Worst Britons

New Statesman (1996), December 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Worst Britons


Sick of hearing how great we are? The BBC's panellists join NS writers for an alternative contest to identify the nation's nasties.

A A GILL nominates

Cromwell and Churchill

As someone who championed Shakespeare for the greatest Briton, I would have to vote for Cromwell as my worst -- a man who closed down theatres, banned dancing and cancelled Christmas. It was the only time since Shakespeare's plays were written that they weren't performed. Cromwell was the English Pol Pot, with a touch of Bernard Matthews. He was truly dreadful. That he's held up as a hero of the left is a fantastic misreading of history. In a remarkably Stalinist fashion, he closed down or censored the Putney Debates, the first real socialist meetings in England. He put back the chances of creating a fairer, more equitable society for 300 years. That Britain immediately returned to a monarchy after his disastrous rule is all you need to know about his legacy. It is often claimed he was responsible for modern America. In fact, the Pilgrim Fathers went to America to get away from his persecution.

My other nomination is Churchill. Churchill was a man who met a moment, and the moment was much shorter than he's given credit for -- about six months. He made four speeches, all of which were derivative of Shakespeare and Macaulay. Everything else about his wearyingly long public life was self-serving and disastrous: he was a terrible self--publicising hack; he was a loathed soldier; he was the worst First Sea Lord we ever had. A staggeringly inept Home Secretary, he was wrong about absolutely everything he set his sights on. He was responsible for the Dardanelles, the worst disaster of the First World War. He sent soldiers to shoot Welsh miners. He put field guns on to the streets of the East End of London. During the General Strike, he was so rabid that he had to be kept out of government, because he wanted to machine-gun bus drivers. Later, he was the worst sort of empire loyalist, desperate to hold on to India, and racist about Gandhi, that naked little fakir (frankly, if you had to choose the greater ma n between Gandhi and Churchill, there's no contest). He sent the Black and Tans into Ireland. He'd have bankrupted the country by returning us to the gold standard; he gave away large areas of eastern Europe to Stalin. And he was responsible for the disgraceful but forgotten war of intervention to support the White Russians at the end of the First World War. Altogether, he represents everything I find most dispiriting, snobbish, philistine, proudly anti-intellectual and stubbornly backward-looking about Britain.

LUCY MOORE nominates

A vile composite

I've created a composite Worst Briton. He has the black heart of Jonathan Wild, the 18th-century crime lord, who'd have sold his grandmother for a guinea; the spite of Alexander Pope; the bigoted self-righteousness of the Indian viceroy Lord Curzon; the vain leadership of Captain Scott, who sacrificed his brave men on a doomed quest; the oleaginous sycophancy of Piers Gaveston; and the lasciviousness of Lord Byron.

RICHARD HOLMES nominates

William the Conqueror

For my Worst Briton I have avoided a smart attempt to tinker with the verdict of the BBC series, and to complain that Brunel laced the land with railway lines, Newton tells me why my toast lands buttered side down, and Darwin's theory ensures that my terriers are optimised for postman-biting. Nobody on the BBC's list, even painted in a bile-dipped brush, could reach the scale that Worst Briton requires.

William the Conqueror can. He became a Briton only by forced adoption, but he ruled England from 1066-87 and we cannot disown him. William was ruthless even in a hard age. In 1051 the citizens of besieged Alencon waved cowhides from their walls to remind him that he was the illegitimate son of a tanner's daughter: he had their leaders skinned alive. …

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