Toye, one of Britain's smartest young historians, has tried to pick through these questions dispassionately – and he should lead us, at last and at least, to a more mature conversation about our greatest national icon.Churchill was born in 1874 into a Britain that was washing the map pink, at the cost of washing distant nations blood red.Winston Churchill is rightly remembered for leading Britain through her finest hour – but what if he also led the country through her most shameful hour?
To give just one, major, example, in 1943 a famine broke out in Bengal, caused – as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proved – by the imperial policies of the British.
Up to 3 million people starved to death while British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the region. He raged that it was their own fault for "breeding like rabbits".
In some of his private correspondence, he appears to really believe they are helpless children who will "willingly, naturally, gratefully include themselves within the golden circle of an ancient crown".
But when they defied this script, Churchill demanded they be crushed with extreme force.
The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn.
When concentration camps were built in South Africa, for white Boers, he said they produced "the minimum of suffering".As Colonial Secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tan thugs on Ireland's Catholic civilians, and when the Kurds rebelled against British rule, he said: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes...[It] would spread a lively terror." Of course, it's easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic. One of the most striking findings of Toye's research is that they really didn't: even at the time, Churchill was seen as at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum.Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was warned by Cabinet colleagues not to appoint him because his views were so antedeluvian.Churchill believed that Kenya's fertile highlands should be the preserve of the white settlers, and approved the clearing out of the local "blackamoors". When they rebelled under Churchill's post-war premiership, some 150,000 of them were forced at gunpoint into detention camps – later dubbed "Britain's gulag" by Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Professor Caroline Elkins.She studied the detention camps for five years for her remarkable book Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, explains the tactics adopted under Churchill to crush the local drive for independence.This rather undermines the claims that Churchill's imperialism was motivated only by an altruistic desire to elevate the putatively lower races.Hussein Onyango Obama is unusual among Churchill's victims only in one respect: his story has been rescued from the slipstream of history, because his grandson ended up as President of the US.This question burns through Richard Toye's new history, Churchill's Empire, and is even seeping into the Oval Office.George W Bush left a bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with the war leader's heroic stand against fascism. It's not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and was tortured on Churchill's watch, for resisting Churchill's empire. Do we live, at the same time, in the world he helped to save, and the world he helped to trash?As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in "a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples".In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, a crack of doubt.