Some people got depressed by Churchill’s speeches

Churchill’s visiting Geneva, 1946. Foto: Photopress-Archiv (Keystone)

Richard Toye, the English historian and rhetoric expert, talks about the influence Winston Churchill’s speeches had at the time – and what kind of reaction they got.

Cross-posted from Tages-Anzeiger

How does the Brexit situation harp back to longings about the British Empire?
Certainly things seemed to have changed very abruptly, and I would put down a lot of what has happened to the pursuit of austerity policies since 2010, and the fact that people’s living standards have sort of frozen or gotten worse. That creates an opportunity for people to play out various sentiments. It’s probably worth saying that when people have these discourses about Britain becoming great again they may be talking in almost total ignorance of what happened at the time.

About the time during the war?
No, I’m trying to explain why opinion has changed in the last few years to become more sympathetic to Brexit and towards imperial nostalgia. It has to do with the policies of cutting public spending and public services that have taken place. Then the situation becomes ripe for people to exploit discontent by blaming immigrants. So you have the playing up of the glorious past.

Do you think in this context that there will be a nostalgic wave of Churchillism?
I think there is kind of an ongoing on, really. It may have been a bit more complicated in the Sixties and Seventies. But particularly over the last 25 years or so … There have been ups and downs, but there has been a fairly powerful nostalgia since his death. You have got to remember that he is a divisive figure. You must not imagine that these political views of his are universally held in Britain. In Wales for example he is less popular than in the rest of the UK. Because of his alleged actions in the pre-1940ies period. Equally we are a currently a very divided society with a substantial body quite strongly held left-wing opinion as well as powerful body of right-wing opinion. So Churchill is going to remain controversial. Even during the war, he was a more controversial figure, subject of more criticism than one would expect from the standard portraits.

You strongly criticize Churchill for his imperialist convictions. What were the reactions you got to your book on the subject? 
I wasn’t particularly surprised because some people would say that I wasn’t harsh enough on him – or too harsh. In fact, that book didn’t produce the same amount of controversy as a later one which I wrote about Churchill’s World War II speeches. Where I probably was surprised by the intensity of the reactions to what I perceived to be a modest claim that the speeches generated more criticism that was widely believed at the time. One can see this through survey evidence or people’s diary and so forth. People felt as if I had said that the speeches weren’t any good which is not at all the same thing. I didn’t want to criticize Churchill, I was simply drawing attention to the complexity of reactions to him. But a lot of people didn’t like that because they resented that it didn’t confirm the standard story, the normal story. You know, some people got depressed by Churchill’s speeches rather than feeling uplifted, because often he would be bringing bad news. So my pointing that out was a tribute to him as a speaker, because he was not bringing people false comfort, he was telling them the truth. Over time this allowed him to establish his credibility as a speaker. And so, having persistently over a course of four years that victory was not easily in sight, because he didn’t know when it was going to happen and how. [continue reading at Tages-Anzeiger]

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