The UK general election will fall almost exactly 70 years after Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940 at the most perilous time in recent British history.
Churchill used the power of words immediately to ready the nation for the long dark days ahead. His first broadcast said: “Is this not the appointed time for all to make the utmost exertions in their power?” He went on to speak of the “groups of shattered States and bludgeoned races; the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.”
Churchill resisted pressure from those in his Cabinet who urged secret talks with Hitler, telling the Cabinet: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” Just under 230,000 British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk as France fell to the German armies and Churchill had a tiny breathing space to start to prepare for the long battle ahead.
On June 4 Churchill gave one of his most famous speeches to the House of Commons which included the following stirring words: “We shall go to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
After this speech, Vita Sackville-West wrote to her husband, “it sent shivers (not of fear) down my spine. I think one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress: they are never words for words’ sake.”
Churchill was one of the greatest political leaders of modern times. He was also one of the best communicators. His words really were a matter of life and death.
How different from today. After more than half a century of peace and prosperity (won largely by the fortitude and bravery of men and women standing up to the evil of Nazism), our politicians utter endless streams of empty and vacuous words, designed in large part to become sound-bites repeated over and over again by the ravenous beast of 24/7 news.
In June 2010, a new government will have been formed and the phoney economic war will be over. The leaders will have to face the enormous challenge of reducing the £80 billion deficit. They will make huge cuts in public expenditure and jobs will be shed. It will be the people who will be called upon to make the sacrifices needed to repair the devastation brought about by the financial crisis of 2008. Will these new leaders have the words, like Churchill did, to lead the country through the dark times ahead?
Churchill’s speeches tended to have three key elements to them: they provided a clear sense of why sacrifices had to be made; they provided a sense of the country’s historic strengths upon which it could draw; and they offered a vision for the future. The Churchillian approach is woefully missing from today’s political debate as witnessed in the first leaders’ TV debate on Thursday, April 15th. All three leaders failed to own up to the full scale of the financial mess the country is in. The Financial Times journalist Chris Giles wrote the same day: “...the more present danger for the victorious party is that the new government, having avoided telling the public about the nasty medicine to come, will lack legitimacy in announcing its austerity package.”
Until the next leader owns up to the true state of affairs, he cannot provide a clear sense of why the rest of the nation will need to bear new hardships, why the country has a core of strength on which to draw, and where this is all leading. The language of politicians today is usually emasculated by the need to avoid gaffes and is blasted through with meaningless jargon borrowed thoughtlessly from the business world. It is also peppered with ridiculous phrases intended to shine briefly as a sound-bite before being forgotten.
One can only hope that as the next Prime Minister rolls up to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, he will have already started scribbling some Churchillian phrases to help us through the years ahead.