Full of Sound and Fury: Parliament’s Winston Churchill Portrait

One of the things that bugs me about Culture War Politics is the obsession with finding offence in such petty things. Mountains out of molehills and all that.

Today, we have a local New Zealand example of that. Specifically, the media furore about a Winston Churchill painting being moved:


The Green Party apparently didn’t want the painting outside their parliamentary offices, so filed a request for it to be moved. They want a Dunedin artist’s work instead. The media have latched onto this as evidence of Absurdity and Historical Ignorance.

Good grief. The Greens want to move the painting, not destroy it. I am equally sure that the National Party would not want a portrait of, say, Karl Marx outside their offices… so, honestly, the Greens are quite right here. Nothing to see. Paintings are moved all the time – this is not remotely on the same level as the overseas statue issue.

The bigger problem is that the Culture War blowhards on both sides have gotten to work – one finding grievous offence, the other seeing this as a Magnificent Strike Against Racist Old Men. The former need to stop channelling the Daily Mail. The latter need to realise what Churchill’s portrait actually represents.

Yes, James Shaw is quite right. Winston Churchill was a racist (and a redbaiter), and if the Greens don’t want him outside their offices then that is only fair. Even by the standards of his time, Churchill’s views were often risque. But in wider terms, having portraits of Churchill around is actually about more than racism and colonialism. Churchill (so far as I know) is the only British politician ever featured on a New Zealand postage stamp, and that is not an accident.

You see, these pictures aren’t simply about Churchill the Man, or even Churchill the Politician. Of course not. Why would we so lovingly remember the author of Gallipoli? No, they’re about Churchill the Idea. The Idea that Britain and her Empire – which did, of course, include New Zealand. Recall Michael Joseph Savage’s famous speech to that effect – would fight on against the might of Nazi Germany. My own paternal grandfather was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and he absolutely despised Churchill, but I’d say the Idea at the heart of the portrait is worth remembering. Especially in 2021, when the shadows are starting to lengthen again.

(It’s just a crying shame that you can’t really connect Clement Attlee to New Zealand in any meaningful sense… Not that the New Zealand Greens would probably approve of his views either).

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