Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_Churchill a great

Was Churchill a great orator?

Source 4

Part of a newspaper report from The Times reporting Churchill’s speech to Liberal Party members in Birmingham, 14 January 1909


CHAR 21/12, images 28 and 29

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript


The House of Lords is out of date and uses its powers in a strange way, often contradicting its own principles. He offers examples of when this has happened for example: ‘The House of Lords can prevent the trams running over Westminster-bridge; but it cannot prevent a declaration of war .... (Hear, hear).’ In destroying the Education Bill of 1906 the House of Lords rejected a measure passed by a majority in the House of Commons on an issue which had been widely discussed in the election so they could not claim that the government did not have support for this measure. By rejecting the Licensing Bill to control alcohol the House of Lords shows no concern for the moral welfare of the people. It poses as a Chamber where issues can be discussed in a more rational way, free for the hostility between political parties. In reality it is completely dominated by party politics and effectively supports the Tories. It is not possible for reasonable men to defend the House of Lords. The Lords should be able to delay a measure to allow more time to consider it but they should not have the power to stop a measure which has been passed by the elected MPs. Unless we reform the House of Lords no Liberal government will ever be safe from the House of Lords with its Tory majority.


Our policies at home are not as well developed as our international policies. However, most people agree, even in the House of Lords, that the country needs social reform. There is a mass of largely preventable and even curable suffering. The fortunate people in Britain are more happy than any class has ever been in history. But the left out millions are miserable. In 1909 we should be thinking about the unemployed artisan, the causal labourer and his family, the underfed child. The Liberal party has always known the joy that comes from serving great causes. It must also cherish the joy which comes from making good arrangements. (Cheers.)’ We must provide tolerable basic conditions for our fellow countrymen (Cheers). There is the challenge, and if we take up the challenge we will never lose the hearts of the British people (Cheers).

Original Transcript


The circumstances of the period are peculiar. The powers of the House of Lords to impede, and by impeding to discredit, the House of Commons are strangely bestowed, strangely limited and still more strangely exercised. There are little things which they can maul; there are big things they cannot touch; there are Bills which they pass, although they believe them to be wrong; there are Bills which they reject, although they know them to be right. The House of Lords can prevent the trams running over Westminster-bridge; but it cannot prevent a declaration of war ... It can prevent the abolition of the plural voter; but it could not prevent the abolition of the police. (Laughter.) It can refuse a Constitution to Ireland, but not, luckily, to Africa. (Laughter and cheers.) ... In destroying the Education Bill of 1906 the House of Lords asserted its right to resist the opinion of a majority of members of the House of Commons fresh from election upon a subject which had been one of the most prominent issues of the election. In rejecting the Licensing Bill of 1908 they have paraded their utter unconcern for the moral welfare (hear, hear) of the mass of their fellow-countrymen .... The Nonconformist child is forced into the Church school in single-school areas in the name of parents’ rights and religious equality. The Licensing Bill is rejected in the highest interests of temperance. (Laughter.) .... Posing as a Chamber of review remote from popular passion, far from the swaying influence of the electorate, it nevertheless exhibits a taste for cheap electioneering, a subserviency to caucus direction, and a party spirit upon a level with many of the least reputed elective Chambers in the world; and beneath the imposing mask of an assembly of notables backed by the prescription and traditions of centuries we discern the leer of the artful dodger, who has got the straight tip from the party agent. (Laughter and cheers.) It is not possible for reasonable men to defend such a system or such an institution. Counter-checks upon a democratic assembly there may be, perhaps there should be. But those counter-checks should be in the nature of delay, and not in the nature of arrest; they should operate evenly and equally against both political parties, and not against only one of them; and above all they should be counter-checks conceived and employed in the national interest and not in a partisan interest. These abuses and absurdities have now reached a point when it is certain that reform, effective and far-reaching, must be the necessary issue at a general election (cheers); and, whatever may be the result of that election, be sure of this, that no Liberal Government will at any future time assume office without securing guarantees that that reform shall be carried out (Cheers).


Our policy at home is less complete and less matured than it is abroad. But it so happens that many of the most important steps which we should now take are of such a character that the House of Lords will either not be able or will not be anxious to obstruct them, and could not do so except by courting altogether novel dangers. The social field lies open. There is no great country where the organization of industrial conditions more urgently demands attention. Wherever the reformer casts his eyes he is confronted with a mass of largely preventable and even curable suffering. The fortunate people in Britain are more happy than any other equally numerous class have been in the whole history of the world. I believe the left-out millions are more miserable. Our vanguard enjoys all the delights of all the ages. Our rearguard struggles out into conditions which are crueller than barbarism. The unemployed artisan, the casual labourer, and the casual labourer’s wife and children, the sweated worker, the infirm worker, the worker’s widow, the underfed child, the untrained, undisciplined, and exploited boy labourer – it is upon these subjects that our minds should dwell in the early days of 1909. The Liberal party has always known the joy that comes from serving great causes. It must also cherish the joy which comes from making good arrangements. (Cheers.) We shall be all the stronger in the day of battle if we can show that we have neglected no practicable measure by which these evils can be diminished and can prove by fact and not by words that, while we strive for civil and religious equality, we also labour to build up – so far as social machinery can avail – tolerable basic conditions for our fellow-countrymen. (Cheers.) There lies the march, and those who valiantly pursue it need never fear to lose their hold upon the heart of Britain. (Cheers.)

What is this source?

It is part of a newspaper report from The Times of a speech made by Churchill to the Birmingham Liberal Party of which he had been president.

Background to this source

Although he first entered politics as a Conservative, Churchill switched to the Liberal Party in 1904. The Liberal Party had been in government since 1906 when they won a landslide victory. In 1908 H. H. Asquith replaced Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as leader of the Liberal Party, and therefore Prime Minister, and appointed Churchill as President of the Board of Trade.

Additional information

The Liberal Party in 1906 promised a programme of social welfare. Some of the legislation was passed but others were blocked by the House of Lords. (There would have been no problem of getting legislation through the House of Commons as the Liberal Party had gained a landslide majority).

Here Churchill is looking forward to more social welfare legislation in the next Parliamentary session but anticipating some of the legislation being blocked by the House of Lords (which was dominated by the Conservatives). Here he looks at the record of the Liberals, the problems with the House of Lords and offers a form of solution. Churchill was trying to set out clearly and positively the plans of the Liberal government for social reform. Churchill was aware that there would be opposition in the House of Lords and that it would be a bitter struggle. In fact the struggle became so severe that it eventually resulted in the Parliament Act in 1911 which limited the powers of the Lords.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping this source can be useful to us in assessing whether Churchill was a good orator. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. What powers does the House of Lords have?
  2. What does Churchill think of the House of Lords and how can you tell?
  3. Can you tell what Churchill thinks his audience is likely to think about the House of Lords? If so, how?
  4. What does Churchill think should be done about the House of Lords?
  5. What does Churchill want done about poverty?
  6. How serious is the problem?

Deeper level

Which of the following areas of Churchill’s key features of public speaking can be investigated by using this source?


Tick if this is present

If you have put a tick, what makes you think this?

On a scale of 0-5 (0 being absent and 5 being strongly represented), indicate how important this attribute is to the speech.

Correctness of Diction

Is it clear what Churchill means even if some words are unfamiliar?



Does his speech seem like blank verse poetry?


Accumulation of Argument

Does he build his argument?



Does he use examples from the past or from people’s knowledge to illustrate his point?


Emotions of the speaker and the audience aroused

Do the audience know Churchill’s final point before he gets there?


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Need help interpreting the source?

  • It is important to think about the audience. Churchill is giving this speech to the Birmingham Liberal Party (who are out of office in Birmingham). Will this colour his words, might he be more extreme to them rather than say, the general electorate?
  • This is a newspaper article (like the speech to the Primrose League). Will this be the whole speech or what the reporter thinks is important? Remember Source 3 and the problems of reporting highlighted in George Buckle’s letter; could this be applied here?
  • This is a newspaper report and so, while it does note the noises made by the audience when reacting to the speech (e.g. cheers), do you think this would be a good indication of how everyone in the audience responded?

Source 5

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