Protest against racism in front of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, London.
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

They Think it’s All Over for Churchill. It is, Now.

Reflections on Churchill College’s recent U-turn on the eve of the England Men’s Football Team’s first major final in 55 years…

And here comes Hurst! He’s got…
Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over!
[Geoff Hurst scores to put England two goals ahead]
It is, now! It’s four!

Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous BBC TV commentary from the closing moments of the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final — source: Wikipedia.

As an English person, I have been reflecting on patriotic idols that have been in the public eye of late. My usual disposition is to all but shun patriotism. I am wary of a force that can stray too close to a more dangerous nationalism, with a history of unfortunate manifestations to boot. But I acknowledge reasons I might be inclined to hedge my bets on the cultural identity front. I was raised Jewish in majority non-Jewish communities by an American stay-at-home dad, with plenty of reasons to feel alienated from myself and those around me; then, the last 8 years I have lived in the United States.

Recent events have brought me closer to the nation of my upbringing and my, albeit partially confused, accent. I find myself rooting whole-heartedly for the England Men’s National Football Team in the European Championship, and being affiliated with Churchill College, Cambridge, an institution that has been gracing the tabloid press of late, as I pursue a PhD in Engineering. As England has (“have” if you are English) progressed through the Euros, I have welled with national pride. I venture to say there is no other event in the global calendar (besides the World cup) that could have me singing for England. Even this feels a bit awkward as I reflect on it. England is a country that has left the legacy of an independence day for every week of the year, that still has a certain form of legal dominion over the other “Home Nations”, a Kingdom “United” around the English monarchy. But witnessing the joy brought to a nation, I cannot help but feel that there is a kernel of the good kind of patriotism in this collective show of spirit.

Onto the news stories. Several weeks ago, my college, named after Winston Churchill, caved to pressure from the tabloids, a right-wing think tank and descendants of our namesake in unceremoniously disbanding a working group assembled to examine and reappraise the legacy of the wartime prime minister. The college leadership released a statement containing a version of events that has since been roundly disputed and debunked via an internal response from the working group that circulated over the Churchill College email list, as well as by the real-time response of leading academic Professor Priyamvada Gopal on Twitter.

To me, as a member of the college, I find the sequence of events embarrassing and disappointing. In their statement, the college leadership describes the formation of the working group as a direct response to the public outcry about systemic racism that followed the murder of George Floyd. I have to infer that vandalisation of the prominent statue of Churchill in Parliament Square during Black Lives Matter protests may have had something to do with the move. It does not appear that there was a deeper motivation on the part of college leadership to explore the racial legacy of the college’s namesake. As such the college cites flying the pan-African flag for black history month, holding an exhibition for black alumni and holding two of the planned three Churchill, Empire and Race series events as having been enough to scratch the itch. To the contrary, it barely scratches the surface. Serious and informed re-appraisal of Churchill’s legacy is surely necessary if the college is to continue to take pride in the diversity and progressive outlook of its community.

Unfortunately, the idea of re-evaluation was seemingly too much for the powers that be. And so, the chance to attend a mere third and final event, the chance to hear from the brilliant writer and performer Akala, will pass us by, for now — though I hope not forever. Communications from the college suggest that they may renege again, responding to student and faculty outcry, and bring back the discussions next year, so we will have to see…

Certainly Churchill is a symbolic figure, synonymous with English Patriotism, and valour in self-defense. But can he not withstand scrutiny? And if indeed he cannot, is that not something that we should want to know more about, since our system of public story-telling has been built around him? Is the edifice of social order so fragile that it will collapse if the idolisation of Churchill is challenged? Cambridge is a centre of higher learning that can and should attract informed debate led by a diverse group of scholars. The discussion should be led by people of colour. A white supremacist establishment has had seventy-plus years to speak on these matters. It is time for our institutions to welcome another view.

As was well covered in the second event of the series, it doesn’t take much digging to find that Churchill believed in a white supremacist racial hierarchy, left millions to die of starvation in the Bengal Famine, and quite literally wrote the history books that cement his legacy. Even the suggestion that he was a “product of his time” does not hold up; he went above and beyond the norms of colonial apologism. Yes, he was prime minister when the Nazis were defeated, and gave some stirring speeches, but to single him out as the defender of Western liberty against fascism overlooks the decisive contributions of leaders at all levels, ordinary citizens and (at that time) “subjects”, not to mention the entire Russian military, which suffered millions of losses on the Eastern front. Pride in the victory over fascism can and will survive the humanisation of this memorialised figure. Indeed, perhaps it gives us the opportunity to remember that courage belongs to everyday people, not just the elite.

Could we lose a coat of lacquer on an idealised hero as would-be English patriots? Yes. But memory is an act of the present — it reflects and responds to the world that we wish to see today. I am inclined to look elsewhere for inspiration as to why I might be proud to be English in the here and now. What better place to start than with Gareth Southgate and the England Men’s National Football Team? Southgate brings his own brand of stoic leadership. He has borne the weight of a nation’s disappointment for twenty-five years since he missed the decisive penalty at Euro ‘96. He still carries scars: as someone who has grieved, I can feel the imprint of loss in his manner. There’s your “stiff upper lip”. Meantime, one of the hallmarks of the squad as a whole is that they do not take themselves too seriously. I am reminded of the charms of a self-deprecating English sense of humour. An understanding of this sense of humour is what is missing, according to Southgate, when other nations’ fans mischaracterize the “Three Lions” song (with its chorus that proclaims that “Football’s coming home”) as expressing arrogance. Rather, Baddiel and Skinner’s song comically bemoans the national team’s recurrent failures.

In my respect for Southgate as an individual, I am wary of the idea of replacing one “white saviour” with another. Southgate is, in the end, just a football manager, and he is not single-handedly warding off the spectre of fascism, as we like to think Churchill did. But he has brought a nation together and he has done so while upholding values of respect, humility and diversity. If not quite a saviour, Southgate has the makings of a good ally. He is always quick to acknowledge his debt to the people around him when receiving praise. Moreover, he has shown a commitment to leaving room for the experiences of others, wanting to listen and learn more about inequalities his colleagues and players have faced, so that he can use the power that he has in his position for good, as England coach Chris Powell describes. Beyond Southgate, there are role models all over the pitch, from Raheem Sterling, who has changed the tide in calling out racism in the media and on the pitch towards black players, to Marcus Rashford, who led a movement to extend the provision of free school meals for needy children, in spite of policy decisions enacted by the conservative government.

And so, on the eve of the European final, I’m not all the way a patriot, but I do hold hope for a new incarnation of what it means to be English; I also hold hope that my Cambridge college will get its act together and face up to the complicated history of its namesake. In the meantime, I’ll cheekily enjoy the idea that the very global game of football is “coming home” to Old Blighty! Come on, England!