Boris Johnson has accused a charity set up in the name of Sir Winston Churchill of trying to “airbrush” away the “giant achievements” of Britain’s Second World War leader.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust has faced criticism after announcing it was renaming itself The Churchill Fellowship while removing images of the former prime minister from its website.
In a statement, the charity – which awards grants for Britons to pursue social and community causes – denied that it was seeking to disown his legacy.
However, it said many of his views on race were “widely seen as unacceptable today, a view that we share”.
The move has prompted the Prime Minister – a long-time Churchill admirer – to appeal to the organisation to rethink the move.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister believes that Winston Churchill was a hero who helped save this country and the whole of Europe from a fascist and a racist tyranny by leading the defeat of Nazism.
“It is completely absurd, misguided and wrong to airbrush his giant achievements and service to this country. The trust should think again.”
The spokesman added: “The Prime Minister has always been clear that whilst it’s legitimate to examine Britain’s history and we should aim to educate people about all aspects of our complex past, both good and bad, and not erase them, we need to focus on addressing the present, and not attempt to rewrite the past and get sucked into the never-ending debate about which well-known historical figures are sufficiently pure or politically correct to remain in public view.”
However Sir Winston’s grandson, former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, said the row was “absolute bollocks” and had been totally overblown.
“I just think this whole thing is so sad and so pathetic. Let me tell you that his family 100%, unequivocally support the work of the fellowship,” he told The Times.
Sir Winston was Conservative prime minister from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. He died in 1965 and was honoured with a state funeral.
While he has been celebrated for his wartime leadership he has also been accused of racism over his support for the British Empire and his attitude towards people from India and other races.
The idea for the charity was developed during the final year’s of his life with his approval.
On his death a nationwide appeal led to an outpouring of donations from the public.
In the years that followed it enabled the charity to award more than 5,800 fellowships to people to study practical subjects and then share what they had learned with their community or profession in the UK.
However, last month it was announced that its name was being “simplified” because the original title was “confusing” to people and “did not explain what we do”.
The move saw the removal of a lengthy tribute and biography of Sir Winston from the website as well as pictures of the former premier.
The decision followed a statement the charity issued last year on racism which noted that “aspects” of Sir Winston’s life were the subject of present-day controversy.
“Many of his views on race are widely seen as unacceptable today, a view that we share,” it said.
“At the same time, he is internationally admired for his wartime leadership in saving Britain and the world from Nazism.
“We acknowledge the many issues and complexities involved on all sides, but do not accept racism of any kind.”
It came after a statue to the former prime minister in Parliament Square was targeted by Black Lives Matter protestors and daubed with the word “racist”.
In a further statement this week, the charity said the decision to change its name – originally taken in 2019 – was not an attempt at ‘disowning’ Sir Winston.
“The key element we kept was the name ‘Churchill’. You cannot look at our new logo and avoid the importance we attach to that name,” it said.
“Today there is international admiration for Sir Winston’s wartime leadership in saving Britain and the world from Nazism. There is also controversy about his views on race.
“None of this takes away from Sir Winston’s enormous contribution to the world as we know it today.”