Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made – Richard Toye

Published April 5, 2013 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

A charmer and a bully, Winston Churchill was driven by a belief that the English were a superior race, whose goals went beyond individual interests to offer an enduring good to the entire world. No better example exists than Churchill’s resolve to stand alone against a more powerful Hitler in 1940 while the world’s democracies fell to their knees. But there is also the Churchill who frequently inveighed against human rights, nationalism, and constitutional progress—the imperialist who could celebrate racism and believed India was unsuited to democracy. Drawing on newly released documents and an uncanny ability to separate the facts from the overblown reputation (by mid-career Churchill had become a global brand), Richard Toye provides the first comprehensive analysis of Churchill’s relationship with the empire.

Instead of locating Churchill’s position on a simple left/right spectrum, Toye demonstrates how the statesman evolved and challenges the reader to understand his need to reconcile the demands of conscience with those of political conformity.

What did I think?:

I am ashamed to say, I knew very little about Winston Churchill before reading this book apart from the fact that he was Prime Minister and played a great part in World War II. Now, I feel I know the man slightly better, but I’m afraid to say I found this book a little dry in places. It begins with Churchill’s father and the part he played as a politician and then talks about Winston’s early years as a schoolboy at the infamous Harrow boys school, and how he made a career for himself as half soldier/half journalist during the Boer war where he was captured but later escaped.

One of the more interesting parts was his attitudes to race – was he a racist or not? He certainly seemed to change his mind and made a few notable statements which suggested he was not as “black-friendly” as he portrayed himself to be: “a ‘civilised educated’ black man would provoke ‘no feelings’ in him.”  Indeed, Churchill quite enjoyed running off to take part in a lot of “jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.” and in the 1920’s he unleashed the “Black and Tans” on Ireland fighting against the Catholic population. Churchill seemed to think the British Empire and the “English speaking peoples” the most superior in the world and fought tooth and nail against anyone who dared to think or say otherwise. For example, India and the peace-promoter Mahatma Gandhi received a torrent of abuse with Churchill stating Gandhi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” and then referred to as a “half-naked fakir.” 

 The author definitely brings out the darker side of the legend that is Churchill but balances it with counter-arguments for the good he did as a leader, especially when serving as Prime Minister. His first speech is now infamous: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He followed this up with many powerful statements which we now associate him with: “we shall never surrender,” “this was their finest hour,” and “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

All in all, I think anyone interested in politics would really enjoy this book, and it is obvious that Richard Toye has done some meticulous research on Churchill. For me however, I found it slightly laborious at times although I appreciate what I have learnt about this famous and intriguing public figure.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably not.

Star rating (out of 5):

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