From its exterior, Blighty looks like an unexceptional café. With its signage in multicoloured font, and a window display advertising fresh sour dough bread, it could easily be dismissed as one of the many new establishments founded in the wave of gentrification that has swept London. It is, therefore, all the more shocking that the café has revived debate and discussion about the British Empire, and the legacy of one of its greatest advocates.
Café Blighty was originally run by the current owner’s Grandfather, a former RAF pilot in 1944. The café was resurrected in 2013, with a Churchillian theme. With a life-sized model of Churchill, and a mock air raid shelter outside, the café provoked fifteen university students into protesting in January. They entered the café and denounced Churchill as an imperialist, with a speech prepared: “We demand that that the owner of the café apologise to the local community for their poorly thought and insensitive branding and promptly change it, from the menu to the aesthetics and décor of the café.” Their demands for a change in the menu is most likely due to two of the café’s best selling breakfasts, one called ‘The Winston’ and the other ‘The Gandhi.’ Ironically enough, Winston Churchill himself might have protested about a meal being named after him in coordination with Gandhi, a man he once raged “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
The story of these protesters caught on, with the Daily Express printing the ever so measured and restrained headline: ‘Shameful lefty gang screams Churchill was RACIST who terrorise Winston Churchill café.’ The article couldn’t resist noting that that the protestors were Labour supporters, which Boris Johnson took one step further, demanding that Jeremy Corbyn denounce the ‘hard left mob,’ whilst Nigel Farage branded the fifteen protestors ‘pig ignorant.’ If the students can be accused of anything, it is fulfilling the student stereotype. One can’t help but feel that the chants: ‘It’s our duty to fight for our freedom’, and ‘we have nothing to lose but our chains!’ are slightly melodramatic in the context of a North London café on a Saturday morning, but students will be students.
One look at the customers from the video footage of the protests shows the café is hardly a hotbed for radical right-wing imperialists, and the café’s owner runs a sister charity that has provided good faith loans to over 200 women in rural India to help fund local businesses. Though virtue signalling is an overused term, in the case of this protest I believe it is applicable. However, despite their rather cringe-inducing performance, the students can be credited for briefly reopening a debate and discussion about one of Britain’s most venerated statesmen, and for questioning a consensus enforced by the media.
Sarah Vine, a Daily Mail columnist, decided to specifically single out one of the protesters, a daughter of Somali refugees: ‘Of course, no one remotely expects people like Halimo to spend their lives saying thank you. But it might be nice if she hadn’t actively decided to dedicate her life to trashing the history of her adoptive country.’ The comment becomes questionable when protesting at a trendy café apparently qualifies as a life spent trashing national history. But more importantly, this statement highlights just how embedded Churchill is in Britain’s national identity that criticising him is deemed an insult to the nation itself. Britain, in contrast to many nations, is free of holding personality cults towards politicians, with Churchill being one of the very few exceptions. In April 2014, Labour candidate Benjamin Whittingham called Churchill a racist and white supremacist in a tweet. The backlash that followed included condemnation from Churchill’s own Grandson, and the tweet was quickly deleted. A statement from a Labour party spokesman said that Whittingham’s tweet “does not represent the view of the Labour Party. He apologises unreservedly if it has caused any offence.”
This enforced consensus on Churchill is worrying, especially because there is indeed evidence to support the fact that Churchill held racist views. If one looks beyond his stoic speeches during the Second World War they can find statements that are indeed racist. For example, he told the Palestinian Royal Commission in 1937 that: “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” Additionally, claims of Churchill’s white supremacy are hardly unfounded. Though a passionate supporter of the Boer war, Churchill greatly disliked the British use of colonial troops against the white Boers, expressing; ‘irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.’ The outrage that any claim of Churchill’s racism can cause is reflected in Nigel Farage’s response to the protestors; ‘I am literally appalled that we have these people living in our country today.’ For a man who denounces the ideological dogma of the left, this statement resembles that of a political commissar shielding a venerated leader from criticism.
Critics of the students also argued that we have to be relative and put in context the values of his generation into account. However, it should be duly noted that whilst many of Churchill’s generation were indeed imperialists, few were quite as zealous or violent in their beliefs. As Colonial secretary during the Iraqi revolt, Churchill said that, ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes,’ not understanding ‘this squeamishness about the use of gas’. Even if Churchill’s views were truly representative of the era, the fact that Churchill is venerated to such heroic levels stops an ethically unjust argument from being questioned. If people want to interpret him as a nuanced man with both strengths and weaknesses like every other human, then it is certainly fine to take historical relativism into account. However, if we are going to put him on a pedestal so high that criticism is to be condemned, and even the leader of the opposition should be forced to denounce it, then relativity doesn’t quite cut it. Nigel Farage in his criticism of the protesters challenged them to ‘tell me it would have been better for us to give in and let the Nazi’s take over the country,’ as if it is simply impossible to simultaneously offer criticism of Churchill and credit his contribution to the war effort. Yes, he was certainly a man with great strengths who played a pivotal role in the Second World War. He is one of the most celebrated politicians in the world with reason. It is not just Conservatives like Trump who praise Churchill (Trump keeps a bust of Churchill in the oval office and reportedly recommended the film ‘Darkest Hour’ to Theresa May), but also liberals and even socialists. Bernie Sanders praised Churchill as one of his influencers, arguing that though he was ‘kind of a conservative guy’, he rallied the British people during the war.
There is indeed no problem with a Churchillian themed café, which is clearly more of a trendy gimmick than a sinister promotion of imperialism. It is also acknowledgeable that Churchill was a talented politician, and a highly effective war leader with an impressive service record dating back to the 19th Century. One cannot be bothered going into his many achievements because they’re already well known and recorded. The primary issue to address from this incident is that his faults are less well known and less circulated, with his legacy so heavily embedded in British culture that criticism is seen as an attack on national identity itself. We should be cautious not to idolise anybody left or right, and for an individual to be venerated to the point where criticism is deemed an outrage is sycophantic at best. Rather than a ‘mob’ to be denounced and demonised, the protesters at Blighty café should be credited for questioning a consensus.