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Was Churchill a great orator?

Source 5

Letter from Lord Cranborne to Churchill relating to a speech by Churchill on the Abyssinia crisis, 17 April 1936


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Simplified Transcript

Lord Cranborne to Mr Churchill

My dear Winston,

Thank you so much for your letter. I am sorry you thought my comment on your speech was unfair. I did not know about the private conversation you had had with the Foreign Secretary. I was only judging by your public words. You said in your speech that no one could do more than we have done. Finally, in a moving passage, you said that the League has moved from being weak and unimportant to being significant in world affairs. What I thought you meant was that you supported the policy of the League on Abyssinia and were praising the government for supporting the League’s policies.

I now realise you did not mean that and that you thought Britain should have taken more direct action. I do not believe that was realistic. Britain had to take the lead and direct what the League was doing. As soon as Italy invaded Abyssinia we were bound by the Covenant of the League to condemn the invasion and oppose it. The French may not treat the Covenant as law but we do treat it that way.

Yours ever,

Original Transcript

17 April 1936
Manor House,
Lord Cranborne to Mr Churchill

My dear Winston,

Thank you so much for your letter. I am so sorry that you thought my comment on your speech unfair. I need not say that when I spoke I knew nothing of your private conversation with Sam Hoare and Anthony in August. I was judging merely 'by your public' utterances. You will remember your speech in the House of Commons on October 24th last, in which you defined the Govt’s right policy as 'the whole way with the whole lot'. Later in that speech you went on to say 'No one has suggested that we could do more than we have done, or that we should take isolated action': and finally, in a most moving passage, you said that as a result of its actions in this dispute 'The League of Nations has passed from shadow into substance' & you concluded that 'the case for perseverance holds the field'. I still feel that those quotations justified me in thinking that at that time, at any rate in public, you approved both the policy of the League with regard to the war in Abyssinia & the action of the British Government in supporting and giving an impulsion to that policy.

Moreover, the course which you now consider that we should have adopted, that of taking a less prominent part, was, I believe, at no time practicable. We are by far the greatest nation in the League, & we are bound to take a prominent part. The decision which the British Govt. had to take was indeed not whether they should give a lead, but what lead they should give. To my mind, the decisive factor governing this decision was inevitably our commitments under the covenant. As soon as the Emperor had telegraphed to Geneva that Italian forces had violated the integrity of Abyssinia, & as soon as the League had decided that the Italian action constituted an unprovoked aggression, Art. 16 came automatically into operation. Not to have indicated quite clearly that we were ready to honour our obligations under that Article would have been as unjustifiable as for us not to indicate, in the Rhineland crisis, that we stood by the Treaty of Locarno. The fact that France may regard the Covenant not so much as a code of international law as an instrument of national policy, to be used when convenient, does not entitle us to take the same view.

For these reasons, I still believe that the Govt. took the only possible course under difficult circumstances.

Yours ever,

What is this source?

This is a letter from Lord Cranborne, a Conservative and grandson of the ex-Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to Churchill about Churchill’s stated opinion on Government policy towards Mussolini and Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Between 1935 and 1938 Cranborne held a junior ministerial role in the government as Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. So Cranborne was working right in the heart of the Foreign Office during the period of appeasement (a policy adopted by Britain in the 1930s that involved making concessions to dictatorial powers such as Germany and Italy in order to avoid the need for aggression).

Background to this source

In 1935 Italy advanced troops into Abyssinia. The Emperor Haile Selassie asked for help from the League of Nations and sanctions against Italy were discussed. Samuel Hoare had become British foreign secretary at the end of 1935 and, with his French counterpart Pierre Laval, proposed action to end the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Britain was predominantly pacifist and so it was difficult to act.

Additional information

Initially Churchill supported the government’s action but by April 1936 Mussolini was on the verge of conquering the whole of Ethiopia and Churchill felt Britain should do more to stop him. Churchill also had concerns about the new ruler of Germany, Adolf Hitler, and wanted Britain to take a more aggressive stance towards Italy and Germany.

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 did Churchill say about Cranborne’s comments?
  2. Did Cranborne accept Churchill’s complaints?
  3. What did Churchill say about the League of Nations in his October 1935 speech?
  4. How did Churchill’s view change afterwards?

Deeper level


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 consider the author of this letter. Lord Cranborne was from a leading Conservative family and as such would have been sympathetic towards Churchill who was also a Conservative again by this point. However, Churchill was criticising Conservative Party policy which Cranborne would not have liked, especially as it is in the sphere of foreign affairs and Cranborne was Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
  • We must also remember that many people were critical of Churchill’s lack of consistency. He had after all started his political career as a Conservative, switched to the Liberal Party, and by this point had switched back to the Conservative Party. Many believed this was evidence that Churchill was not trustworthy. As a Liberal, Churchill had made speeches about reducing the powers of the House of Lords like the one to the Liberal Party at Birmingham (Source 4) and so Lord Cranborne might not have been favourable towards Churchill, although he does refer to him as ‘My dear Winston’ and sign off using a nickname (‘Bobbety’).
  • The document bears several clues suggesting that Churchill himself did some editing of this document. At the top of the first page, you can see that Churchill has crossed out the sender’s address and replaced 'My dear Winston' with 'Lord Cranborne to Mr. Churchill', a title which would have helped a wider audience.
  • What’s going on here? Why did Churchill edit this document? It might have something to do with Churchill’s account of the Second World War. Churchill’s foresight in opposing the spread of fascism in Europe and his warnings about the British government’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the 1930s are now crucial elements in the traditional view of Churchill’s prominent role in history. Part of the reason for that view is that it was the interpretation Churchill himself put forward (at length!) in his own multi-volume account of the history of the Second World War. When writing his history of the run up to the Second World War, Churchill might have considered including this letter from Cranborne as a good example of the government opposition he faced to his warnings about dangers posed by dictators in Europe and of appeasement.

Source 6

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