A Young Churchill Explores His 'Empire' Richard Toye's new book paints Winston Churchill as a lion of freedom who proudly proclaimed that he would not preside over the liquidation of an empire. Host Scott Simon speaks with Toye about Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made.
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A Young Churchill Explores His 'Empire'

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A Young Churchill Explores His 'Empire'

A Young Churchill Explores His 'Empire'

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Seems that theres a new Winston Churchill biography every few months. Along with Lincoln and Adolf Hitler, Churchill remains one of the most vivid, fascinating and emblematic figures in history.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Sir WINSTON CHURCHILL (Prime Minister, United Kingdom): And with the British Empire around us, we shall fight on, unconquerable, until the curse of Hitler is lifted from the brows of men.

SIMON: Richard Toye has a new book, "Churchills Empire," that explores how this essential figure could at once be a lion of freedom and also proudly proclaim that he would not preside over the liquidation of an empire.

Richard Toye is an associate professor at the University of Exeter, 2007 Young Academic Author of the Year for his acclaimed book "Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness." He joins us now from BBC studios in Devon, the United Kingdom.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor RICHARD TOYE (University of Exeter): Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: I found, reading the book, one of the more significant episodes as you detail it, in Winston Churchill's life, was when - and we sometimes forget this - he was captured by the Boers during the uprising against British rule by the Boers. And if I could get you to tell the story of some of the dialogues he had with his captor, particularly about the Boers' attitude towards race.

Prof. TOYE: Well, its an absolutely fascinating episode, at the point where Churchill had bravely fought in this battle - the famous battle of the armored train and then being captured by the Boers, as hes being taken into captivity he has a conversation with some of his captors and they disagree over racial issues. And he was critical of the Boers' racial attitudes. Now, although Churchill was quite willing to criticize the white supremacist attitudes of the Boers, when he came into power, he really did very little to promote the interests of the black majority.

SIMON: You nicely set up what I'm going present as a personal problem, but its not mine alone. Just about the two people I admire most in history are Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. And I wish I could say they were close and warm friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But I think it's safe to say that the two of them considered themselves adversaries.

Prof. TOYE: Absolutely. They did, in fact, meet on one occasion very briefly, in 1906. This was when Gandhi was actually active in South African politics and was fighting for the rights of the Indian minority there. Now, the account which Gandhi gave of this at the time was that, you know, when he(ph) met Churchill, and this was when Gandhi was visiting London in order to campaign against discriminatory legislation that was being applied against Indians, and he said Churchill was very nice and was very encouraging. And in the short-term Gandhi got what he wanted.

Now, the - later on, of course, the clashes between them were conducted at a distance. I dont think Gandhi bore any real personal animosity towards Churchill, but Churchill certainly did so towards Gandhi.

SIMON: I was struck by something that the American civil rights activist, Richard B. Moore, who was born in Barbados, wrote about Churchill - very thoughtful essay when Churchill died. He admired him and yet was clear-eyed about him and how he dealt with reconciling these two sides of Winston Churchill.

Prof. TOYE: Moore was a very strong anti-imperialist and therefore somebody who might be expected to condemn Churchill in quite harsh terms as, of course, many subsequent figures in Africa and India, for example, have done. There was this brief period in 1940 when the interests of the British Empire and the interests of freedom in the world as a whole coincided, and Churchill could be, you know, for this brief moment, at any rate, respected in spite of his strong imperialist views.

SIMON: Nelson Mandela rather had that attitude too, when you talked about the Atlantic Charter.

Prof. TOYE: Quite. Nelson Mandela was somebody who as a young student was listening to Churchill's wartime broadcasts, gathered with his fellow students around a radio and was inspired them. And the Atlantic Charter of 1941 appeared, at any rate, to be some kind of promise of colonial freedom, although Churchill himself strongly rejected that idea.

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Sir CHURCHILL: After the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace that will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom.

Prof. TOYE: Mandela's view was that although Churchill had not put that interpretation on the Atlantic Charter, nonetheless the words were so powerful and so strong in themselves that they went beyond, if you like, the intention of the author who had helped create them.

SIMON: And that, finally, is what I want to look at with you about Winston Churchill. Did he set loose in his torrent of eloquence a whirlwind with real-life consequences that maybe even he didnt even envision?

Prof. TOYE: I think that's very true. I think that these powerful words about freedom, which to some extent he hoped would be interpreted selectively, he was - very much saw this as freedom for the English speaking races, really, and the white population of Europe (unintelligible) full democracy as being appropriate for the majority populations of the colonies. Yet these ideas were so powerful that they implanted themselves around the world and were taken up by generations of post-war nationalists and helped undermine the British Empire, and that helped bring about that liquidation of the British Empire, which Churchill himself had been so determined to resist.

SIMON: Undermine the British Empire or help it fulfill its better ideals?

Prof. TOYE: Well, from the point of view of Churchill's opponents within the Conservative Party, for example, very much to help it fulfill its better ideals. But I think that Churchill never really quite reconciled himself to the decolonization process which occurred after 1945, and indeed at the very end of his life - although one may not take the comment entirely seriously - he said privately that, you know, the British Empire I knew has gone and my whole career has been for nothing.

SIMON: Richard Toye, his new book, "Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made." Thanks so much.

Prof. TOYE: Thank you.

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