A couple of days ago, I came across a copy of Winston Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech of June 1940. It had languished unread in my study since it was reprinted by The Guardian in a series of ‘Great speeches of the 20th century’ in 2007. I’m well aware that ‘Churchill, hero or villain?’, has recently been at the epicentre of a ludicrously trumped-up controversy on Twitter. But whatever your opinion of the old bruiser (and I recommend a quick read of Simon Jenkins’ article in The Guardian to put the matter in perspective), Churchill’s words by both omission and commission contain some lessons that any of today’s politicians making dismal idiots of themselves over Brexit could profitably take to heart.
Reading the speech just now now is an instructive experience. It is absolutely calculated with one end in view: to create unity. From the first word, you know you are not just in the presence of momentous events – you are a participant in them. Every paragraph is about ‘we’. I was familiar with the rousing final ‘We shall go on to the end…’ peroration, of course – but taking in the rest of what is quite a long and dense speech for the first time, the well-known ending is not the most remarkable thing about it. As Simon Schama notes in his short introduction, by far the most striking feature for today’s reader or listener, a companion to the 'we', is the startling rhetorical tactic from which it draws its persuasive force: honesty.
There is no fancy introduction. Churchill launches straight into a vivid description of the German May blitzkrieg and the desperate retreat of French and British troops to the Channel ports that had me, as no doubt listeners at the time, reaching for a map to follow the strategic sweep and grasp its implications. He makes no attempt to hide the losses and their consequences. While Dunkirk, which immediately preceded the speech, is a ‘miracle of deliverance’, he leaves no room for doubt about the height of the stakes (‘the whole root and core and brain of the British army… seemed about to perish upon the field’), nor that deliverance has been plucked at the last second from the jaws of disaster. ‘We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations,’ he warns. Make no mistake, the whole episode has been ‘a colossal military disaster’ that has left the French army weakened, the ‘fine’ Belgian army lost, the channel ports and swathes of northern France including ‘valuable mining districts’ in enemy hands, and a daunting quantity of guns and equipment, all of which would have to be painfully built up again, simply abandoned.
Nor is this all. With ‘remorseless candour’ (the description of the reporter of the then Manchester Guardian), the Prime Minister goes on to set out the likely next developments. Hitler might be expected to follow up quickly with a strike at France. Or at Britain: ‘When we see the originality of malice, the ingenuity of aggression, which our enemy displays, we may certainly prepare ourselves for every kind of novel stratagem and every kind of brutal and treacherous manoeuvre.’
But although there is no mistaking the gravity of the situation, or the possibility of worse to come, the tone is above all one of facing down the adversity. When Churchill pays tribute to the bravery of the retreating troops (including French and Belgian) and the extraordinary efforts of the RAF (with a prescient nod to its future role in protecting our own shores), Navy and little ships that brought off 335,000 allied soldiers from the beaches, the statement of national unity in the defiance is uncompromising. We really are all in this together. Yet there is no sense of Little Englandism. Unlike today’s MPs with their excruciatingly emphasized ‘our country’, ‘the British people’, not to mention ‘the will of the British people’, Churchill doesn’t do the virtue-signalling patriotism – he sometimes uses ‘this island’ or ‘the nation’, but mostly simply ‘we’. He repeats the pronoun no less than 10 times in the first half of the famous peroration. Then in a brilliant final coup, he first glancingly evokes the possibility of a British defeat (‘even if… this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving…’), before closing off the conditional by broadening the ‘us’ to include the British empire and the US, which would in that case carry on the fight until the job was done.
But first there’s another lesson for 2019’s MPs. Taking stock of the need, even after the recent losses, to balance home defence with ‘the largest possible potential of offensive effort’, Churchill proposes that the house discuss the subject in secret session – this partly to avoid giving useful information to the enemy, but mainly because the government ‘would benefit by views freely expressed in all parts of the house by members with their knowledge of so many different parts of the country.’
Let that sink in a bit.
The UK is not currently at war in the most literal sense (although to use the phrase is to be aware of the just subterranean parallels). But contrast the inclusion, unity of purpose and clarity of vision set out in the 1940 speech – a perfect statement for the time – with today’s sorry equivalent at another moment of national crisis: ‘a jumble of jargon, jousting and gibberish, with everyone sucked into the vortex of confusion, to the exclusion of every other issue in the world’, in the words of the New York Times’ columnist Roger Cohen, in principle a friendly observer. Like all the key terms used in Parliament at the moment, the desperate protestations of clarity (‘Let me be clear that...’, ‘The Prime Minister has made it very clear that...’) only underline the reverse: the sole clarity on offer, as Cohen notes, is that no one has a clue what will happen next. The hero-worship of some Brexiters for Churchill (Richard Evans’ takedown of Boris Johnson’s ‘biography’ in the New Statesman is irresistible) in this context is deeply ironic, since the cacophony reproduced daily in the House of Commons displays all the qualities of the June 1940 speech in reverse. It is a monument to muddle, fudge, discord and dissembling that can only comfort enemies and dismay friends. The rhetoric is meretricious and sham, and – again unlike the Churchill example – nothing good can possibly come out of it.