Was Churchill a great orator?
Throughout his career Churchill witnessed some extraordinary developments on the world and national stage and, as a politician and statesman, he had opinions on many of them. He has a reputation as one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century. But there are a number of factors that must be considered when assessing whether Churchill was a great orator and investigating whether the legacy left by his famous speeches is truly deserved.
It is certainly true that Churchill worked very hard at his oratory. As a young man he struggled to overcome a speech impediment and throughout his life he had difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘s’. Churchill also always prepared what he wanted to say very thoroughly and spent hours polishing and reworking his speeches. In the early part of this life he learnt his speeches by heart and relied on his memory. Churchill’s speeches at the time would have been heard by those in the hall where he was speaking and then recorded either in newspaper reports or in Hansard, the edited report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In April 1904 Churchill lost the thread of what he was saying and had to sit down rather than completing his speech. From this point on, he made sure he always had complete notes for his speeches and those speech notes are preserved in his archive. The final versions of his speech notes were often even laid out on the page like poetry – a technique to make sure that he did not lose his place.
Around 1897 (before Churchill had much experience of speaking in public), he wrote an article entitled ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ (CHAR 8/13/1-13) where he set out his thoughts on what made a good speech. Even though the article was not published, we shall use this as the basis of our assessment of Churchill as an orator.
The prime minister of the wartime Coalition government Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, (1874 - 1965), during a speech. The July 1945 general election resulted in a resounding victory for the Labour Party.
When Churchill entered politics in 1901, there were no audio recordings so we cannot listen to or experience them for ourselves. So our appreciation of the impact of his skills as an orator at that time comes from those who wrote to him about his speeches or from newspaper articles. However, when looking at these sources we must weigh up information about the context. For example, when Lord Cromer congratulated Churchill on his maiden speech in February 1901 (CHAR 1/29/8) it may be appropriate to consider who Cromer was and think about what motivated him to write. Perhaps Cromer may have known Churchill’s parents; or as a colonialist, he may have seen Churchill as a kindred spirit.
Similarly, the evidence for Churchill’s first political speech in 1897 is a newspaper report of it (CHAR 2/21/1). However, again we must assess not just the content of the speech but also what we know about its audience. The speech was made to the Bath branch of the Primrose League, an organization dedicated to promoting Conservatism and founded by Churchill’s father. So we can deduce that Churchill would have been likely to have a receptive audience when he talked up the Conservatives (even though his speech was directed in part at the Workmen’s Compensation Bill). Churchill also thought about making comments which would hit home with his audience. He talked about Lord Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli) whose love of primroses had given the Primrose League their name – an allusion he may not have made in other company. Despite his message being radical at times (for example he ‘hoped that the labourer would become a shareholder in the profits’) the speech was ‘well received’ and this may be an early indication of Churchill’s skill as an orator.
As the twentieth century progressed, speech making become very important. New technologies, particularly radio, allowed politicians a means of communication with a mass audience. This was important for politicians in democracies and dictatorships. During the Second World War, Churchill’s skillfully crafted speeches had a massive impact. They were designed not only to restore British morale, but also to send a message of hope to occupied Europe, a signal of defiance to Nazi Germany, and an appeal for support to the United States. Churchill’s political opponent, Clement Attlee, summed it up: when asked what Churchill did to win the war he replied: 'Talk about it'.
Churchill’s command of the English language was considered second to none and many ordinary people listening to him felt that he spoke to them personally. Churchill’s reputation as an orator was also cemented by his ability to craft memorable phrases which have passed into history – phases such as ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many by so few’ (CHAR 9/140A/9-28).
Churchill was one among several fine orators of the twentieth century – we think about Hitler, Mussolini, F.D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and others. Today we can not only hear but also see our politicians delivering their speeches in Parliament and judge for ourselves whether they are fine orators or not.