Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has stood by his description of Sir Winston Churchill as a “villain”.
The Labour heavyweight’s comment sparked a furious reaction from Churchill’s admirers, with Sir Nicholas Soames – the grandson of the wartime prime minister – dismissing it as “foolish and stupid”, and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson demanding a retraction.
Prime Minister Theresa May declared her admiration for the “strong leadership, determination and unwavering personality” shown by her predecessor, whose portrait hangs on her study wall at 10 Downing Street.
But Mr McDonnell said that he welcomed the attention which his remark had drawn to Churchill’s role in sending in troops to break a miners’ strike in Tonypandy, South Wales, in 1910.
Despite the furore prompted by his comment, he told ITV News he would give the same answer again, adding: “You don’t want to upset people but you want to be honest.
“If it’s prompted a more rounded debate about Churchill’s role, well I welcome it.”
In a sequence of quick-fire questions from the Politico website, streamed live on the internet on Wednesday, Mr McDonnell was asked: “Winston Churchill. Hero or villain?”
He responded with two words: “Tonypandy – villain.”
Many on the left see Churchill’s reputation as tarnished by events in Tonypandy, where nearly 80 police and 500 civilians were injured and one miner died.
The then home secretary’s responsibility for the clashes is a matter of fierce historical debate, but Mr McDonnell’s response made clear that he held the former PM to blame for deploying soldiers to assist police dealing with riots.
Mr Johnson – the author of a book on Churchill – said Mr McDonnell should be “ashamed of his remarks and withdraw them forthwith”.
If John McDonnell had the slightest knowledge of history he would be aware that Churchill also had an extraordinary record as a social reformer who cared deeply for working people and their lives. JM should be utterly ashamed of his remarks and withdraw them forthwith 2/2
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) February 14, 2019
“Winston Churchill saved this country and the whole of Europe from a barbaric fascist and racist tyranny and our debt to him is incalculable,” the former foreign secretary said.
“If John McDonnell had the slightest knowledge of history he would be aware that Churchill also had an extraordinary record as a social reformer who cared deeply for working people and their lives.”
Tory former minister Robert Halfon called for a Commons statement on Sir Winston’s achievements, telling MPs: “Far from being a villain, Winston Churchill was not only our greatest prime minister but a wonderful social reformer and a man who defeated Nazi tyranny.”
Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom replied: “Someone calling Sir Winston Churchill a villain is, in effect, denigrating the achievements of a man who led this country to potentially its greatest ever contribution to global peace, and it’s a great shame that he was described in this way.”
Tory MP Sir Nicholas told The Daily Telegraph: “I think my grandfather’s reputation can withstand a publicity-seeking assault from a third-rate Poundland Lenin. I don’t think it will shake the world.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman said the public will “reach its own judgment on this characterisation of Sir Winston Churchill”.
He noted that Churchill was voted history’s greatest Briton in a 2002 poll.
And he added: “The Prime Minister has quoted and referenced Sir Winston Churchill on many occasions and acknowledged him as one of the great prime ministers of the 20th century.
“She has a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill hung on the wall of her study in Number 10.
“His strong leadership, determination and unwavering personality inspired our country through our darkest hour and helped Britain protect those values of peace and freedom that we hold so dear today.”
Look who takes pride of place on my mantelpiece in Dudley: a real British hero, the greatest ever Briton, the man who motivated Britain to defeat the Nazis and fight not just for our liberty but the world’s freedom too. pic.twitter.com/UEFCc7QWwv
— Ian Austin (@IanAustinMP) February 13, 2019
Labour MP Ian Austin voiced his disagreement by posting a picture on social media of a figurine of the wartime leader he keeps at home.
Mr Austin said: “Look who takes pride of place on my mantelpiece in Dudley: a real British hero, the greatest ever Briton, the man who motivated Britain to defeat the Nazis and fight not just for our liberty but the world’s freedom too.”
Mr McDonnell told ITV News that Churchill “was obviously a hero during the Second World War”.
But he added: “In the teaching of history, we’ve got to impress upon people that you’ve got to look at individuals in the round.
“Undoubtedly a hero during the Second World War, but also look at the other aspects of his life as well. Tonypandy was a disgrace – sending the troops in, killing a miner, trying to break a strike and other incidents in his history as well.”
Mr McDonnell said it was “interesting” that Churchill was voted out in the 1945 general election because voters “didn’t believe that he was the right leader to rebuild the country in peace time”.
Labour backbencher Chris Williamson said it was people like his parents who won the Second World War, rather than Churchill.
The Derby North MP agreed with the shadow chancellor that Churchill was a “villain”, as he criticised his record before and after the war.
Mr Williamson said: “He was in the right place at the right time but it was people like my mum and dad that actually won the war for Britain, not Winston Churchill.”