The Bank of England has released a new 5-pound note with images of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and Winston Churchill on the other. Churchill has received accolades for his semblance in concluding World War II, entirely whitewashing his less illustrious relationship with the Middle East, and Iraq in particular.
Churchill, knighted in 1953, was voted by the British public as the greatest Brit of all-time in 2002, beating the likes of William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin. Regarding the decision to place Churchill on the 5-pound note, Sir Mervyn King, Bank of England governor stated: “Sir Winston Churchill was a truly great British leader, orator and writer. Above that, he remains a hero of the entire free world.”
An ironic statement considering under Churchill’s rule, Britain invaded, occupied, colonised and removed Iraq’s freedom in 1941, while Britain was battling Germany for expanding its empire.
Churchill’s views on colonialism have often been considered racist and others have referred to him to as a white supremacist. He once said: “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 worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
Quotes such as this put into perspective Churchill’s opinion of the Iraqi people, when his country occupied Iraq in 1941, as that of being a lower social class. When invading Iraq, a letter on May 3rd, 1941, to Sir Kinahan Cornwallis by Churchill highlighted that all forms of force were legitimate to recapture Iraq: “If you have to strike, strike hard. Use all necessary force.” By May 6th, following bombings by Britain on Iraqi soil, more than 2,000 Iraqi casualties had been registered.
The destabilisation of Iraq by Churchill was only for short-term gains for the British and no concerns were considered for the Iraqi people. Churchill, in a letter to Colonel Archibald Wavell, wrote he should not “bother too much about the long future in Iraq. Your immediate task is to get a friendly government set up in Baghdad and to beat down Rashid Ali’s forces with the utmost vigour.”
Political scientist Toby Dodge explains in Inventing Iraq that much of the British occupation of Iraq was paralleled in the recent US occupation; occupations confounded by short-term visions and fuelled by self-interests as well as a quest for oil.
Prior to the 1941 invasion of Iraq, Churchill was involved in quelling the 1920s Iraqi revolt against the first British occupation of the country. At the time, Churchill authorised the use of chemical weapons “against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment”. Ironic, considering the justification for ousting Saddam Hussein was the possession of weapons of mass destruction. Churchill went on to explain that “gases can be used that cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror”, a statement that today would likely raise red flags under current Prime Minister Theresa May’s Prevent programme.
Modern-day Iraq is a by-product of years of exploitation at the hands of colonialism, chiselled duplicitously from rich Mesopotamian history. Access to oil shifted the power in World War II in Britain’s favour but, as philosopher Frantz Fanon highlights, the “rest of the colony follows its path of underdevelopment and poverty”.
For many of the 400,000 British Iraqis living in Britain, seeing the face of Churchill, a man that has a less than illustrated history in their homeland, on a daily basis may not be welcomed.