“Antithesis of Democracy” (Or: Winston Churchill & Portland)

“Antithesis of Democracy” (Or: Winston Churchill & Portland)

Churchill’s stunning relevancy

It is remark­able how we still encounter in Churchill words of astound­ing cur­ren­cy. A friend in Port­land, Ore­gon asked for ver­i­fi­ca­tion of a Churchill quo­ta­tion: “A love for tra­di­tion has nev­er weak­ened a nation, indeed it has strength­ened nations in their hour of per­il….”  (“The Tasks which Lie Before Us,” House of Com­mons, 29 Novem­ber 1944.)  A good, sol­id max­im, but not out of the ordi­nary.

AND THEN my eye fell across what Churchill said a week lat­er.
Its cur­rent appli­ca­tion, to Port­land among oth­er places, is remark­able.

December 1944

Only two months after Greece had been lib­er­at­ed from Ger­man occu­pa­tion, left­ist ele­ments of the gov­ern­ment resigned and began an armed rebel­lion. The British gar­ri­son, under Lt.-Gen. Ronald Sco­bie, became involved on behalf of the gov­ern­ment. In Lon­don, Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment call­ing them­selves “Friends of Democ­ra­cy” reg­is­tered an objec­tion. Fred­er­ick Cox (Lab.-Broxtowe) demand­ed assur­ance  that “His Majesty’s Forces will not be used to dis­arm the friends of democ­ra­cy in Greece and oth­er parts of Europe…”
Hansard, the Par­lia­men­tary Debates, records a con­tentious debate. Fiery charges were hurled back and forth. Mr. Cox called upon Churchill to reas­sure friends of democ­ra­cy in Greece: “The Prime Min­is­ter is a great nation­al fig­ure. He sits there crowned with the glo­ry of achieve­ment. I am only a hum­ble back bencher, and I do not aspire to be any­thing else. But I would rather this right hand of mine were burnt off at the wrist, leav­ing a black­ened and twist­ed stump, than sign an order to the British Army to fire on the work­ers of Greece.”

Churchill replied:

Democracy
Sal­lon, Dai­ly Mir­ror. (Wiki­me­dia)

One must have some respect for democ­ra­cy, and not use the word too light­ly. The last thing which resem­bles democ­ra­cy is mob law, with bands of gang­sters, armed with dead­ly weapons, forc­ing their way into great cities, seiz­ing the police sta­tions and key points of Gov­ern­ment, endeav­our­ing to intro­duce a total­i­tar­i­an regime with an iron hand, and clam­our­ing, as they can nowa­days if they get the pow­er….

Here occurred an “inter­rup­tion.” In the gen­teel tones of Hansard, that is how one refers to an uproar. Willie Gal­lach­er (West Fife), Parliament’s only Com­mu­nist mem­ber, leapt to his feet. “That is unfair,” he shout­ed.  Pan­de­mo­ni­um reigned. The Speak­er restored order with dif­fi­cul­ty. After it sub­sided, Churchill resumed:

I am sor­ry to be caus­ing so much dis­tress. I have plen­ty of time, and if any out­cries are wrung from hon. Mem­bers oppo­site I can always take a lit­tle longer over what I have to say, though I should regret to do so. I say that the last thing that rep­re­sents democ­ra­cy is mob law and the attempt to intro­duce a total­i­tar­i­an regime and clam­ours to shoot everyone—there are lots of oppor­tu­ni­ties at the present time—who is polit­i­cal­ly incon­ve­nientDo not let us rate democ­ra­cy so low, do not let us rate democ­ra­cy as if it were mere­ly grab­bing pow­er and shoot­ing those who do not agree with you. That is the antithe­sis of democ­ra­cy.

The hon. Mem­ber [Mr. Gal­lach­er] should not get so excit­ed, because he is going to have much the worse of the argu­ment and much the worse of the Divi­sion [vote on the motion]. I was eleven years a fair­ly soli­tary fig­ure in this House and pur­sued my way in patience, and so there may be hope for the hon. Mem­ber.

“No harlot to be picked up in the street”

Democ­ra­cy, I say, is not based on vio­lence or ter­ror­ism, but on rea­son, on fair play, on free­dom, on respect­ing oth­er people’s rights as well as their ambi­tions. Democ­ra­cy is no har­lot to be picked up in the street by a man with a tom­my gun. I trust the peo­ple, the mass of the peo­ple, in almost any coun­try. But I like to make sure that it is the peo­ple and not a gang of ban­dits from the moun­tains or from the coun­try­side who think that by vio­lence they can over­turn con­sti­tut­ed author­i­ty, in some cas­es ancient Par­lia­ments, Gov­ern­ments and States.

Mr. Gal­lach­er did get the worst of it. The motion was defeat­ed, 279-30.

Further reading

On Christ­mas Day 1944, Churchill him­self arrived in Athens to bro­ker a peace between the war­ring sides. He was impressed with Arch­bish­op Damask­i­nos, whom he viewed as a uni­fy­ing fig­ure. Despite roy­al oppo­si­tion, Damask­i­nos was con­firmed as Regent. The con­tentious prime min­is­ter Geor­gios Papan­dreou resigned in favor of Gen­er­al Niko­laos Pla­s­ti­ras and a cease­fire end­ed the fight­ing. This was by far not the end of Greek upheavals; but it kept Greece out of the com­mu­nist orbit which was engulf­ing most of east­ern Europe. See The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 20, Nor­mandy and Beyond, May-Decem­ber 1944.

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