“Greatest Law Giver”: The Truth behind Churchill’s Mussolini Bouquets

“Greatest Law Giver”: The Truth behind Churchill’s Mussolini Bouquets

“Great­est Law Giv­er” is excerpt­ed  from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text includ­ing end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just fill out SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW (at right). Your email address will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Law giver Musso 

Dr. Antoine Capet, author of the indis­pens­able Churchill: Le dic­tio­n­naire (2018) is devel­op­ing an expand­ed Eng­lish edi­tion. “I am cur­rent­ly engaged on the Mus­soli­ni entry,” he writes…. 

Nat­u­ral­ly I quote Churchill’s words of 17 Feb­ru­ary 1933 to the Anti-Social­ist and Anti-Com­mu­nist Union in Lon­don. He described Mussolini’s ‘Roman genius’ and called him ‘the great­est law giv­er among liv­ing men.’ Mar­tin  Gilbert first pub­lished these quotes in 1976.   As you point out in Churchill by Him­self, Robert Rhodes James pro­vides only a trun­cat­ed ver­sion of the speech in his Com­plete Speech­es. All search results derive from Gilbert. I sus­pect that Churchill’s speech was nev­er pub­lished. 

Churchill’s actual words 

As Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer in 1927, Churchill nego­ti­at­ed Italy’s pay­ment of her war debt to Britain, which Mus­soli­ni was still hon­or­ing in 1933. Politi­cians often say nice things about for­eign­ers who owe them lots of mon­ey. But this is too flip­pant, and there is more to the ques­tion. 

Dr. Capet is right that the full speech was nev­er pub­lished. Allen Pack­wood, direc­tor of the Churchill Archives Cen­tre, came to our res­cue. He sup­plied the next best thing: Churchill’s orig­i­nal speech notes, cor­rect­ed in WSC’s own hand. The method­i­cal Sir Mar­tin read and quot­ed from this doc­u­ment years ago when research­ing the Churchill offi­cial biog­ra­phy. What he wrote was a mod­el of fair­ness and bal­ance: 

Dur­ing the course of his speech Churchill praised “the Roman genius” of Mus­soli­ni, whom he described as “the great­est law giv­er among liv­ing men,” for his anti-Com­mu­nist stance, but he reject­ed Fas­cism as a mod­el for Britain. “It is not a sign-post which would direct us here,” he said, “for I firm­ly believe that our long expe­ri­enced democ­ra­cy will be able to pre­serve a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem of gov­ern­ment with what­ev­er mod­i­fi­ca­tions may be nec­es­sary from both extremes of arbi­trary rule.”

The speech was not about the “law giv­er.” A few days before Churchill spoke, the Oxford Union had approved a motion: “That this House refus­es in any cir­cum­stances to fight for King and Coun­try.” Churchill com­pared this “squalid, shame­less avow­al” with more robust atti­tudes abroad, “where great nations stand deter­mined to defend their nation­al glo­ries or nation­al exis­tence with their lives.” 

Rejecting fascism 

Churchill had con­sis­tent­ly declared that Ital­ian fas­cism was inad­mis­si­ble in the British democ­ra­cy. In Rome in 1927 he had told reporters:  “If I had been an Ital­ian, I am sure I should have been whole-heart­ed­ly with you…against the bes­tial appetites and pas­sions of Lenin­ism. But in Eng­land we have not yet had to face this dan­ger in the same dead­ly form. We have our own way of doing things.”

In 1933 he was sim­ply repeat­ing that view, but he is repeat­ed­ly quot­ed out of con­text to assert the oppo­site. The “law giv­er” phrase comes up 13 times in his words or speech­es. Five of the first six are in books by hos­tile biog­ra­phers.  Each trun­cates the quote to avoid any sug­ges­tion that Churchill qual­i­fied his remark. No one repro­duces the full con­text. Instead they imply that he was at home with fas­cism and dic­ta­tor­ship. 

“Subsidiary craters spouting forth” 

When the son of an unpop­u­lar min­is­ter entered Par­lia­ment, Churchill cracked: “Isn’t it enough to have this par­ent vol­cano con­tin­u­al­ly erupt­ing in our midst? And now we are to have these sub­sidiary craters spout­ing forth the same unhealthy fumes!” 

Law giv­er Mus­soli­ni con­tin­ues to sur­face in Churchill attack books. The lat­est of these (2021) adds: “These were grotesque words to use about a pos­tur­ing moun­te­bank whose brutish fol­low­ers beat up his oppo­nents…. The Not­ting­ham Evening Post’s head­line ‘Win­ston a fas­cist’ may have been a lit­tle sharp…” A lit­tle?  

One ges­ture of bal­ance was Nicholas Farrell’s in The Spec­ta­tor. A Mus­soli­ni biog­ra­ph­er, Far­rell assert­ed Churchill’s admi­ra­tion, but pro­vid­ed the “law giv­er” quote in full con­text. (Less com­mend­ably, Far­rell relied on Clare Sheri­dan’s claim that Churchill was “the like­ly leader of the Fascisti par­ty in Britain.” That flies in the face of Churchill’s own words, and Sheri­dan was any­thing but a seri­ous observer.)

Reality 

Want­i­ng some­one to defeat some­one else—like Churchill want­ed Mus­soli­ni to defeat communism—does not mean you espouse someone’s pol­i­tics. Approv­ing Mussolini’s vic­to­ry in 1923 does not make Churchill a fascist.

The crit­ics then say: Well, if Churchill was not a fas­cist him­self, he sym­pa­thized with them. As so often, inves­ti­ga­tion of what he actu­al­ly said leads us to entire­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. Yes, Churchill expressed admi­ra­tion for Mus­soli­ni, pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, until he allied with Hitler. Yes, if forced to choose between Ital­ian fas­cism and Ital­ian com­mu­nism, Churchill unhesi­tat­ing­ly would choose the for­mer. No, Churchill nev­er believed in fas­cism as accept­able in a democracy. 

Further reading

The Churchill-Mus­soli­ni Non-Let­ters,” 2015 

Mussolini’s Con­so­la­tion” (Churchill Quotes,” 2012

Cole Porter and a Van­ished Cul­ture: Brew­ster and Mus­soli­ni,” 2020

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