The Speeches of Winston Churchill.
Reviewed by Madawc Williams.
People who believe the little rhyme about every child being born a little liberal or a little conservative should take a look at the career of Winston Churchill. He both began and ended his career as a Conservative, but he first became a major political figure in the 1906 Liberal government, having crossed over to that party in 1904. When the Liberal Party disintegrated following Lloyd George’s ousting of Asquith during World War One, he was briefly out of parliament before being returned in 1924 as a ‘constitutionalist’ (p 93) and rejoining the Tories the following year. His later career was as a Tory, often an isolated and maverick Tory, but we only remember him as a major figure because he was exactly the right person to lead Britain in World War Two – a man who was conservative enough to reassure the right, and anti-fascist enough to win the confidence of the left.
This book is a collection of speeches, along with a brief biographical outline. It is made clear that his changes of party were matters of principal. (As indeed were those of Pitt the Younger and Edmund Burke, Whigs who laid the basis for 19th century Toryism. Or Gladstone and Palmerston, Liberals who began their career as Tories.) On the whole, though, I found Churchill’s principles obnoxious. His observations of the Boer farmer as “a curious combination of the squire with the peasant” (p 23) is interesting, but the non-white majority in South Africa was left out of account, with results we all know about. He managed to wreck the Conservative Government’s plan to give India dominion status in the 1930s – had it happened then, before the Hindu Muslim division became serious, the whole sub-continent might have developed both less painfully and on more secular lines. Churchill’s opposition was based on the wholly false view that India could and should be governed by Britain for the foreseeable future.
Yet I found some very interesting and very shrewd remarks in Churchill’s speeches. A lot of the power of oratory is in the delivery, and in saying the right thing to the right people at the right time. His remark in the General Strike, that he would not “be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire” (p 4) is memorable despite its unpleasant reduction of the working class to some destructive natural force. I am much happier with his remarks on the Monarchy:
“The Crown of England has not had for hundreds of years the power of making laws, and for two or three centuries has not had the power of stopping laws when they have been passed. It is a very wise thing in every State that the supreme office should be removed beyond the reach of private ambition and should be above the shock and change of party warfare. It is as a constitutional Monarchy that we reverence and honour the British Crown.” (p 50)
Churchill’s accurate understanding of what Hitler’s rise to power meant is well known – though people often forget, what Churchill also noted (p 117), that it was part of something that had begun before Hitler became Chancellor. He also knew when not to say ‘I told you so’ – saying rather in 1940 that “if we open a quarrel between the past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future” (p 168). One might also quote the following words, spoken in 1945:
“We had only the North-Western approach between Ulster and Scotland through which to bring in the means of life and to send out the forces of war. Owing to the action of Mr de Valera, so much at variance with the temper and instincts of thousands of Southern Irishmen who hastened to the battlefront to prove their ancient valour, the approaches which the Southern Irish ports and airfields could so easily have been guarded were closed by the hostile aircraft and U-boats. This was indeed a deadly moment in our life, and if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish from the earth.” (p 259).
Churchill’s reaction to the 1945 Labour government was mostly that of a man whose time had passed. His ‘some form of Gestapo’ speech during the election campaign (p 269) probably damaged his own side more than its intended targets. But even on this matter he was occasionally shrewd. Consider the following:
“We are, I understand, after nationalising the coal-mines, to deal with the railways, electricity and transport. Yet at the same time the Trade Unions feel it necessary to be heavily rearmed against State Socialism, Apparently the new age is not to be so happy for the wage-earners as we have been asked to believe. At any rate there seems to be a fundamental incongruity in these conceptions to which the attention of the Socialist intelligentsia should speedily be directed.” (p 293).
There was a practical logic at the time to both nationalising and strengthening the Trade Unions even in nationalised industries. Yet the incongruity was real, and it was not to be resolved by future Labour governments. In the event, the habit of Trade Unionists treating nationalised industries as if they were still private employers made it possible for a subsequent Tory prime minister to return them to the private sector.
This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.
 Penguin Books edition