Churchill’s Empire – A Review

Churchill’s Empire – The World That Made Him and the World He Made by Richard Toye (Macmillan 2010).

The British Empire can be viewed from numerous angles, as can Winston Churchill. Combining the two, narrows the topic to the life span of Churchill from 1874 to 1965. There remains much material to cover. Richard Toye does it thoroughly and lucidly using material from debates, biographies, newspapers and other media files. The reader learns not only what Churchill said and thought, but what others said about his views and policies on the Empire including those of Americans, Russians, and leaders in different parts of the world.

This is an impressive study, well researched and presented guiding the reader through the main issues of Churchill and the Empire while in and out of office. I am no scholar of either Churchill or the British Empire but I hope I am an informed lay reader of the related issues.

While following Professor Toye’s description of Churchill’s career from family to schooling to military service, which he combined with journalism in a manner not possible today, I learned as much if not more about how the Empire evolved over this period as I did about Churchill. Before he entered the House of Commons, Churchill fought and reported from Afghanistan, the Sudan and from South Africa during the Boer War, where he escaped after being captured.

One striking aspect is how bilateral relations between Britain and parts of the empire affected its relationship elsewhere. For example, in WW2, Australia was asked to provide troops to fight in Western Europe, when it was concerned about defending itself against attack from Japan. It had to rely on the promise of help from Britain, which in the case of Singapore was not forthcoming when the Japanese army arrived. Other parts of the Empire also provided troops and aid which meant that Britain was indebted to them in different ways.

Britain’s relations with the US both before and after it entered WW2 were conditioned by US pressure to end imperial trade preferences and to grant self-government to India and other colonies. In order to receive wartime loans from the US, Britain had to accept terms or wording that would pressure it to give independence to dominions and colonies in the postwar period.

Ireland is another example of where Britain’s relationship had to be managed because of Ireland’s decision to remain neutral during WW2.
Churchill was involved in promoting these and many other policies which affected Britain’s foreign and domestic relations. At home he often faced opposition due to differing views on the costs and benefits of the Empire.

Professor Toye not only describes what motivated Churchill based on his own writings but what others, who saw him close-up, thought. What struck me was the complexity of imperial politics due in part to it being a salt water empire spread around the world, expensive to manage and defend. Other empires like China, Russia, the Habsburg and Ottoman empires tended to be connected by land. Most of the British Empire was not. But this did mean that Britain developed a first rate navy, telegraphic and wireless communications and diplomatic skills which facilitated its management.

Churchill was intimately involved in imperial policies at different times including as Undersecretary for the Colonies when he switched from the Tories to Liberals in 1908, and Colonial Secretary in 1922, as well as many other cabinet positions held throughout his career. For me Professor Toye has provided value-added to an understanding of Churchill, and how the empire was managed, as well as a look at what parts of imperial history are relevant to understanding the world in the 21st century.


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