Glaswegians are proud of their past so when they awoke last Wednesday morning, they were indignant at the news.
During the night, an unknown vandal had set about a century-old war memorial in Kelvingrove Park, smashing in the face of the sandstone soldier and hacking off its feet.
The statue was erected in 1906 in memory of the 127 soldiers of Glasgow’s Highland Light Infantry who perished in the Boer War and was paid for, not by government, but by subscriptions sent in by friends, families and working men.
‘My blood is boiling with fury’ was how Glasgow North East MP Paul Sweeney reacted to the desecration.
I spoke to the Royal Regiment of Scotland reservist over the weekend and he told me that ‘the conduct of the Second Boer War was appalling for its brutal internment of the civilian population as a means to break the will of the Boer farmers‘. However, ‘atrocious affront to justice in war’ was no justification for attacking a monument to the men who fought and died.
He said: ‘The desire to destroy and erase these echoes of our history, for better and worse, reveals a paucity of intelligence and an obnoxious form of “hipster iconoclasm” by those who are not willing to constructively engage with our heritage.’
That same iconoclasm was on display in January when paint was splattered across the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park. Walking among us are people who consider dishonouring fallen soldiers a form of anti-war activism. It is nothing of the sort. It is cowardice wrapped in the pale excuse of politics.
War memorials are not celebrations of conflict but reminders of its cost. We approach them with humility, not hubris, for we doubt we could ever be as brave as those ordinary men who brought forth from themselves and their comrades extraordinary courage.
When we bow our heads at the town cenotaph, we do not pray for more victories or spoils. We petition for the repose of the dead and grace that the living will never know the horrors they came to know.
The reorienting of politics around culture and identity was bound to lead us here, just as it will lead us into yet darker recesses. The will to tear down each other’s idols is a revival of the Roman practice of damnatio memoriae — obliterating the dead from the memory of the living.
Progressives may be in the vanguard of this dismal movement but they enjoy no monopoly. Over the weekend, Karl Marx’s tomb in London was daubed in red paint: ‘Memorial to Bolshevik holocaust’. There is a religious fanaticism to all this, the smashing of graven images to the wrong god.
That nocturnal hooligans behave like this is contemptible but when parliamentarians join in, it is altogether grimmer. Last week Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell described Winston Churchill as a ‘villain’, providing a one-word case for the prosecution: ‘Tonypandy’.
Tonypandy is a small town along the Rhondda River, an hour’s drive south of the Brecon Beacons, and the scene in 1910 of a turbulent industrial dispute over miners’ pay. Churchill, then Home Secretary in Asquith’s Liberal government, sent troops to the area amid violence and looting.
Hundreds were injured in the clashes and one miner was killed, though a coroner could not determine which side was culpable. The incident, Roy Jenkins records in his biography of Winnie, ‘became adversely and unfairly remembered against Churchill’.
There remains ill will towards him in south Wales today for what lore and sentiment have turned into an act of repression. Churchill used the Army to break a strike and the Army opened fired on unarmed civilians.
In fact, as Jenkins documents, it was the local chief constable who requested the soldiers, a request Churchill resisted until the rioting intensified, whereupon he despatched the Lancashire Fusiliers to the valleys. The infantrymen did not tackle the miners — that was left to the Glamorgan constabulary and a contingent of Metropolitan Police officers — and no shots were fired on the men.
Far from precipitous, Churchill was excoriated by the Tories and the Press for a wishy-washy response and the following year, when striking rail workers blockaded the Great Western Railway at Llanelli, he sent troops again.
This time they opened fire and two men were killed, though it was a local magistrate who asked for the Army’s assistance. In the haze of anger and passing years, Tonypandy and Llanelli have blurred into a folk memory more powerful than mere truth.
Churchill is a creation of myth and so is much of the charge sheet against him. He did not, as his condemners charge, gas the Kurds. An oft-cited remark — ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes‘ — is in fact from a memo preferring the deployment of non-lethal tear gas to mortar shells. In any event, historian RM Douglas points out, no such gas was used in Mesopotamia.
Nor was he responsible for the Bengal famine of 1943, as is often alleged. Martin Gilbert has established that Churchill did attempt to alleviate the suffering in some measure but was hampered by poor administration on the ground and the demands of the war effort. However, it is fair to say that his endeavours were less than was pleaded for and his empathy dulled by prejudice.
His sins have been enlarged upon but they have not been invented. He was a drunkard, a popinjay, a narcissist, a proud British imperialist, and would today be deemed a racist. ‘I hate Indians,’ he once offered. ‘They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’.
Of the dispossession of the American Indians and Australian Aborigines, he remarked that ‘a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race… has come in and taken their place’. He did, however, favour one indigenous people many of his detractors still disfavour: the Jews in Palestine.
Churchill is a figure of shade in our era of stark black and white, these hair-trigger days of calling out, dragging down, clapping back, and piling on. He cannot be explained in a tweet but he can be execrated in one. When Ross Greer called him ‘a white supremacist and a mass murderer’, he was engaging in exactly the kind of performative ignorance that social media rewards.
Greer and his fellow travellers are a leftist analogue to those pin-striped, ruddy-cheeked student Tories who got Eighties rugger dinners under way with a bellow of ‘Mandela is a terrorist’.
Nelson Mandela was founder and head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress, but to dismiss him as a terrorist akin to Osama bin Laden or Yasser Arafat is an offence against history and intelligence. When your politics is driven by affronting the enemy, though, such statements tempt with zinging swagger.
McDonnell and Greer have inspired several weeks of debate on the merits of Churchill. Critics have talked up his bigotry and admirers his statesmanship but the matter is not so much whether he was a good man or a great man. For the 12 months after France fell, we truly were facing ‘the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister… by the lights of perverted science’.
Churchill refused to sue for peace with Hitler, toiled to bring the United States into the war, and inspired an empire to persevere until it prevailed against fascism. He was a necessary man who did necessary things on which the fate of the world turned.
There was another Churchill in the news last week. On Wednesday, Dick Churchill, the last surviving organiser of the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, died age 99. Chief of the Air Staff Sir Stephen Hillier reflected that he ‘was from a selfless generation who offered bravery and sacrifice to secure our freedom’, before quoting the RAF motto: ‘Per ardua ad astra’.
That is who our monuments honour, the most heroic Churchill our nation birthed and millions of men like him. Men who fought through adversity to the stars.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.