Saturday 9 April 2011

Victory of the Icon

In the course of preparing myself [to play Churchill in a biopic]… I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the corridors of endless power all through history…. What man of sanity would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against British and Anzac prisoners of war, ‘We shall wipe them out, every one of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese left on the face of the earth’? Such simple-minded cravings for revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded and merciless ferocity.

- Richard Burton. (He got banned from the BBC for writing that. Which must’ve really burned him as he lounged around in Hollywood with Elisabeth Taylor’s head in his lap.)

In ‘Victory of the Daleks’ by Mark Gatiss, Winston Churchill is depicted as a wiley and cantankerous old fox, as a twinkly-eyed yet determined fighter against the Nazi menace, as a moral force, as an impish and roguish but unequivocally good man. This is very much the mainstream view of Churchill, in both ‘pop culture’ and in much of the trash that masquerades as history in our society.

Moreover, Churchill is an old mate of the Doctor’s. They go way back. In other words, he gets the endorsement of Our Hero, the narrative and moral locus of the series.  Here is Gatiss' reasoning:

I think in the end it came down to sort of printing the Churchill of legend, because Doctor Who is not the place, really, to examine those sorts of things, except wherever possible, as it were, in the gaps, in the shadows, you can suggest his pragmatism. So in this episode when the Doctor, despite the fact that the Doctor's telling him that the Daleks are the worst thing in the entire universe, he thinks 'I can end the war quicker, I can save lives'. So that sort of thing was interesting to play with. But I did, you know, it just isn't the place to try and have those conversations, because it's an adventure series.

This reminds me of a page at the BBC website about whether Churchill was “as good as we think?”. As ever, “we” is left undefined. The page lists Pros and Cons. The best Cons they can come up with are a couple of military blunders, the return to the gold standard and Yalta. In other words: was he as marvelous as “we” apparently all believe or did he sometimes make mistakes? The big one on the list is Yalta, so the worst thing he can be accused of is handing much of Europe over to the real evildoers. Pravda would have been proud of such framing.

(The Yalta thing seems especially unfair to Churchill. He assumed that Russia would renege on the agreed post-war frontiers of Europe and advocated ‘Operation Unthinkable’, a lunatic plan to launch an unprovoked attack upon Russia as early as July 1945, thus starting a new war against one of his own allies.)

For Gatiss, Churchill’s “shadows” consist of this kind of “pragmatism”. The closest the man had to a dark side was a ruthlessness about allies and tactics… but even this was all about wanting to “save lives”. Thus, even the “shadows” we are allowed to see make him look noble.

This is from a telegram that Churchill sent to the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff, 28th March, 1945:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

Note that this memo frankly acknowledges that the firebombings were calculated and carried out as acts of terrorism. Note that the main reason for stopping seems to be the fear that “we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land”.

This, presumably, is what Gatiss means when he refers to Churchill’s “absolute pragmatism”.

(On the subject, it might be observed that many of the ostensible ‘military targets’ that are frequently trotted out as justification for the Dresden atrocity still stand today, since they were quite a way out of the city itself… and many of the RAF pilots dropping the bombs didn’t have proper maps in any case.)

In the end though, for Gatiss, Doctor Who isn’t the forum for investigating Churchill’s ‘flaws’… and yet, somehow, it is the forum for celebrating his greatness. It is obviously considered somehow neutral (i.e. unpolitical or apolitical) to depict Churchill in an entirely positive light (i.e. as “the legend”), whereas introducing a critique of the man would be inappropriate, presumably because it would be seen as evidence of a political agenda. The positive depiction is seen as neutral and acceptable to peddle to kids, whereas a negative or critical depiction would be out of place, probably precisely because it would be perceived as harbouring political valences that a forthrightly positive depiction is somehow supposed to lack!

This is the properly educated orthodox mind at work. This is heavily ideological thinking which perceives itself as non-ideological, precisely because it hugs the doctrinal orthodoxy, which is perceived as normal and mainstream and neutral, and hence appropriate. I’ve even read critics of how Churchill is depicted in this story describe the problem as one of the writing being “apolitical”. But there is nothing neutral or “apolitical” about praise, about approval, about presenting a politician in terms of his “legend”. In any other context, this would be obvious. Would we be happy if a Russian children’s programme portrayed Stalin in terms of his “legend” and excused this on the basis that a critical approach would be inappropriate? Hopefully, we’d call that what it was… and what it is when “we” do it with “our” leaders and their legends: propaganda.

Mind you, I’m not accusing the Doctor Who production team of consciously taking on the roles of ideological commissars. That would be to credit them with too much self-awareness. In the minds of the production team, foremost seems to be the issue of Churchill’s status as a “British icon” (this being assumed to be self-evidently good and implicitly appropriate subject matter). The various interviewees on the ‘Victory’ Confidential episode do a lot of blithering on about how Churchill and the Daleks are both “British icons”. Indeed, so steeped in this kind of thinking is Gatiss that, when commenting approvingly on the redesigned Daleks, he describes them as looking “like Minis”.

This kind of ideological thinking covers itself in the supposedly ‘self conscious’ ‘irony’ (it’s actually the opposite of self conscious or ironic) that revels in Bond films because, as Gatiss himself put it, they’re one of those things “you’re not supposed to love”. It’s only a short step from such thinking to the delusions of Daily Mail columnists who imagine that people who dare to express patriotism are hounded by the Political Correctness police.

At another point in the Confidential episode, Gatiss says that the horrors of the Blitz are “the sort of thing that you simply can’t imagine today… the idea that you would see someone like this and then, the next day, maybe everyone else in this room is dead.” Unimaginable, huh? Well, no… not to the people of, say, Iraq. They can imagine what it is like to have their friends and neighbours and family wiped out by bombs in the space of seconds. Many of them can remember such things happening in their own lives. And such things continue to happen in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya.

What’s any of this got to do with Churchill? Quite a lot actually.

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be good… and it would spread a lively terror…

- Winston Churchill, on how to treat Iraqis, 12 May 1919.

In his thuggish way, he has a point. Why commit mass murder with bombs and then flinch at a bit of gas? In the end, gas doesn't appear to have been used against the "uncivilised tribes". Bombs were good enough to teach them who was master, or pulverise them if they failed to learn the lesson. But we can forget those slaughtered victims of imperialism, because they were slaughtered by "us" rather than by the officially-sanctioned baddies.

Mind you, "we" didn't always think they were baddies. Churchill certainly didn't. In fact, he admired the fascists greatly for their refusal to brook any unpardonable challenges to the state from workers.

What a man! I have lost my heart!... Fascism has rendered a service to the entire world... If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely from the beginning of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passion of Leninism.

- Churchill on Benito Mussolini after his 1927 visit to Fascist-run Rome.

Indeed, so enamoured was Winston of this new, blackshirted "way to combat subversive forces" (i.e. striking workers and communists) that he called Mussolini the "Roman genius... the greatest lawgiver among men."

Later, he learned to be slightly more circumspect in his open admiration for jackbooted, union-busting, chauvinist dictators:

One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.

- Winston Churchill, “Hitler and His Choice” The Strand Magazine, November 1935.

This from the man who, according to Gatiss, was “vehemently opposed to the Nazis from very early on, and never wavered from that.”

There’s no mystery here. No contradiction. Churchill was an enemy of the working class, of unions and of all attempts by working people to challenge hierarchies that exploited them. Fascism, to him, before it began to threaten the hegemony of the British Empire, was to be applauded as a counter-revolutionary, anti-union, anti-left force.

Even after the war, Churchill’s attitude to fascists was still ambivalent, to say the least. They were still better than socialist or communist workers in revolt. He authorized more than 200 Nazi troops to assist British soldiers putting down the partisans who liberated swathes of Greece from Fascist control. That wasn’t the kind of liberation Churchill wanted at all.

He didn't, as it happens, order troops to quell the Tonypandy miners; that's a myth. He stopped the troops and was criticised for it by colleagues. But he was a class warrior who saw the General Strike of 1926 as... well, let’s let him speak for himself again:

An industrial dispute about wages, hours, conditions etc., in a particular industry ought to be settled in a spirit of compromise, with give and take on both sides…But a general strike is a challenge to the State, to the Constitution and to the nation. Here is no room for compromise.

- Churchill in the West Essex Constitutionalist, December 1926.

Yes, I mean... how dare workers challenge the State? The nerve. Don't they realise they should simply be grateful for being permitted to ask for compromises over conditions?

Churchill was clear on how to respond to any profound challenges by workers or commies or darkies to the system of privilege and empire and property that he rested his fat behind on so comfortably for so long: violence.

Churchill was a vociferous cheerleader for what is always called the "Allied intervention" in Russia after the 1917 revolution, i.e. unprovoked military aggression and terrorism against a workers' state that had attacked no foreign power. Churchill was perhaps the prime mover in persuading the British cabinet to authorise British troop deployments to invade revolutionary Russia, so fervent was his hatred of any threat to capitalism and privilege. Britain had to destroy “a poisoned Russia, an infected Russia of armed hordes not only smiting with bayonet and cannon, but accompanied and preceded by swarms of typhus-bearing vermin.”

The invasion of the new Soviet Union by 14 capitalist powers, together with the West-supported "white terror" (which was far, far worse than the defensive "red terror"), succeeded in doing what Churchill hoped: Bolshevism, as a force for working class self-liberation, was "strangled in its cradle", leading to the near annihilation of the Russian working class, the degeneration of the soviet system into a hollow Party-run bureaucracy and the subsequent ascendancy of Stalin.

Even after British troops were finally pulled out of the "Russian Civil War", Churchill was still funneling money to the Poles for their invasion of the Ukraine.

Bolshevism, for Churchill, was an International Jewish conspiracy. Here he is, writing on the subject, in an article which one can nowadays only find on neo-Nazi and far-right websites, mysteriously enough. For Churchill, there were the good Russian Jews (i.e. the nationalist ones, the “liberal and progressive” ones, the “bankers and industrialists”, the “upholders of friendship with France and Great Britain”) and then there were the bad Jews, the “International Jews”:

The adherents of this sinister confederacy are mostly men reared up among the unhappy populations of countries where Jews are persecuted on account of their race. Most, if not all, of them have forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes of the next world. This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing.

There is no need to exaggerate the part played in the creation of Bolshevism and the actual bringing about of the Russian Revolution by these international and for the most part atheistical Jews. It is certainly a very great one; it probably outweighs all others. With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews. Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders.

The solution was to support Zionism.

Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system. Nothing could be more significant than the fury with which Trotsky has attacked the Zionists generally, and Dr. Weissmann in particular. The cruel penetration of his mind leaves him in no doubt that his schemes of a world-wide communistic State under Jewish domination are directly thwarted and hindered by this new ideal, which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal.

Meanwhile, Churchill’s real priority in supporting Zionism was to create a Brit-friendly settler-colonial statelet in the strategically vital Middle East. We can see his attitude towards the people already living there in his authorization, when British Colonial Secretary, of the use of brutal force to suppress Palestinian resistance to the Mandate.

This was consistent with his racist conception of imperial ‘progress’:

I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time.  I do not admit that right.  I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia.  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 worldy wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

- Address to the Palestine Royal Commission, 1937.

His contempt for colonized people who dared to think they should govern themselves is found in his sneering comments on Gandhi:

It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the Emperor-King.

- Commenting on Gandhi's meeting with the Viceroy of India, 1931

Note the way that ‘sedition’ against and “disobedience” to the Empire is assumed to discredit Gandhi; note the incredulity that he should dare to “parlay on equal terms” with the British colonial ruler.

Churchill’s determination to preserve British imperial hegemony was impressive and ruthless. He said "I will not preside over a dismemberment." He diverted troops from the war effort to put down colonial problems in Africa and the Middle East. He sent troops to quash the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, where they indulged in a horrific rampage of terror and torture that our government is still now trying to cover up. He sent troops – at one point as many as 35,000 - to crush the rebellion against British rule in Malaya, a country that had evidently become ‘ungovernable’ as a colony.

Churchill’s post-war care for British interests is clearly seen in Iran. In the early 50s, the elected government of Iran, under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, decided to nationalize Anglo-Persian Oil, majority owned by HM Government. Britain placed a worldwide embargo on purchases of Iranian oil. Later, Britain froze all Iranian assets in sterling and banned the export of all goods to the country. Atlee was all for storming in and seizing Iranian oilfields by force (I wouldn’t, by the way, be any happier if we ever got a Doctor Who episode in which Atlee were presented whiter than white). However, Churchill’s new government put together a coup plan – ‘Operation Ajax’ – which Churchill backed enthusiastically. The Americans were talked into it after Churchill put up $1.5m of British money (which was a lot of money in those days) and agreed that the coup could be run by Kermit Roosevelt, nephew of former President FDR.

The coup goes ahead on 15th August 1953. Black ops undermine Mossadegh, spread fears of a communist takeover, confect street riots (featuring CIA-hired local mobsters) and bring down the democratically elected government in four days.

The CIA got the Shah to sign off on Mossadegh’s dismissal and appoint Nazi collaborator General Fazlollah Zahedi (newly sprung from jail by the plotters) the new PM of a new military government. Mossadegh was thrown in jail. Many of his supporters were rounded up, tortured and/or executed. This ultimately lead to the dictatorship of the Shah, which lasted until the Iranian revolution of 1979. Under the Shah, Iran was terrorized by the SAVAK secret police, an organization that systematically tortured, imprisoned and liquidated opponents of the Shah’s absolute rule.

Of course, the new regime quickly came to heel over the matter of oil. A consortium of foreign oil companies – AIOC, Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil (NJ), Standard Oil of California, Socony, the Texas Company, Gulf Oil and Compagnie Francaise des Petroles – secured their control. Meanwhile, Iran paid compensation (!) to Anglo-Persian totaling $70m. Anglo-Persian is now called British Petroleum (or BP).

So, another victory for democracy and human rights, conceived and supported by the Doctor’s old buddy.

There is much made in the Confidential episode about the Daleks being a bit like Nazis. Indeed, Gatiss even has them use the phrase “master race” in the story itself, just in case we missed it. Gatiss’ remarks in Confidential on this subject lead, by the way, to the following voiceover link, which deserves a chapter to itself in any yet-to-be-written history of the crashingly inappropriate: “…and the concept of total Dalek racial purity leads to a new paint job…”

However, there is little or nothing in the episode which connects Dalek ideas to the ideas of Fascism. This is a shame because I’ve always thought it would be good to have a story in which Nazis meets Daleks, in which the Nazis were confronted by their own values, espoused by people with bigger guns.

‘Churchill vs. the Daleks’ was the way Moffat supposedly described his requirements to Gatiss. So Gatiss delivers a story in which the evil Daleks deceive and then fight the good Churchill. The evil “British icon” vs. the good “British icon”.

The unintentional and unconscious irony is that Churchill was – though this story hides it from us, in line with mainstream ideas of propriety – an imperialist, a racist, a bigot, a fascist sympathizer, a subtle anti-semite, a man given to eliminationist rhetoric, a ruthless defender of unaccountable power, an anti-democratic conspirator, a gangster, a warmonger, a terrorist and a mass killer.

A man who wrote this:
The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate ... I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.

Churchill vs. the Daleks? Churchill was a fucking Dalek.


  1. Everythingisgold9 April 2011 at 12:33

    Thank you for writing this. It's rare that I find anything that I agree with completely, but this article I do. More importantly, I've learned even more than I knew about the subject already.

    This is a wonderfully written commentary on the episode.


  2. This was the exact point I stopped caring about Season 5. Then I watched the Angels two-parter and actively gave up on it.

    The thing is, in addition to everything you've mentioned, the story doesn't even work as a narrative. Making a deal with the devil only has impact if the character knows what they're doing, but Churchill thinks the Daleks were created by Bracewell specifically to win the war, so... why shouldn't he keep them around?

    And why did any of this need to take place during the Blitz at all?

  3. It's the icon thing again. It HAS to be during the Blitz. It HAS to feature spitfires. It HAS to have plummy RAF guys saying "Broadsword to Dannyboy..." Of course, another word for 'icon', in this instance, would be 'cliche'.

  4. Richard Pilbeam11 April 2011 at 02:34

    And Season 6 is debuting with an "American" story, so it has to have stetson hats, Monument Valley, six shooters, greys, the White House and aliens making an alliance with the officially-sanctioned "bad" President.

  5. Just read this. Definitely food for thought. I didn't know any of this stuff.

    No wonder the Iranians hate us.

  6. The question is, why do 'we' hate them?

  7. We're scared they might bomb us?

  8. Which is pretty irrational of us, considering that they've shown no indication that they're able or seriously inclined to bomb anyone. They don't have nukes, as far as we know. And we'd almost certainly know if they did. They have a nuclear programme, but it's supervised and - as far as we know - conforms to the strictures of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Indeed, Iran seems much more compliant with the terms of the IAEA than many of our allies, including the US. Speaking of our allies, how about Israel? Nuked-up to the hilt and, unlike Iran, with a proven track record of violent aggression. Israel is currently occupying other people's land and subjecting them to apartheid and slow torture. Iran couldn't hope to get away with bombing another country in the consequence-free way that Israel stomps around. Attacking the West or Western allies would, in any case, be akin to national suicide. 'We', on the other hand, bomb who we like without comeback.

  9. The only downside of this marvellous treatise is that it took me so long to read it. Perfectly summarises the reasons behind the unease-turning-to-anger i felt during the initial viewing of the episode. Have never watched it since for fear of smashing the TV in and hating all of Doctor Who as though it were tainted by association with this... thing. And all the majority of people who complain about this ep can bitch about is the colour and design of the fucking DALEKS?!? Imbeciles.

    I look forward to Moffat's next Xmas special, where the Doctor helps organise the King David Hotel bombing, before having afternoon tea with Rumsfeld, Dubya and Anders Fogh Rasmussen.