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Churchill on Democracy

Churchill on Democracy

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).

More on this sub­ject in a pre­vi­ous post.

 

Tests of Freedom: Italy 1944, Iran 2009

Tests of Freedom: Italy 1944, Iran 2009

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…”

“Democracy is the worst form of Government…”

democracy
The young ora­tor, 1907.

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.

Democracy: Churchillisms

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