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Wit & Wisdom – “The Magic of Averages”

Finest Hour 133, Winter 2006-07

Page 13

WE HAD NO IDEA how frequently and consistently Churchill used this phrase…


“I am preparing a talk in which I will quote from Churchill’s famous speech of 21 March 1943 proposing a ‘Four Years’ Plan’ {Onwards to Victory, 39): ‘Here is a real opportunity for what I once called “bringing the magic of averages to the rescue of the millions.”‘ Do you know when he first spoke of ‘the magic of averages?”‘
—ANTOINE CAPET FRHISTS
HEAD OF BRITISH STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF ROUEN, FRANCE

As you suspected, this was a reiteration. The Boston Evening Globe of 10 March 1932 (p8) contains an interview: WINSTON CHURCHILL HERE TO LECTURE. In the body of the article is a subheadline, “Principle of Magic of Averages.” The paper reports his remarks:

“In the main, these relief measures are supported by insurance contributions of the unemployed, of the employers, and of the State. I have before described them as, in principle, the application of the magic of averages to the rescue of millions.”

This was corroborated in the Boston Evening Transcript the same day.
—JOE HERN, BOSTON

Churchill’s retreading of favorite phrases or quotations, the product of a photographic memory, occurs over and over again. A prime example is his 1930 autobiography subtitle (and U.S. title), A Roving Commission: the title of his first chapter title in Ian Hamilton’s March, published thirty years earlier— and the phrase itself originated as title of a Henty novel, which Churchill undoubtedly read in his youth.

“The magic of averages” has at least eight appearances, the first dating back to 1911. Here are the other six published references. (Mr. Hern’s revelation of his use in 1932 probably means there are several more to be found.)

• Speech on National Insurance, 25 May 1911 (Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vok, New York: Bowker, 1974, 11:1819): “It is not only a question of collective strength of the nation to render effective the thrift and the exertions of the individual, but we bring in the magic of averages to the aid of the millions. In the field of invalidity there is all this and more. In the field of invalidity we have not only the magic of averages, but, as we were reminded yesterday in the speech of the hon. Member for Plymouth [Mr. Astor]—a speech which excited the admiration and gratitude of all who sit on this side of the House, and the approval of every one wherever he sits—we have the genius of health.”

• “The Abuse of the Dole” (Daily Telegraph, 26-27 March 1930, rpt. The Saturday Evening Post, 29 March 1930, also in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill, 4 vols., London: Library of Imperial History 1975, 11:200): “There is contributory insurance on a compulsory and nation-wide basis against sickness, invalidity, accident, old age, widowhood and unemployment. We have brought the magic of averages to the rescue of the millions.”

• Discussing unemployment with the Americans (“Who’ll Pay the Jobless?,” Colliers, 25 February 1933, rpt. The Sunday Chronicle, 19 March-3 April 1933 and in Pictorial Magazine 17 February 1934, Collected Essays, op. cit., 11:279): “During the whole of the twentieth century the British people have been building up these great insurance systems. They are unexampled in the world. There is contributory insurance on a compulsory and nation-wide basis against sickness, invalidity, accident, old age, widowhood and unemployment. We have brought the magic of averages to the rescue of the millions.”

• Cabinet Minute, 14 February 1943 (The Second World War, vol. II, London: Cassell, 1949, 862, also quoted by Sir Martin Gilbert in the official biography, vol. 7, Road to Victory, 292): “This approach to social security, bringing the magic of averages nearer to the rescue of the millions, constitutes an essential part of any postwar scheme of national betterment.”

• Election Broadcast, 13 June 1945 (Victory, London: Cassell, 1946, 198): “Unemployment Insurance was made universal, at enormous cost to the State. It saved us from catastrophe during some terrible years. I have always been fascinated with this idea of what I once called ‘bringing the magic of averages to the rescue of die millions.'”

• Woodford Green, 10 July 1948 (Europe Unite, London: Cassell, 1950, 369): “I have myself been deeply involved, as you know, in all the schemes for insurance against old age, illness and unemployment, which have marked the present century of British political life and which are designed, if I may repeat a phrase I used twenty years ago, ‘to bring the magic of averages to the rescue of the millions.'”

On this last occasion, for once Churchill’s mighty memory failed him. He had first used the phrase thirty-seven years before, arguing for unemployment insurance!

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