From time to time, when my spirits want buoying, I revisit the speeches made by Winston Churchill to Parliament in May and June of 1940.
(You know the speeches: “Blood, toil, tears and sweat;” “We shall fight on the beaches;” and “This was their finest hour.“)
Literate and evocative, yet tough and grounded, Churchill’s speeches achieved a remarkable task. They stoked the resolve of the British people while, at the same time, bluntly and candidly preparing them for the enormity of the battle to come.
These speeches rank among the most resonant and inspirational uses of the English language I have ever encountered.
In 2013 slang, they’re mic-droppers. One imagines Churchill triumphantly slamming down his microphone at the end of each speech and walking offstage, either to wild applause or — even better — the kind of stilled silence that follows a tornado.
I was surprised to find that reality was considerably less dramatic. As it turns out, each of Churchill’s speeches was followed by parliamentary debate — which, based on the transcripts, showed precious little uplift from what came before it.
Check out the transcript of what follows the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4.
Churchill wraps up the all-time balls-to-the-wall, fight-to-the-death peroration — and then the Right Honourable Members from Keighley, Glasgow Bridgeton, Daventry and Bassetlaw promptly begin debating a point of order.
And then, the representatives of West Ham Plaistow and Bassetlaw get all up in each other’s grills:
“You should go out.”
“I would if I were younger.”
“You have no right to make remarks of that kind.”
Uh, guys? I thought we were fighting the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, not each other.
Some of the same nonsense shows up in the transcript of the “This was their finest hour” speech of June 18, which again ends on a rousing note.
The gentleman from Keighley says “one sentence can summarize what we feel,” and delivers himself of four. The member from Bethnal Green South-West says he “has only a word to say,” then spits out 91.
Then, Col. Josiah Wedgwood of Newcastle-under-Lyme outdoes them both. Acknowledging that Churchill probably doesn’t want him to speak, he ignores two choruses of noes from his fellow members and proceeds to discuss how discouraged the average Briton is.
It comes across in print as a performance of remarkable daftness, even by the woolly, distanced standards of British aristocracy.
I guess I should have expected that Churchill’s speeches would be followed by floor debate. They did take place in Parliament, after all.
And I shouldn’t be surprised that no other speaker rose anywhere near Churchill’s level of eloquence. Very few ever have.
It’s still dispiriting to see that even the most stirring of clarion calls and most compelling of visions couldn’t stir political leaders to lift their heads above their knitting, put aside the parliamentary niceties for a change, and charge forward as one.
Thankfully, the Royal Air Force rose to the occasion better than the politicians did.