Shadow Chancellor McDonnell, Corbyn’s cardinal rouge, described Winston Churchill as a villain for his role in the Tonypandy riots.
Many people took issue with that, instead describing Churchill as a hero for his role in saving Europe from Hitler.
Weighing these two positions in the balance, I have to assume an uncharacteristically relativist stand by suggesting that Churchill can be regarded as either hero or villain. It all depends on one’s frame of reference.
Clearly, in a parliamentary career spanning the reigns of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II and comprising a number of cabinet posts, including the highest one, Churchill didn’t quite manage to avoid sin altogether.
Then again, his defenders only ask that he be respected, not canonised. People are fallible, and politicians tend to be more fallible than average. Hence, when pondering whether to place Churchill into the villain or hero category, one should weigh his sins against his achievements.
Since neither side seems willing to consider his whole career, they, in the person of McDonnell, reduce the dichotomy to just one sin, the Tonypandy riots, or just one achievement, making sure that Trafalgar Square isn’t called Ludendorffplatz, or some such.
Since the latter hardly needs further praise and gratitude, let’s concentrate on the former.
In 1910 coal miners in South Wales went on a go-slow strike, or so the management thought. The miners objected they had only slowed down because the new pits were harder to chip away at.
Now miners have always gone on strike so readily that one is tempted to think the explicit grievances have largely been mere pretexts. Their real problem – and here I sympathise wholeheartedly – is that they have to do just about the worst job imaginable.
Few of us would fancy spending our working lives in back-breaking, claustrophobic subterranean toil, breathing coal dust and dying of silicosis at a young age. Anyone doing that can be expected to display heightened sensitivity to any real or imaginary injustice.
It could be the working conditions, hours, pay or for that matter their misreading of the law penalising sex with minors. Whatever the face value of the dispute, colliers tend to be a hairbreadth removed from strikes, often violent ones.
In that case, the management responded by closing the site down to all 12,500 workers, not just the 70 most vociferous protesters. A real strike followed, and riots after that. Shops were smashed up and looted, and even the houses of the owners and managers came under attack.
The police fought back with baton charges, and violence escalated – on both sides. Responding to pleas from the police, Churchill, at that time Home Secretary in a Liberal government, reluctantly agreed to send in a couple of army units.
The aim was to moderate excesses on both sides, and it worked. The army never opened fire, nor had been instructed to do so. But its sheer presence quickly put an end to the strike, keeping the casualty count down. Altogether, 500 rioters and 85 policemen were injured and one miner died after being hit on the head with a police truncheon (not a bullet).
I’d suggest that Winston Churchill ought to be praised more readily than rebuked for his role in the affair. But I did say that my frame of reference here is relativist.
By contrast, Mr McDonnell’s clearly proceeds from some absolute moral standards. Applying them to the issue at hand, he feels that Churchill’s 1910 villainy, such as it was, outweighs his wartime heroism (I assume McDonnell sees it as such, though one never knows).
Since we differ so sharply, I feel justified in examining Mr McDonnell’s frame of reference in light of what he considers villainous or commendable.
Mr (Comrade?) McDonnell identifies Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his “most significant” intellectual influences. On numerous occasions he has expressed admiration for the state created to those gentlemen’s specifications.
Hence it’s apposite to see how that state handled a similar situation, if only to admire the high moral ground from which Mr McDonnell looks down on Churchill’s villainy.
In 1962 workers in Novocherkassk (in whose garrison my uncle was an officer at the time) went on strike protesting the unaffordable food prices that had put them on the verge of starvation. Unlike the Tonypandy riots, the protests were peaceful: no shops or private residences were molested in any way.
In response, KGB troops were summoned to the North Caucasus city and fired several salvos of live rounds at the crowd. The official death toll (the unofficial one was several times higher) was 26 killed on the spot with machine-gun fire, 87 wounded (of whom three later died).
Then the trials began, with seven death sentences passed and immediately executed – none of that American shilly-shallying with years on death row. Many others went to concentration camps for up to 15 years.
Considering that McDonnell’s role models murdered over 60 million in the Soviet Union alone, mentioning such a small episode may sound churlish. I’ve only done so because of the obvious parallel with Tonypandy.
Now I consider Churchill a hero even before we start drawing such obvious comparisons. But then I did admit to being a relativist.
However there’s nothing relative about the dread I feel at the possibility that McDonnell may well be our next Chancellor. Then we’ll learn all we need to know about villainy – actually quite a bit more than we need to know.