Churchill College has halted a critical examination of its founder, Winston Churchill, by abruptly ending the role of a working party set up last year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Initially intended as a year-long programme called “Churchill, race and empire”, the Cambridge college has ended the effort after a dispute between the college’s leadership and the working party, whose members had been planning a mass resignation over what it called interference in a planned event.
Prof Athene Donald, the master of Churchill College, said she had taken “at face value” comments by working party members that it should disband over a dispute about hosting a conference.
“Unfounded allegations are now being levelled both at the broad college community and at me personally. I would nevertheless stress that the college will continue engaging in debates, examining the actions of important historical figures including Churchill himself, and working on challenging attitudes,” Donald said.
The programme attracted controversy in February after it was attacked by Sir Nicholas Soames, the former Conservative MP and grandson of the wartime prime minister, after the group held an academic conference looking at Churchill and racism.
Prof Priyamvada Gopal, a fellow of Churchill College and a member of the working party, said that since then, the programme had faced obstruction by the college’s management. On social media she accused the college’s leaders of “taking fright” after the backlash, which included a paper by the Conservative historian Andrew Roberts, published by the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange.
Gopal tweeted: “Let me repeat: under pressure from groups like Policy Exchange & some members of the Churchill family, Churchill College has disbanded a group set up to engage critically with Churchill’s complicated legacies. Let that sink in.”
The college’s website describes the project as involving “some difficult discussions around important historical figures which we will actively seek to facilitate. Churchill, as a successful leader in time of war, must not be mythologised as a man without significant flaws; on race he was backward even in his day.”
In her statement, Donald said there had been contact from the Churchill family over the programme but that “they are not involved in the college’s governance processes, and the implication made in some quarters that they, Policy Exchange or the national press might have been steering matters, is to misunderstand our governance arrangements.”
Donald claimed that “at some point the working group seem to have changed direction”, leading to the dispute over a planned further conference.
“The [February] event received a great deal of, often hostile, attention because it did address some of parts of his life that are often not looked at in depth in the UK, and which do not play well to some of the standard views about his life. That hostility was also directed at the participants, who received unacceptable racist abuse, something the college utterly deplores,” Donald added.