Not by Churchill: “The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Desert News in Salt Lake City is the latest to publish this red herring.
Commonly attributed to him, but with no authority, this is not quite as cynical as Winston Churchill could be—but not about Democracy.
Though he sometimes despaired of Democracy’s slowness to act for its own preservation, Churchill had a more positive attitude towards the average voter. On 31 October 1944, for example, in the House of Commons:
At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point. —Churchill By Himself, page 100 (a favorite of TV journalist Chris Matthews).
His best known (but not original) remark about Democracy came in the Commons on 11 November 1947, but by his own admission Churchill was quoting someone else:
Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. —Churchill By Himself, page 583 (italics mine).
The distressing repression following the recent Iranian election reminds us once again of Churchill’s eternal relevance. In the House of Commons on 28 August 1944, he was asked how he would judge whether the new Italian government, about to replace the Fascist dictatorship of Mussolini, was a true democracy. Churchill replied:
The question arises, “What is freedom?” There are one or two quite simple, practical tests by which it can be known in the modern world in peace conditions—namely:
Is there the right to free expression of opinion and of opposition and criticism of the Government of the day?
Have the people the right to turn out a Government of which they disapprove, and are constitutional means provided by which they can make their will apparent?
Are their courts of justice free from violence by the Executive and from threats of mob violence, and free from all association with particular political Parties?
Will these courts administer open and well-established laws which are associated in the human mind with the broad principles of decency and justice?
Will there be fair play for poor as well as for rich, for private persons as well as Government officials?
Will the rights of the individual, subject to his duties to the State, be maintained and asserted and exalted?
Is the ordinary peasant or workman, who is earning a living by daily toil and striving to bring up a family free from the fear that some grim police organization under the control of a single party, like the Gestapo, started by the Nazi and Fascist parties, will tap him on the shoulder and pack him off without fair or open trial to bondage or ill-treatment?
These simple practical tests are some of the title-deeds on which a new Italy could be founded.
Churchill’s Tests of Freedom remain evergreen. Sadly, in the case of Iran in 2009, they answer themselves.
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. “It is frequently claimed that Churchill said this (or words to that effect). I have tried to locate the source of that quote, but I have not been able to trace it. Is it genuine, and if so, where and when?” —D.C., Bogotá, Colombia
He said it (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)—but he was quoting an unknown predecessor. From Churchill by Himself, 574:
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
So, although these are Churchill’s words, he clearly did not originate the famous remark about democracy. William F. Buckley, Jr., commenting on trickery in presidential debates, reminded us of Churchill’s reflection when he wrote in June 2007: “We are made to ask what it is that political democracy gives us. The system is utilitarian. But is it a fit object of faith and hope?” Credit Churchill as publicist for an unsourced aphorism.
But here are some original things (included in Churchill by Himself) that Churchill did say about democracy:
If I had to sum up the immediate future of democratic politics in a single word I should say “insurance.” That is the future—insurance against dangers from abroad, insurance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and constant which threaten us here at home in our own island. —Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 23 May 1909
At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point. —House of Commons, 31 October 1944
How is that word “democracy” to be interpreted? My idea of it is that the plain, humble, common man, just the ordinary man who keeps a wife and family, who goes off to fight for his country when it is in trouble, goes to the poll at the appropriate time, and puts his cross on the ballot paper showing the candidate he wishes to be elected to Parliament—that he is the foundation of democracy. And it is also essential to this foundation that this man or woman should do this without fear, and without any form of intimidation or victimization. He marks his ballot paper in strict secrecy, and then elected representatives and together decide what government, or even in times of stress, what form of government they wish to have in their country. If that is democracy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.” —House of Commons, 8 December 1944