victorian imperial optimism. He reached political maturity at a time when the British Empire was coming under increasing strain, and the final decade of his active career saw major steps towards its dissolution, very much against his will. Yet although he is remembered as a ‘die-hard’ defender of the Empire, examination of the documentary record shows that this image – which he himself cultivated in the years after 1918 – cannot be taken wholly at face value.

One of the most controversial aspects of Winston Churchill’s lengthy career is his view of Empire. This is an issue that provokes strong feelings because it is closely connected with sensitive issues of race and power. In the Western world, Churchill is generally celebrated for his leadership during the Second World War. In former British colonial territories, by contrast, he tends to be associated with an imperial legacy that is often seen as extremely damaging. There also appears to be a contradiction between Churchill’s brave, forward-looking opposition to Nazi tyranny and his seemingly retrograde and old-fashioned attitudes to non-white peoples within the British Empire. A full appreciation of Churchill, going beyond either hero-worship or instinctive hostility, requires an understanding of the complexities of the imperial politics of his time.

Churchill’s involvement with the British Empire was longstanding, from his involvement in small imperial wars as a young man at the end of the nineteenth century to his engagement with issues such as the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during his final premiership in the 1950s. Growing up during the highest phase of Victorian imperial expansion, his political maturity coincided with the Empire’s decline, which accelerated during and after the Second World War. How one views Churchill’s imperialism depends on how one views the Empire itself. If British colonial power was, notwithstanding some abuses, essentially benign, then Churchill’s faith in the Empire may seem at worst a little quaint, even if some of his racially-tinged comments are to be deplored. If, however, the Empire was a brutal system that enforced racial inequality at the point of a gun then his racist opinions were nothing less than a prop to institutionalised cruelty. Churchill’s sympathisers see his belief in the superiority of white races as less significant than his broader role as a defender of humanity against Nazi tyranny; his critics point to the human cost of his imperial attitudes, such as his failure to act swiftly in response to the appalling Bengal famine of 1943.

Churchill undoubtedly did hold racist views but it must be appreciated that racism was very widespread in the Victorian society in which he grew up. At the same time, it is also important to remember that not all Victorians held the same opinions and that some people of a similar age to Churchill opposed his attitudes to the Empire later in life. These complexities make interpretation difficult. Historians have largely divided between those such as Clive Ponting who emphasize Churchill’s racism and hostility to imperial reform and decolonisation, and those such as Roland Quinault who, while acknowledging that Churchill held unpalatable views, suggest that he was relatively enlightened for a man of his time and background. There are also those, notably John Charmley, who have seen Churchill’s 1940s policy choices, including the pursuit of an Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, as fatal to the power of the Empire which he claimed to want to defend. Any attempt to mediate between these views requires a grasp of Churchill’s imperial career as a whole, which is most easily achieved through a straightforward chronological treatment, as presented here. Arguably, his defenders amongst historians are right to claim that the picture is more complicated than his diehard image would suggest. Nevertheless, his detractors’ arguments also have merit, for if Churchill came to be seen as a diehard, this was in part because of choices that he deliberately made, positioning himself unashamedly with reactionary elements in the Conservative Party from the 1920s onwards.

Churchill spent part of his early childhood in Ireland – and this country’s problematic relationship with Empire formed a running theme throughout his career. His first memory was of the Duke Marlborough, his grandfather, unveiling a statue of the imperial hero, Lord Gough, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. In such ways, he was exposed to imperialist messages that would stay with him for decades. For example, in 1891 his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, made a well publicised trip to South Africa. ‘I have been having a most agreeable travel in this very remarkable country’, he wrote to Winston. ‘I expect that when you are my age you will see S Africa to be the most populous and wealthy of all our colonies.’ [ 1 ] Formal education was also important, not least through the influence of Churchill’s Harrow School imperialist headmaster, J.E.C. Welldon. Churchill did not however receive all that he was told uncritically. As a young soldier in India in the late 1890s he set out to teach himself the things that he thought he had missed out on and puzzled out conclusions for himself. However, the general tendency of his views was clear. ‘East of Suez Democratic reins are impossible’, he wrote to his mother. ‘India must be governed on old principles.’ [ 2 ]

Eager to see military action, Churchill succeeded in getting himself attached to an expedition sent to put down a rebellion by tribesmen on the Indian North-West Frontier. He acted as a journalistic correspondent as well as a soldier. He was shocked by some of the violent actions of the British-led Indian forces, but he accepted the need to censor his writing. Thus he told his grandmother privately of the appalling effects that the expanding ‘dum-dum’ bullets used by the British had on the human body: ‘The picture is a terrible one, and naturally it has a side to which one does not allude in print.’ [ 3 ] An element of self-censorship is also apparent in the surviving handwritten drafts of his book about the campaign The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), on which we can see a telling Churchillian amendment: ‘the prestige of the dominant race enables them to keep up appearances before maintain their superiority over the native troops’. [ 4 ]

After his Indian adventures, Churchill determined to make his way to the Sudan, where the British reconquest was entering its final phase. He was present at the climactic Battle of Omdurman, and was caught up in the famous charge of the 21st Lancers. In military terms this was a fiasco, but it allowed Churchill to indulge his ‘keen aboriginal desire to kill several of these odious dervishes’. [ 5 ] Churchill continued his journalism and in due course produced a substantial two-volume book, The River War (1899), about the campaign. He made some criticisms of H.H. Kitchener, the British Commander-in-Chief, although these were less startling than is sometimes suggested. He was a more thoughtful writer on imperial issues than many of his journalistic contemporaries, but the unconventionality of his opinions should not be exaggerated.

Determined to make his way in politics, Churchill now left the Army. However, the outbreak of war with the South African Boer Republics saw him once more heading for the battle zone. ‘Imperial troops must curb the insolence of the Boers’, he had written a few years earlier. [ 6 ] But in the early stages of the war the British suffered humiliating reverses. Having shown great bravery, Churchill himself was captured after the armoured train he was travelling on was derailed and attacked by enemy forces. In captivity, he came to respect the Boers and to understand their point of view. After his daring escape – which turned him into a global celebrity – Churchill took up a temporary army commission and continued to believe in the justice of the British cause. However, he argued in public that the Boers should be treated generously once defeated. ‘Winston is being severely criticised about his Peaceful telegrams – and everyone here in Natal is going against his views’, noted his brother Jack, who was also serving in the campaign. ‘They say that even if you are going to treat these Boers well after their surrender, this is not the time to say so.’ [ 7 ]

Churchill returned to Britain before the war’s end and was returned to Parliament in the general election of 1900. Like many of his contemporaries, he was concerned about ‘National Efficiency’, the fear being that poor social conditions at home would weaken Britain’s ability to enforce its power at a global level. He wrote privately at this time that he could ‘see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.’ [ 8 ] In 1904 he switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals over the issue of Free Trade: he did not share Joseph Chamberlain’s view that the Empire needed to be bound together economically through the use of preferential tariffs. When the Liberals entered government in 1905, Churchill was appointed as a junior minister at the Colonial Office, with the former Viceroy Lord Elgin as Secretary of State. This was Churchill’s first experience of imperial administration, and it presented him with some puzzling complexities.

Most problematic were the consequences of the Boer War. Broadly speaking, Churchill and Elgin dealt with these successfully, bringing to an end the controversial system of Chinese labour in South Africa, and devising self-governing constitutions for the former Boer Republics. Nevertheless, Churchill briefly gained a reputation as a Radical and a ‘Little Englander’ – i.e. an opponent of imperial expansion – who, in the view of his critics, posed a danger to the Empire. Although he believed non-whites were racially inferior, this did not mean that he believed they had no rights at all, and he was genuinely concerned to ensure what he regarded as fair treatment (stopping short of equality). However, he quickly came up hard against a central dilemma of Liberal colonial policy. One could intervene to protect the indigenous population (and non-natives such as the Chinese) and thus stand accused of stripping white minorities of their hereditary freedoms. Or one could do nothing, which would lead to charges at home of permitting abuses under the British flag. In the end, it was generally easiest to take the path of least resistance, which meant paying lip-service to native welfare, whilst allowing local white elites to run things largely as they pleased.

Churchill was a hyperactive minister. His lengthy and flamboyant tour of East Africa, written up as My African Journey (1908), earned him much publicity and Elgin’s irritation. However, after he was promoted to the Cabinet – initially as President of the Board of Trade – Churchill’s engagement with imperial issues faded somewhat into the background. The exception was Ireland. Churchill was now committed to the Liberal policy of Home Rule (i.e. greater self-government) and tried to invert the traditional Unionist argument that increased freedom for Ireland would strike a blow at the heart of Empire. Ireland in its current discontented state, he claimed, posed a risk to the Empire; addressing Irish grievances would increase the Empire’s spiritual strength. The issue was still unresolved at the outbreak of the First World War, and Churchill again had to deal with it after 1918, first in his role of Secretary of State for War, and then as Colonial Secretary. Britain’s harsh and clumsy handling of the 1916 rebellion had radicalised Irish opinion, and Churchill’s response to the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War in 1919 was to put his faith in a tough military policy. He praised the gallantry of the notorious ‘Black and Tans’, the Royal Irish Constabulary reserve force which was responsible for indiscriminate shootings and burnings in reprisal for attacks by the Irish Republican Army. However, when it became clear that this policy had failed, he supported Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s policy of negotiation, which resulted in the partition of Ireland and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921-2.

Churchill was not especially happy as Secretary of State for the Colonies, in part because he yearned for a more important post, and in part because of the difficult situation that the Empire faced. Britain had occupied new territories in the Middle East, and these proved problematic. (A rebellion in Mesopotamia in 1920 had prompted Churchill, as War Secretary, to write in an unsent letter of his frustration that ‘we should be compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts.’) [ 9 ] In 1921 Churchill — surrounded by colourful advisers such as T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell — held a major conference in Cairo to determine the future map of the region. This created the modern state of Iraq, and divided neighbouring Transjordan from the rest of Palestine, which Britain held under a League of Nations mandate. Many scholars have blamed these arrangements for later troubles, and the decisions certainly appear to have been flawed. It is, however, worth noting that Churchill acted in line with the expert advice he received rather than imposing his own views. With respect to Palestine, Churchill was broadly supportive of Zionism, but only insofar as it was compatible with British power; and over the coming years the aspiration for Jewish statehood was to conflict increasingly with imperial rule.

After the fall of Lloyd George’s coalition government, Churchill shifted further to the right, and in 1924 joined Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. From the imperial perspective, the five years he served in that role were mainly notable for his resistance to the demands of Chamberlainite Conservatives for departures from free trade. Also during this period, under the influence of his friend the Earl of Birkenhead, he became increasingly hostile to the demands of Indian nationalists. Yet Baldwin nonetheless considered him a liberal figure and pondered appointing him as Secretary of State for India in order to carry out reform. In his draft memoirs, Churchill recalled: ‘Mr Baldwin seemed to feel that as I had carried the Transvaal Constitution through the House in 1906, and the Irish Free State Constitution in 1920, it would be in general harmony with my sentiments and my record to preside over a third great measure of self-government for another part of the Empire.’ He added: ‘I was not attracted by this plan.’ [ 10 ]

Indeed, Churchill eventually broke with the Tory leadership over this very issue, early in 1931, when the Conservative Party was experiencing a spell in Opposition. Churchill was bitterly opposed to his leader’s support for the Labour government’s policy of Indian reform, and seems to have believed that he could use the issue to seize control of the Conservative Party himself. His vitriolic attacks on M.K. Gandhi, the charismatic figure who symbolised resistance to British rule, gained long-lasting notoriety. Inevitably, when a new, cross-party ‘National Government’ was formed later in the year, Churchill was not invited to join it. He waged a long campaign against reform, which only came to an end when the Government of India Act (which granted a limited measure of self-rule) was passed by Parliament in 1935. Many historians view his actions as quixotic, and suggest that they helped ensure that his equally dire but more accurate warnings about the dangers posed by the Nazis were not listened to. In a draft for one of his Second World War speeches — which happily he was sensible enough not to deliver — he commented that ‘For ten years before the war, I warned our British people against Hitler and Gandhi’. [ 11 ] Yet in his post-war memoirs the issue of India was downplayed, and his 1930s career was presented as a straightforward story of how his efforts to alert people to the ambitions of the dictators were ignored.

Churchill certainly relished his imperial ‘die-hard’ image, and continued to play up to it as Prime Minister after 1940. On one famous occasion, he declared: ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ [ 12 ] But in spite of his fulminations, the pressures of events were such that even he could not avoid making concessions. In 1942, as Japanese troops swept across Asia, he was forced to agree to the so-called ‘Cripps mission’, which held out the promise of Indian self-government after the war. He was not at all displeased when the negotiations with the nationalists collapsed, but humiliations such as the fall of Singapore brought home the Empire’s weakness; Churchill feared the spread of a ‘Pan-Asiatic malaise’. [ 13 ] This fed tensions with Australia, a self-governing Dominion, which also feared the rise of Pan-Asianism, but felt that Britain was not doing enough to help defend it. (However, Churchill’s relations with the Canadian, New Zealand and South African Prime Ministers remained good.) Churchill also faced pressure from anti-imperialist American opinion to abolish Britain’s imperial preference system and to move forward with colonial reform. His efforts at resistance were not completely unsuccessful, but with the rise of the USA and USSR to superpower status, Britain’s room for manoeuvre was severely circumscribed.

In a certain sense, then, Churchill was actually quite lucky to lose the general election of 1945. The new Labour government gave independence to India, Burma and Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and gave up the mandate in Palestine. Churchill was free to attack Britain’s imperial retreat as ‘scuttle’; but it is far from clear that he would have been able to avoid a similar path himself if he had remained in office. After he returned to power in 1951, he proved his ability to adjust (reluctantly) to new realities. He developed a good relationship with Indian Prime Minister — and former foe — Jawaharlal Nehru. Behind the scenes, he encouraged the Tory rebels who opposed his own government’s attempts to negotiate a new treaty with Egypt, which required the withdrawal of British troops — but when it came to the point he bit his lip and supported the agreement. The brutal response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was a severe blot on his government’s record: but Churchill himself did not drive this policy. In fact, he favoured negotiation and had some humanitarian impulses, but was too old, tired and concerned with other issues to make much of a difference. His racist attitudes remained. He was hostile to ‘coloured’ immigration to Britain, albeit not to the point of taking action: restrictive legislation was not passed until some years after he left office. By the time that Churchill retired in 1955 Britain was moving into the post-imperial era, although it was not yet clear quite how rapidly decolonization would come.

The Suez Crisis of 1956, when Britain’s invasion of Egypt prompted American anger, proved a watershed. Afterwards, and now in retirement, Churchill set out to repair relations with the United States, through visits, public statements, and discussions with key American figures. His faith in Anglo-American unity was undimmed, and his four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-8) published between April 1956 and March 1958, formed a testament to it. In 1963 President Kennedy awarded Churchill honorary citizenship of the United States. In his statement of thanks — probably drafted for him — the former Prime Minister rejected ‘the view that Britain and the Commonwealth should now be relegated to a tame and minor role in the world’. He added: ‘Mr. President, your action illuminates the theme of unity of the English-speaking peoples, to which I have devoted a large part of my life.’ [ 14 ] It is worth comparing these comments with a remark he made in a letter to his brother over sixty years earlier, in which he spoke of ‘this great Empire of ours — to the maintenance of which I shall devote my life.’ [ 15 ] Naturally, he viewed maintenance of the Empire and the unity of the English-speaking peoples as wholly compatible, indeed mutually reinforcing. But it is interesting to note how, as the Empire declined, the theme of ‘the English-speaking peoples’ eclipsed it in his public rhetoric at the last.

Richard Toye, University of Exeter

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He previously worked at the universities of Manchester and Cambridge. He has published widely on Churchill. His books include Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness (2007) and Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made (2010). He is currently writing a book on Churchill’s Second World War speeches. His other interests include the history of economic policy, the United Nations, and the writings of H.G. Wells.


  1. 1. Lord Randolph Churchill to Winston Churchill, 27 June 1891, CHAR 1/2/58-59
  2. 2. Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 6 April 1897, CHAR 28/23/31-33A
  3. 3. Winston Churchill to Frances, Duchess of Marlborough, 25 October 1897, CV I Part 2, p. 810.
  4. 4. Manuscript of The Story of the Malakand Field Force, CHAR 8/3/2.29, f.23. Piers Brendon drew attention to this point in The Decline of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007, p. 205.
  5. 5. Winston Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 10 August 1898, CV I Part 2, p. 963, CHAR 28/25/31.
  6. 6. Winston Churchill, ‘Our account with the Boers’, n.d. but 1896-7, CHAR 1/19/1-21.
  7. 7. Jack Churchill to Lady Randolph Churchill, 3 April 1900, CHAR 28/32/1.
  8. 8. Winston Churchill to J. Moore Bayley, 23 December 1901, CHAR 28/115/29-31.
  9. 9. Winston Churchill to Lloyd George, 31 August 1920 (unsent), CV IV, Part 2, p. 1199.
  10. 10. Winston Churchill, draft memoirs, CV V Part 1, p. 1431.
  11. 11. Speech notes for debate on India, 30 March 1943, CHAR 9/191A/1-12, f.10.
  12. 12. Speech of 10 November 1942, CHAR 9/158/56-68.
  13. 13. The Secretary of State for India [Leo Amery] to the Viceroy [and Governor-General of India, 2nd Lord Linlithgow], 3 February 1942, CHAR 20/69B/119.
  14. 14. Statement of 9 April 1963. Copy in CHUR 2/539B/157-159
  15. 15. Winston Churchill to Jack Churchill, 2 December [1897], CV I Part 2, p. 836, CHAR 28/152A/122.

(c) 2012 Richard Toye