Secondhand but Valid: “If you can speak in this country…”

Secondhand but Valid: “If you can speak in this country…”

The Eng­lish-Speak­ing Union posed a ques­tion which illus­trates the prob­lem of sec­ond­hand quotes. That is, some­thing Churchill said which is not in his pub­lished canon. The quote is: “If you can speak in this coun­try [Britain], you can do any­thing.” It was a con­cise cel­e­bra­tion of the British right to free speech. The ESU has it on their web­site. But is it ver­i­fi­able?

In 1966, the ESU Philadel­phia Branch host­ed an exhib­it of my Churchill bio­graph­i­cal stamp col­lec­tion at the Philadel­phia Nation­al Bank. It was the first pub­lic appear­ance of what­ev­er lim­it­ed Churchill knowl­edge I then had, my “awak­en­ing” as a Churchillian. I have a warm mem­o­ry of the experience—but doubts about that sec­ond­hand quote.

Why secondhand?

It’s sec­ond­hand because it’s from a sec­ond party—not some­thing we can track to Churchill’s pub­lished works. I searched Hills­dale College’s dig­i­tal scans of 75 mil­lion pub­lished words by and about him. This includes his own 20 mil­lion words and over 50 mil­lion about him. It includes all his pub­lished books, arti­cles, speech­es and papers, along with biogra­phies, mem­oirs and stud­ies by oth­ers. Nei­ther the full quote nor its com­po­nents could be found.

There were no hits for “speak in this coun­try.” There were 15 hits for “you can do any­thing,” and one came close. This was a speech in the House of Com­mons, 22 August 1916. (Robert Rhodes James, ed., Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963, III, 2490.) He was refer­ring to the suc­cess­ful orga­ni­za­tion of war tri­bunals: “You can do any­thing in this coun­try,” he said,  if you have the will and the inten­tion to do it.”

Obvi­ous­ly that’s not good enough, I advised the ESU. So their quote seemed to be anoth­er exam­ple of sec­ond­hand inven­tion—”Churchillian Drift.”

A Solid source

Baron Hail­sham of St. Maryle­bone KG CH, PC FRS in 1990 (OTRS – Wiki­me­dia, pub­lic domain)

Think again! Natasha Good­fel­low of UK branch of the ESU took those com­ments and raised me one with excel­lent research. Quintin Hogg, Lord Hail­sham, report­ed the remark in 1975, she wrote. She sent a news­pa­per cut­ting from The Observ­er of 11 May 1975. While the quote remains sec­ond­hand, the evi­dence gives it real validity—and some cur­rent inter­est.

On 5 June 1975, Britain held a ref­er­en­dum on mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union. Its suc­ces­sor, the Euro­pean Union, is what Britain has now just left. The 1975 vote was 2:1 in favor of what was then, of course, a Free Trade asso­ci­a­tion. The more objec­tion­al devel­op­ments came lat­er, with the Maas­tricht Treaty and sub­se­quent loss of sov­er­eign­ty. Hail­sham was a judge for the 17th John Smith Memo­r­i­al Mace Award for the Schools Debat­ing Asso­ci­a­tion. The win­ner defeat­ed the motion, “That this House dis­ap­proves of the Ref­er­en­dum.”

In crit­i­ciz­ing the debaters, Lord Hail­sham said most stu­dents spoke too quick­ly. “Even if the speak­er thought his audi­ence was incom­pe­tent, it was not wise to make that clear.” Hail­sham had fur­ther advice: Avoid Latin quips (Churchill cer­tain­ly did that). Avoid clichés (like “Ship of State”). Imi­tate nobody (Churchill imi­tat­ed his father). Above all, he added, “remem­ber what Churchill told him” after “a mag­nif­i­cent speech at the Oxford Union: ‘If you can speak in this coun­try, you can do any­thing.’” (The ital­ics are Hailsham’s.)

When secondhand is valid

Giv­en Ms. Goodfellow’s evi­dence, I at once advised the ESU to con­sid­er this quote genuine—provided they include the ital­ics, which add author­i­ty by sound­ing exact­ly like Churchillian phrase­ol­o­gy. What clinch­es it, how­ev­er, is the reli­a­bil­i­ty of the source.

Lord Hail­sham (1907-2001) was a dis­tin­guished Par­lia­men­tar­i­an. His first role in White­hall was as Par­lia­men­tary Under-Sec­re­tary of State for Air in the 1945 Churchill gov­ern­ment. He lat­er served as First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil. He was a a can­di­date to suc­ceed Harold Macmil­lan as prime min­is­ter in 1963, and renounced his hered­i­tary peer­age to be eli­gi­ble. But he was passed over in favor of the Earl of Home. He was cre­at­ed a life peer in 1970 and served as Lord Chan­cel­lor, the office for­mer­ly held by his father, until 1987.

The valid­i­ty of sec­ond­hand quotes depends on the reli­a­bil­i­ty of the quot­er. Lord Moran and Lord Booth­by, for exam­ple, tend­ed to exag­ger­ate and elab­o­rate. Their report­ed diaries con­tained much that was not con­tem­po­rary, writ­ten long after the fact. Churchill col­leagues and con­fi­dants like Lord Soames or Sir Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne were more fas­tid­i­ous, almost invari­ably reli­able. Lord Hail­sham belongs in the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry.

I will glad­ly add this sec­ond but reli­able quip to the 500 new quo­ta­tions in the next edi­tion of my book, Churchill by Him­self, “if there is one.” (As Churchill report­ed­ly said, but didn’t, to George Bernard Shaw about the next per­for­mance of a new play.)

A remaining question…

It would be nice to know which Oxford Union speech this was. Per­haps a kind read­er will care to spec­u­late? Clear­ly, Churchill said this after swim­ming against the tide—as he almost always did at the Union.

2 thoughts on “Secondhand but Valid: “If you can speak in this country…”

  1. Thank-you, Antoine. I have it in my head Hailsham/Hogg was refer­ring to an Oxford Union debate in the 1920s, but when? I do not have my vol­umes of the Com­plete Speech­es here in the Bahamas—yet I also can­not pin­point a OU debate after the 1907 one depict­ed in the illus­tra­tion. If any­one can help dig, please do….

  2. A look at the list of Pres­i­dents of the Oxford Union indi­cates that Hogg served for the Trin­i­ty term of 1929. In all prob­a­bil­i­ty, there­fore, he heard the pre­cept from Churchill in the spring of 1929. The like­li­hood is that Churchill spoke to him after­wards because he was the serv­ing Pres­i­dent. There must be a record of his speech, or at least of his com­ing to Oxford, some­where.

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