Safeguarding the Arts: “We are going to beat them”

by Richard M. Langworth on 7 March 2009

Please ver­ify a Churchill story/quotation dur­ing his defense of his bud­get in front of the House of Com­mons while Lon­don was being bombed. A Mem­ber ques­tioned Churchill’s increase in the arts bud­get while Britain was fight­ing for her life. Churchill’s sup­pos­edly responded that he could jus­tify the increase “to remind us what we are fight­ing for.” —K.L., Chicago.

This alleged quo­ta­tion was raised a few years ago in the Vil­lage Voice and is all over the web, but it is not in any of Churchill’s 15 mil­lion speeches, papers, let­ters, arti­cles or books.

It was regur­gi­tated recently by actor Kevin Spacey to Chris Matthews of MSNBC, though the Youtube post actu­ally cor­rects the mis­quote with a tex­tual overlay.

How­ever, in address­ing the Royal Acad­emy on 30 April 1938, Churchill expressed sim­i­lar views. Although he was refer­ring to paint­ing and sculp­ture, it is not hard to believe he would have applied these thoughts to the Arts in general:

The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself tosus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.

Sir Winston’s daugh­ter, Lady Soames, put me on to another com­ment about safe­guard­ing works of art dur­ing the war, recorded in the offi­cial biog­ra­phy, Win­ston S. Churchill, by Mar­tin Gilbert, vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941, page 449. This is not quite what the Vil­lage Voice recorded, but in a way apropos…

1 June 1940 Colville Diary

The sec­ond mat­ter con­cerned evac­u­a­tion in the event of inva­sion, or even before inva­sion. This had been raised in sev­eral forms. The For­eign Office had put for­ward a sug­ges­tion to pre­pare to evac­u­ate the Royal Fam­ily, and also the Gov­ern­ment, to “some part of the Over­seas Empire, where the war would con­tinue to be waged.” When [Desmond] Mor­ton passed on this request to Churchill, the Prime Min­is­ter answered: “I believe we shall make them rue the day they try to invade our island. No such dis­cus­sion can be permitted.”

At this same moment, the Direc­tor of the National Gallery, Ken­neth Clark, sug­gested that the paint­ings in the National Gallery should be sent from Lon­don to Canada. Churchill was like­wise against this sug­ges­tion, and emphat­i­cally so. “No,” he min­uted, “bury them in caves and cel­lars. None must go. We are going to beat them.”

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