Alright, Part 2. You probably don’t need to, but I’d recommend reading Part 1 first, because they’re designed to go together and also because that one proves that I can write a little more impartially, whereas in this part I’m just going to get really annoyed about Syndicate’s selection of historical figures supported by the Assassins, in particular Churchill and Disraeli.
We’ve already discussed Maharajah Duleep Singh and how his story wasn’t given any context and his DLC can’t end well. This is even more galling in comparison with Syndicate’s portrayal of Churchill as a pariah who can do no wrong. If you’re not British, you might not know how much this country hero worships Churchill, and for that you should consider yourself fortunate. This is a man who said “I hate Indians,” who called Palestinians “barbaric hoards,” who boasted about killing Sudanese “savages” and wanted to use poison gas on the “uncivilised tribes” of northern Asia. And he’s our current Prime Minister’s “favourite” ex-PM. As I said yesterday, stay classy, Britain.
I usually try to be mild mannered when I’m writing, but I literally detest Winston Churchill and the way that we venerate him. I nearly didn’t play the World War I sequence that he appears in for this exact reason, but I wanted to see how it unfolded and I wanted to play as the game’s second female playable character, Lydia Frye. Churchill really doesn’t do much in the mission except for pointing Lydia in the direction of German spies to dispatch, and the game conveniently doesn’t give him a chance to be incredibly racist. He does, however, promise Lydia that he’ll talk to Parliament about giving women the vote after she points out that if she can rescue Britain from German invasion, she should at least be able to vote (side note, hell yes suffragette Lydia!)
Here is a quote from the real Churchill to demonstrate why I can’t handle this:
“The women’s suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.”
Have I mentioned that I hate Winston Churchill? Because I really do. But the point is, not only did Syndicate gloss over the fact that he was massively racist, they also miscast his other beliefs so hard that I find it difficult to believe they even did a basic Google search on him. Oh, Churchill, the World War II hero, right? Yeah, he must’ve been a good guy. Have him call for equal voting rights! I’m sure he never said anything that would contradict that!
In this way, Syndicate plays into a big problem that we have as a society in which we venerate bad people. You might say that Churchill’s views were simply a product of his time – even though they were known as extreme even then – but the point is that we shouldn’t forget the dark side of the past because it informs continuing inequalities today. By washing clean Churchill’s views, we risk ignoring all of the horrific problems with the past that continue to play into today’s issues. While Syndicate can’t do this alone, context is important for all games and it plays into these larger historiographical problems.
I don’t think that Ubisoft did this intentionally. The same problems are reflected more subtly in the way that they treat Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. These were the leaders of the two main political parties at the time of Syndicate’s setting, both were Prime Minister at different times, and they hated each other. Syndicate puts Evie and Jacob on Disraeli’s side. The justification is that Disraeli wanted to implement the Corrupt Practices Act which aimed to reduce electoral bribery and would thus have limited the Templars’ (the Assassins’ rival faction) hold over London, though this doesn’t make much sense - presumably Templars were bribing people in order to get their chosen leaders elected and didn’t want to stop, but if so why didn’t Gladstone – their preferred leader - win the election?
Anyway, the point is that this justification is short sighted because it doesn’t take into account all of the reasons why Disraeli and his Conservative Party (our right wing party to this day, the leader of whom is the “lovely” man whose favourite Prime Minister was Churchill as mentioned above) should have been the Templar backed faction. Disraeli was a notably shady politician – upon his appointment to the office of Prime Minister, he was quoted to have said “"I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole". He had achieved this ambition predominantly through political scheming, in particular by inciting divisions among the Liberal (Gladstone’s) party over extending the right to vote. Once in power, he then passed that very act himself, immediately doubling the eligible population and, unsurprisingly, making himself very popular among them.
I realise that saying he’s shady for allowing more people (or, at least, more men) to vote is possibly somewhat unfair, though it is a debate wherein many historians agree with me that it was done for purely selfish reasons of power. More importantly, Disraeli was a huge proponent of empire, whereas Gladstone had more liberal views. Their differences were summed up by Disraeli himself in 1872. His party (the Conservatives or ‘Tory’ party) was out of power at the time, so he was trying to make Gladstone’s Liberals look bad. Here’s how he tried to do that:
“[The] object of the Tory party…is, in my opinion, to uphold the empire of England…you will find that there has been no effort so continuous, so subtle, supported by so much energy, and carried on with so much ability and acumen, as the attempts of Liberalism to effect the disintegration of the empire of England.”
Basically, Disraeli trashed the Liberal party because they were trying to end the Empire. Lovely man, right? In reality, most Liberals didn’t actually want to relinquish any control over the colonies, but they were generally more moderate. For example, Gladstone especially opposed new annexations even though many other leading politicians were concerned that Britain’s influence was shrinking in the face of expansion by France, Germany, and other European countries, and his political career ended when he attempted to give self rule to Ireland and was blocked by other politicians.
He also had many of the terrible views of the day, of course, but in comparison to Disraeli he was more suited to the “oppression has to end” theme that Syndicate professes to have, and Ubisoft’s failure to understand this is therefore interesting. Why they chose to go with Disraeli as their main historical cameo is more difficult to understand than their sanitised portrayal of Churchill (since that view is the “popular” one, whereas Disraeli is generally accepted to have been more harsh than Gladstone) but it certainly plays into to same issue, and Syndicate keeps making the same mistake. Menu texts tells us that the Assassins put Elizabeth I into power, the same Elizabeth I who tried to deport all people of colour as detailed in Part 1. Evie tells Queen Victoria that she and Jacob can’t help her to expand the empire due to their creed, but would she consider dismantling it instead? Victoria just sort of shrugs her off, and there’s no condemnation of Victoria, who saw the greatest extension of Empire under her reign. Evie doesn’t seem to really care about this either, as she never mentions it previously or afterwards. Once again, lip service falls flat when actually trying to address the problems of the day.
I don’t think that historical accuracy can or should be a thing to aim for. But I do think that Syndicate comes from and reinforces historical context and has a responsibility to think about what it’s saying, or trying to say. It makes a stab in the dark at what could have been a good examination of inequality in this deeply unequal period of history, but misses the mark completely by miscasting its historical cameos, not addressing serious issues with any level of depth, and by the simple act of whitewashing of its cast.
Edit: I originally wrote that Lydia was partially Indian due to being Henry’s grandchild, but she’s actually Jacob’s grandchild.