Churchill raises spirits in the Commons


Harold Nicholson records in his diary the contrasting effects of two different addresses to the House of Commons. Winston Churchill was at this time First Lord of the Admiralty [Minister for the Navy], a position he had also held in the First World War:

The Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] gets to make his statement. He is dressed in deep mourning relieved only by a white handkerchief and a large gold watch-chain. One feels the confidence and spirits of the House dropping inch by inch. When he sits down there is scarcely any applause.

During the whole speech Winston Churchill had sat hunched beside him looking like the Chinese god of plenty suffering from acute indigestion. He just sits there, lowering, hunched and circular, and then he gets up. He is greeted by a loud cheer from all the benches and he starts to tell us about the Naval position. I notice that Hansard does not reproduce his opening phrases.

He began by saying how strange an experience it was for him after a quarter of a century to find himself once more in the same room in front of the same maps, fighting the same enemy and dealing with the same problems. His face then creases into an enormous grin and he adds, glancing down at the Prime Minister, ‘I have no conception how this curious change in my fortunes occurred: The whole House roared with laughter and Chamberlain had not the decency even to raise a sickly smile. He just looked sulky.

The effect of Winston’s speech was infinitely greater than could be derived from any reading of the text. His delivery was really amazing and he sounded every note from deep preoccupation to flippancy, from resolution to sheer boyishness. One could feel the spirits of the House rising with every word. It was quite obvious afterwards that the Prime Minister’s inadequacy and lack of inspiration had been demonstrated even to his warmest supporters.

In those twenty minutes Churchill brought himself nearer to the post of Prime Minister than he has ever been before. In the Lobbies afterwards even Chamberlainites were saying, ‘We have now found our leader: Old Parliamentary hands confessed that never in their experience had they seen a single speech so change the temper of the House.”

See HAROLD NICHOLSON, Diaries and Letters 1939-45

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Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: