wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

William Manchester

The Caged Lion

Churchill was right—the Geneva conference was doomed—but no one in Parliament would congratulate him on his foresight. In those days faith in disarmament was a creed, and to slight it was poor politics. But then, Churchill was a poor politician. Although the most gifted speaker of his age, he was clumsy, even inept, in manipulating the House, the intricate maneuvering of which Baldwin was master. Neither, in the opinion of prominent Labour leader Clement Attlee, was he a great parliamentarian, 'mainly, of course, because he was too impatient to master the procedures.' He was also capable of appalling political misjudgments. By resigning from Baldwin's shadow cabinet in 1931 over the India issue, thereby repeating his father's aristocratic disdain for consequences, he assured his exclusion from every prewar ministry and made the eventual designation of Neville Chamberlain as prime minister—with all that entailed—inevitable.

But no British politician in this century has matched Winston's skill in keeping himself in the public eye. In 1899, when Winston was still in his mid-twenties, G. W. Steevens, the great Victorian journalist, met him on the boat home from India and wrote in the Daily Mail that Churchill might become, among other things, 'the founder of a great advertising business.' Certainly he was a matchless self-advertiser. Even as a backbencher, he made news by his dramatic presence in the House of Commons, by his soaring speeches, by parliamentary tricks which just skirted the borderline of propriety, and by his way of digging into a pocket, producing classified documents, and reading selected passages aloud, with all the gaudy panache he alone could display, to an astonished House, press gallery, and public.

Now and then he would enter the chamber carrying a prop. If he had nothing else, at crucial moments he would produce his watch and play with it. Parliament was aware of his diversions, sometimes amused, often annoyed. Yet everything he did was just within the rules. Once, when an Opposition speaker had the floor, Winston lowered his great head and began to swing it back and forth in widening arcs. Backbenchers grinned and then chuckled. The victim said icily: 'I see the Right Hon[orable] Gentleman shaking his head. I wish to remind him that I am only stating my own opinion.' 'And I,' said Churchill, 'am only shaking my own head.' Another time, when an MP was approaching the end of a very long address and was drawing breath, pausing before his peroration, Churchill destroyed it by growling, 'Rubbish.' Anticipating an attack on an argument he himself had presented at the last session, he entered the chamber sucking a jujube—a lozenge—and pocketed it as he sat down. His opponent had just begun to pick up momentum when Winston began searching his jacket, vest, and trousers. At first he was surreptitious, as though anxious not to distract the listening MPs, but gradually one MP after another noticed that he was digging into his pockets, ever harder, ever more frantically. Laughter began, and the speaker, trembling with justifiable rage, asked: 'Winston, what are you doing?' Churchill said meekly, 'I am looking for my jujube.'

The speaker's colleagues raised indignant shouts, but when they quieted down he reminded them that he always enjoyed a noisy House and told them why: 'Honorable Members opposite will give me credit for not being afraid of interruptions and noise. It even would be much easier to be shouted down continually or booed down, because I have not the slightest doubt that I could obtain publicity for any remarks I wish to make, even if they are not audible in the House.' He did not add, though they knew it, that he could also make money doing it, selling his text in Fleet Street at a handsome price. And if his tactics offended MPs on both sides of the well, he could always win back their hearts. The House of Commons is no less susceptible to flattery than each of its members, and when he digressed for a moment to recall a critical issue in the recent past, concluding, 'All through these convulsions the House of Commons stood unshaken and unafraid,' they felt, as Lord Chandos puts it, 'that they had been in a battle and had just been decorated.'

Splendid prose, wrote Hazlitt, should be accompanied by vehemence and gesture, a dramatic tone, flashing eyes, and 'conscious attitude'—a precise description of Churchillian delivery. A consummate performer, he would rise, when recognized by the Speaker, with two pairs of glasses in his waistcoat. Perching the long-range pair on the end of his nose at such, an angle that he could read his notes while giving the impression that he was looking directly at the House, he gave every appearance of speaking extemporaneously. If the occasion called for quoting a document, he produced his second pair and altered his voice and manner so effectively that even those who knew better believed that everything he said when not quoting was spontaneous.

As a youthful MP he had excelled at the set piece but faltered in the give-and-take of debate; Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905, had chided him, calling his 'artillery' impressive 'but not very mobile.' It was mobile now, and frequently sardonic. 'It is wonderful how well men can keep secrets they have not been told,' he said, and, 'Too often the strong, silent man is silent because he has nothing to say,' and, describing Lloyd George's criticism of his hostility toward Nazi Germany, 'It revealed a certain vein of amiable malice.' Sir Samuel Hoare, a coalition minister, was a favorite target. Winston said of him: 'He never resents the resentment of those to whom he has been rude.' But the coalition government must be allowed its day: 'Where there is a great deal of free speech there is always a certain amount of foolish speech.'

Although this was said in a bantering tone, it reflected Churchill's absolute faith in democracy. If the electorate preferred to be governed by fools, they should be. Of course, that did not make folly wisdom. He did not share the view that sagacity lies in the masses, and in thwarted moments he would quote Hazlitt: 'There is not a more mean, stupid, dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself.' The man of honor remained true to himself, even though drawn through the streets in a tumbril. He scorned opinion polls: 'It is not a good thing always to be feeling your pulse and taking your temperature. Although one has to do it sometimes, you do not want to make a habit of it. I have heard it said that a Government should keep its ear to the ground, but they should also remember that this is not a very dignified attitude.' He was often called irrational and cheerfully admitted it. So, he replied, was politics; so was human experience. It did not, he observed, 'unfold like an arithmetical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life they make five, or minus three, and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye. The element of the unexpected and the unforeseeable is what gives some of its relish to life, and saves us from falling into the mechanic thraldom of the logicians.'

Churchill was celebrated as a polemicist, but many of his flashing moments in the House were sheer fun. Rising to pay tribute to a fellow member on his golden wedding anniversary, Winston touched off a parliamentary cachinnation by beginning: 'I rise to commit an irregularity. The intervention I make is without precedent, and the reason for that intervention is also without precedent, and the fact that the reason for my intervention is without precedent is the reason why I must ask for a precedent for my intervention.' One of his baiters was Edith Summerskill, a feminist MP. Every time he said 'man' during one of his addresses she interjected 'or woman.' After several such interruptions he paused, turned to her, and said: 'It is always the grammarian's answer that man embraces woman, unless otherwise stated in the text.' A rash new member called his thrusts slanders. Winston replied: 'He spoke without a note and almost without a point.' And after crossing foils several times with a Welsh Labour member and anticipating another demand from him to which his only response could be an unqualified negative, he had 'Nothing doing' translated into Welsh and memorized it. The entire House was stunned when the Welshman, having made his claim, sat down and Churchill rose to growl: 'Dym a grbl.'