Winston Churchill’s first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister

Many years ago I came to believe that Winston Churchill was the greatest man of the Twentieth Century and time has only made that conviction stronger. He talked Great Britain into standing up against Hitler and held the line against the Nazis for over two years before the United States came into the war.

Sir Winston Churchill is only the second foreigner ever made an honorary citizen of the United States of America. The first was the Marquis de Lafayette.

On 9 April 1963, at a White House ceremony conferring honorary citizenship on Sir Winston Churchill, President John F. Kennedy said:

“… he is the most honored and honorable man to walk the stage of human history in the time in which we live … In the dark days and darker nights when Britain stood alone – and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life – he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. The incandescent quality of his words illuminated the courage of his countrymen. By adding his name to our rolls, we mean to honor him – but his acceptance honors us far more. For no statement or proclamation can enrich his name – the name Sir Winston Churchill is already legend.”

As indeed it is. I still get goose bumps reading excerpts from his most passionate and famous speeches, the following being an excerpt from his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister on 13 May 1940.

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.” We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Churchill was never the smiling, principled statesmen he appears to be in wartime photographs. Long before he became Prime Minister for the first time (he served as PM again 1951-55) he had earned a reputation as a ruthless politician. Selfish. Self serving. A shameless self promoter. All the things politicians need to be. He aroused in the people who knew him, served with him in Parliament, were his allies on some issues and enemies on others, a combination of fury and admiration, of anger and rage and even hatred.

At the same time, people admired his brilliance and incredible store of knowledge, his ability to speak in Parliament and in public when such a skill was paramount for a successful politician, and sought his counsel even when they didn’t like him. Churchill began speaking against the Nazis several years before they even took power. Once Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, Churchill spoke against them and against the government of his own party for appeasing them.

When the critical moment in history came, there was no one else to turn to but Churchill – not only had he been proven right but he was the only man to have the strong support of the British people. The other parties, who came into the government with him since he formed a government of national unity, that is one with all parties in the parliament having cabinet posts, didn’t like him and often didn’t trust him. Yet of the men available for the post, he was the only person the Labor Party would support. And they signaled their rather lukewarm support by simply saying they would not support his rival for the job. The Labor Party also knew that in spite of their vicious differences with Churchill, “the man and the hour have met.” (This was actually said about Jefferson Davis when he was sworn in as provisional President of the Confederate states.)

The passionate and brilliant speeches which still give many of us goose bumps and even bring a tear to the eyes, were not cheered by his own party who had very deep distrust of him. He had “ratted” on the Conservative Party twice, (both times going to the Liberal Party which was the main opposition party before World War One) that is changed parties, an astonishing and seldom seen event in the British Parliament. Conservative Party deputies would sit with their arms folded when Churchill spoke. They wouldn’t cheer and clap or even stand after his inspiring speeches because they never received the signal of the Conservative whip who couldn’t stand Churchill. Churchill was already well known in Parliament for his oratory. They were used to hearing him make grand speeches.

After Churchill reported to the House of Commons that the Royal Navy, on his order, had sunk much of the French battle fleet anchored in Mers-el-Kébir harbor in French North Africa, the Conservative whip motioned the party members up because they were finally convinced that Churchill wasn’t just going to make grand speeches. He had proved he was willing to go to any length to defend Great Britain and prevail in the war. It was a moment he remembered for the rest of his life.

[Pictures of Winston Churchill Statuary in Washington DC courtesy of DC Memorials.]