Monday, September 6, 2010

Richard Toye's "Churchill's Empire"

Richard Toye was born in Cambridge, U.K. in 1973. He studied at the universities of Birmingham and Cambridge, and is now an associate professor at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on British and international history. In 2007 he was named Young Academic Author of the Year by Times Higher Education magazine for his book Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness.

Toye applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Churchill’s Empire is quite representative of the book, although it deals with an episode that seems in many ways distinctive in relation to Churchill’s imperial views over the course of his career. Part of my aim in writing was to show that Churchill’s reputation as a right-wing imperial Diehard, although not exactly incorrect, derives very much from his activities in the 1930s and after. P. 99 discusses events in 1906, when he was just starting his ministerial career, in a junior role at the Colonial Office. Two years earlier, he had left the Conservative Party for the Liberals (in the 1920s he would switch back). He now came under attack from his former colleagues for an alleged radicalism that was supposedly putting the Empire under threat.

The issue in question now seems an obscure one: the system of Chinese indentured labour in South Africa, which had played a surprisingly prominent part in the election campaign that the Liberals had just won. The Liberals had played it up as a humanitarian question, using the label ‘Chinese slavery’. Once in office, though, the new government took a more moderate line, restricting the system and leaving to the future the question of whether it would continue once the Transvaal (one of the two former Boer republics defeated in the South African war of 1899) had achieved self-government as part of the British Empire. This would be for the Transvaal parliament itself to decide. But Churchill stated to the House of Commons that no matter how well a proposal from the Transvaal was supported by public opinion there, the British government would not shrink from vetoing any new law that offended the principles of liberty and decency. Why was this controversial? As I explain on p. 99:
Traditionally, the use of the Crown’s right of veto of colonial governments’ decisions was restricted to matters affecting the rights of British subjects elsewhere or Britain’s relations with foreign powers. It now seemed as though Churchill was claiming a general right to interfere in the business of any self- governing colony that offended Liberal ministers’ sense of right and wrong. […] British South Africans were outraged by the speech. ‘The Cabinet must not forget it is dealing with its own flesh and blood’, declared the Rand Mail: ‘We will not forgo the birthright of freedom we have inherited.’ Another South African paper, the Star, thought the speech ‘a gratuitous insult to every self-governing colony’.
I believe that Churchill found such criticism quite bruising, and his ‘radical’ imperial phase, such as it was, was short-lived. Within months he had moved back onto safer and more conventional lines, although he did not yet become as right-wing as he did in the interwar period, when he returned to the Conservatives. However, Churchill underwent many changes throughout his career and demonstrated numerous contradictions; so in some ways p. 99 is typical of the book in its atypicality.
Read an excerpt from Churchill's Empire, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue