Churchill will probably never go out of fashion, but he’s been particularly in vogue recently. The Churchill War Rooms museum consistently attracts around half a million visitors a year. John Lithgow portrayed him in the hugely popular Netflix show The Crown. And last year saw the release of not one but two big-screen biopics, with Brian Cox portraying the wartime Prime Minister in Churchill and Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance in Darkest Hour.
The final line of Darkest Hour is a famous quotation by American journalist Edward Murrow, who said that Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. As he was renowned for his oratory, we thought we’d get in on Churchill fever in the best way we know how - by taking a look at some of his speeches in Commons Hansard. So we’ve used Google Analytics to identify and share with you Hansard readers’ top five favourite Churchill speeches, according to the number of times they have been read online.
5. Their Finest Hour
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
—(House of Commons Debates, 18 June 1940, Vol. 362 columns 51-61)
It might surprise you that this famous speech isn’t even higher up the list. Under the dry parliamentary heading of “War Situation”, Churchill described a dire scenario. But he attempted to lift the spirits of the British people, reflecting on Dunkirk and reminding them what they were fighting for. The speech concluded with Churchill stating that Britain’s next actions should cause historians and future generations of Brits to look back and declare, “This was their finest hour”.
4. Conduct of the War
Let me say that I am not advocating controversy...On the contrary, I say, let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let party interest be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let all the strong horses be pulling on the collar.
—(House of Commons Debates, 8 May 1940, Vol. 360, cc. 1348-1362)
The film Darkest Hour shows that Churchill’s own darkest hour occurred during the months of May and June 1940, after he was thrust from being a member of the Government to becoming an initially unpopular choice of Prime Minister and the man to lead the fightback against Nazism.
This speech was part of a debate on Britain’s disastrous campaign against the Germans in Norway, which led to Neville Chamberlain’s downfall as Prime Minister. Churchill spoke optimistically of the Navy being strengthened by Norway’s merchant fleet. Two days later, he would become Prime Minister and form his coalition Government.
3. Blood, toil, tears and sweat
I hope that any of my friends and colleagues, or former colleagues, who are affected by the political reconstruction, will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act. I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
—(House of Commons Debates, 13 May 1940, Vol. 360 cc.1501-03)
Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister set the tone for what was to follow. It’s easy for us to forget that there were calls at the time for Britain to make peace with Hitler. The loss of almost an entire generation of men in the first world war was still fresh in everyone’s memory and many people wanted Churchill to spare Britain a second fatal confrontation with Germany in only a little over two decades. But Churchill said from the start of his speech that such an attitude was nonsense. He knew that there could be no deal or agreement with Hitler, and that the only possible course of action for his Government and the country was to “wage war”.
2. House of Commons Rebuilding
We attach immense importance to the survival of Parliamentary democracy. In this country this is one of our war aims. We wish to see our Parliament a strong, easy, flexible instrument of free Debate. For this purpose a small Chamber and a sense of intimacy are indispensable.
—(House of Commons Debates, 28 Oct. 1943, Vol. 393 cc. 403-410)
Churchill’s second most popular speech represents the turning of the tide during the second world war. By 1943, it had become possible to imagine the defeat of Hitler and the end of the war, and to begin planning the eventual rebuilding of so much of Britain, including its Parliament.
The speech shows Churchill’s great interest in the construction and layout of parliamentary chambers. It contains intricate detail about the kind of Parliament that should be reconstructed. Churchill displayed similar energy and vigour in this speech as he did in his approach to the post-war political reconstruction of Europe.
1. Definition of Democracy
Democracy is not a caucus, obtaining a fixed term of office by promises, and then doing what it likes with the people. We hold that there ought to be a constant relationship between the rulers and the people. ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ still remains the sovereign definition of democracy.
—(House of Commons Debates, 11 Nov. 1947, Vol. 444 cc.203-216)
Our list is topped by a speech given in 1947, when Churchill was no longer Prime Minister, having been voted out of office in 1945. Although some view this as Britain’s betrayal of its wartime leader, others have described it as the ultimate demonstration of democracy, so it’s fitting that this speech is itself about democracy. It also topped the 2016 list of most read historical speeches in Hansard, perhaps as people’s interest in democracy was piqued by the EU referendum that year.
List correct as of February 2018.
If you're interested in reading the full reports of historical speeches in the House of Commons, they're currently available in a temporary location. All content from 1803 onwards will be available on Hansard Online in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space...
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