In the dark days early in World War 2, Britain stood alone in the fight against the Nazi regime; one small island defiant in the face of a vastly superior force. What roused the people of Britain and sustained them through those terrible years was the impassioned defiant words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His speeches and radio broadcasts gave the nation the courage to fight against all the odds and in the face of catastrophic human loss.
That’s the view presented in scores of films and made-for-tv programmes about Churchill’s political career and the history of World War 2. The speeches themselves have acquired an iconic status on a par with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” oration and the Gettysburg address. Phrases such as ‘their finest hour” or “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” are the stuff of legend. But the nature of the Churchill effect is rather more complex than we’ve been led to believe according to Richard Toye, a professor of history at the University of Exeter. In The Roar of the Lion, his newly published book on Churchill’s wartime speeches, Toye argues that the effects of Churchill’s speeches have been wildly exaggerated.
Debunking of heroes is such a popular pastime, that we’ve become used to authors who set out to re-write history in order to prove their own theory. Toye’s book bears no relation to works of that ilk. The Roar of the Lion is, instead, an extensively researched analysis of the reactions at home and abroad to Churchill’s wartime rhetoric conveyed via radio and parliamentary appearances.
Toye examined personal diaries kept by ordinary members of the British public together with reports from Mass Observation ( a sociological research organisation that tracked public morale throughout much of the war using a team of observers and interviewers) and Ministry of Home Intelligence Division reports which tracked the reception to ministerial pronouncements between May 1940 and Dec 1944.
While acknowledging that the view in some quarters of society was that Churchill’s speeches expressed the will of the whole nation to win the war and made ‘brave men from the weakest’, Toye shows that this was not a uniformly held point of view. Instead there were pockets of dissent and criticism much larger than previously thought, with concerns expressed by fellow politicians and members of the civil service as well as the ordinary ‘man on the Clapham omnibus.’ One speech delivered in October 1940 was for example considered a ‘good fruity speech’ by an electricity worker from Hampshire though a teacher further north in Northumberland apparently was shocked at the relish by which Churchill described the zealous efforts of the Royal Navy to hunt down U boats.
Some of the reactions Toye identified could be considered as typical cynical responses towards politicians, such as the report from one Mass Observation contributor who overheard a bus passenger in 1942 comment that:
‘well, he is very good at speeches – lovely speeches ‘e makes – but ‘e don’t do much. Grunts of approval all round.
Toye is careful to point out that such examples – and there are many quoted in his book – don’t provide definitive evidence of exactly how many people held a particular view. But they do evidence that there was a far greater diversity of responses than the Churchill myth factory has led us to believe.
Yes they were speeches that stimulated,energised, invigorated and excited many people. But they were also speeches which caused depression and disappointment in many others.