This is the third in our series of the best conservative speeches from the last century to the present day.
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955, is without doubt the greatest conservative speechmaker ever. He is possibly the greatest speechmaker ever.
His were extraordinary speeches for extraordinary times. He rallied a nation on the brink of invasion and defeat. ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ was the line that commanded his countrymen’s attention as he braced them for conflict. His words inspired – and that inspiration mattered. Few question where we would be today without his unique command of language.
This did not come of out of the blue. It was the result of study as well as of imagination. He was a 23-year-old soldier in India when he wrote an essay called The Scaffolding of Rhetoric in which he analysed the power of words in public speaking.
Unlike modern technocratic politicians, Churchill understood and mastered the art of communication. And unlike the politicians of today’s PR world, he wrote every word of his speeches himself, spending hours over them. The first draft of a speech, the curator of one exhibition of his works said, looked like a normal typescript, the last looked like a poem.
I think it is impossible to pick the greatest of Churchill’s speeches. So instead I have selected all three of those he gave around the period of the Battle of France, the six weeks from May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded France and drove British, French and Belgian forces back to the Channel coast. The first speech he gave as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on May 10 to ask for a vote of confidence in his new all-party government, made memorable by its ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ phrase, was Shakespearean in its quality:
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: 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.
To see how he built up to these lines, to understand the full content and import of the speech, as well as of his command of the events happening in Europe, you need to read it in full here and listen to it here:
Less than month later, on June 4, 1940, came his great rallying cry as British forces, pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk, faced annihilation. He told the House of Commons that Britain would never surrender. It has been described as one of the greatest speeches in the annals of oratory. Churchill had made, and was to make, much greater speeches; but none of them had the impact of this brief peroration. His immediate audience was stunned, and then erupted into a prolonged ovation. You need to read in full from its prosaic start to its tumultuous ending, remembered in perpetuity for these words:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
You can listen to it here.
Churchill stood up for a third time in less than six weeks on June 18, 1940. Once again he had to rally a traumatised House of Commons and a traumatised nation. France had capitulated and Churchill found himself having to explain the calamitous situation the country was in, while remaining steadfast, positive, determined to confront the Nazis and to stop his colleagues and the country from capitulating. This is the speech designated for posterity by the line ‘This was their finest hour’. It closed with these resounding lines:
Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.
You can read this most stirring and powerful of speeches in full here and listen here.