Churchill and Burke: “Spontaneous Humour, Unparaded Erudition”

Churchill and Burke: “Spontaneous Humour, Unparaded Erudition”

1. Roberts on Burke

Reprised below are my small con­tri­bu­tions on Churchill and the great Irish states­man and thinker Edmund Burke (1729-1797). It was eclipsed in 2019 in a bril­liant speech by Andrew Roberts which the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project offers here. Dr. Roberts spoke after receiv­ing The New Cri­te­ri­on 7th Edmund Burke Award for Ser­vice to Cul­ture and Soci­ety. He also dis­cuss­es Churchill on Burke in a video inter­view with James Panero.

2. Churchill on Burke

A read­er writes:

I’d like to con­grat­u­late you on Churchill by Him­self, but I could not find any Churchill com­ments on Edmund Burke in the index. I thought Burke deserved a men­tion, but it’s your book, so it’s your call (and may I add, it has been one of the best trea­sures that has ever land­ed on my lap!)  —V.T., England

Thanks for the kind words. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the index is the worst fea­ture of the book, and com­plete­ly missed Burke. The 2016 Roset­ta ebook, Churchill in His Own Words, is of course search­able. Both it and the 2012 inter­na­tion­al edi­tion also con­tain a use­ful phrase index. Click these links or see the revolv­ing books to the right >>>>.

Despite the index’s silence, there are five Churchill quotes on Burke, and a sixth by an observer….

1897: “What shadows we are…”

Look­ing at these shape­less forms, con­fined in a reg­u­la­tion blan­ket, the pride of race, the pomp of empire, the glo­ry of war appeared but the faint and unsub­stan­tial fab­ric of a dream; and I could not help real­is­ing with Burke: “What shad­ows we are and what shad­ows we pursue.”

Churchill was writ­ing here of British dead in the cam­paign in the North­west Fron­tier of India. (See The Sto­ry of the Malakand Field Force.) He nonethe­less admired valiant ene­mies, like the Dervish­es in The Riv­er War: “…their claim beyond the grave in respect of a valiant death was not less good than that which any of our coun­try­men could make.”

1939: “Importunate chink” of grasshoppers

[Burke said:] “Because half-a-dozen grasshop­pers under a fern make the field ring with their impor­tu­nate chink, whilst thou­sands of great cat­tle repose beneath the shad­ow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imag­ine that those who make the noise are the only inhab­i­tants of the field, that of course they are many in num­ber; or that, after all, they are oth­er than the lit­tle shriv­elled, mea­gre, hop­ping, though loud and trou­ble­some insects of the hour.”

Churchill was quot­ing Burke to Col­in Thorn­ton-Kem­s­ley, chair­man of the Chig­well Con­ser­v­a­tive Asso­ci­a­tion, who want­ed to dis­miss WSC for his anti-Cham­ber­lain rhetoric. When Churchill became prime min­is­ter, Thorn­ton-Kem­s­ley sent him his apolo­gies. “I want to say only this,” he wrote. “You warned us repeat­ed­ly about the Ger­man dan­ger and you were right: a grasshop­per under a fern is not proud now that he made the field ring with his impor­tu­nate chink.”

Churchill replied: “I cer­tain­ly think that Eng­lish­men ought to start fair with one anoth­er from the out­set in so griev­ous a strug­gle and so far as I am con­cerned the past is dead.”

1941: Anglo-American unity

The great Burke has tru­ly said, “Peo­ple will not look for­ward to pos­ter­i­ty who nev­er look back­ward to their ances­tors,” and I feel it most agree­able to recall to you that the Jeromes [Churchill’s mater­nal fore­bears] were root­ed for many gen­er­a­tions in Amer­i­can soil, and fought in Washington’s armies for the inde­pen­dence of the Amer­i­can Colonies and the foun­da­tion of the Unit­ed States. I expect I was on both sides then. And I must say I feel on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean now.

The BBC had active­ly worked to keep Churchill off the air in the Appease­ment years, but by 1941 they couldn’t get enough of him. Here he is broad­cast­ing on 16 June 1941, six days before Hitler attacked Rus­sia. His theme, as ever, was Col­lec­tive Secu­ri­ty, and he yearned for Amer­i­ca to enter the war.

1951: “Reform without injustice”

A gen­er­a­tion would no doubt come to whom their mis­eries were unknown but it would be sure of hav­ing more to eat and bless Stalin’s name. I did not repeat Burke’s dic­tum, “If I can­not have reform with­out injus­tice, I will not have reform.” With the World War going on all round us it seemed vain to moralise aloud.

Churchill is here writ­ing in his fourth vol­ume of Sec­ond World War mem­oirs, The Hinge of FateWSC was nev­er giv­en to moralizing—or, as we hear so dis­gust­ing­ly often today, “virtue sig­nal­ing.” Moral­i­ty was promi­nent in his make-up, but in war for him the first pri­or­i­ty was “Vic­to­ry at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror.”

Collin Brooks 1893-1959 (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

3. Collin Brooks: “Where gusto is the prime quality”

One more ref­er­ence to Burke in is on page 18. It is a love­ly quo­ta­tion by Collin Brooks about Churchill the con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist in Churchill by His Con­tem­po­raries (1953). Brooks cap­tures the qual­i­ty that endeared Churchill, even to polit­i­cal opponents:

“Nev­er was a talk­er so var­i­ous­ly gift­ed, so ardent­ly lis­tened-to, so lit­tle of a prig; nev­er was a man so wed­ded to pre­ci­sion and ver­bal nice­ty so lit­tle of a pedant…. Sir Win­ston would have been equal­ly wel­comed by Fal­staff in EastcheapBen Jon­son at The Mer­maid, or Burke and John­son at The Mitre, that is, in any coterie where the talk is mas­cu­line, the wit and humour spon­ta­neous, the eru­di­tion unpa­rad­ed, and where gus­to is the prime quality.”

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