February 27, 2015

Finest Hour 161, Winter 2013-14

Page 50

By Paul Addison

The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches, by Richard Toye. Oxford University Press, 296 pp., £34.95. Member price $27.96.


When Roosevelt asked one of his advisers who Churchill’s speechwriter was, he was told, “Mr President, he rolls his own.” After the revelation that parts of his war memoirs and much of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples was ghosted, I half expected Richard Toye to bring us the news that many of Churchill’s speeches were too, with Churchill adding the rhetorical flourishes. Not so: he really did write them himself. He was briefed, of course, by relevant government departments. If he spoke on foreign affairs, the Foreign Office would usually be asked to comment, though not if he was in the mood to slip some controversial statement past them. When he spoke on military matters, he did so as Minister of Defence, an office he combined with Prime Minister, in collaboration with the chiefs of staff. As a policymaker Churchill was never a one-man band, but the structure, style and rhetoric of his speeches were all his own.

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Churchill had always depended on the force of his oratory to compensate for the mistrust he often inspired. Whenever his fortunes were at a low ebb, he could hope to restore them with a formidable display of debating power in the House of Commons. It did not always work. On several occasions during the 1930s the verbal artillery misfired and he was written off as a failure. Then came the war and the surprising discovery that his oratory was once again in demand. By the autumn of 1940 his mastery of the Commons was complete and his popularity soaring.

Toye is the first historian to explore the response to Churchill’s speeches in depth. He deals with reactions in the Commons as well as the popular reception. Much of what he writes about the former will be familiar to readers of the diaries of Harold Nicolson and Chips Channon. More original is the analysis of popular opinion, which is largely based on material generated by two main sources: Mass Observation and the Home Intelligence branch of the Ministry of Information.

The evidence, Toye claims, exposes a myth: “The conventional story—that Churchill’s oratory produced unanimous or near unanimous rapture—is therefore unsatisfactory.” Some speeches, he argues, were a bit of a flop. Others gave rise to anxiety or disappointment. Critics and dissenters were more numerous than previously thought. Some disliked Churchill as a warmonger. Others thought his language vulgar, or denounced him as a showman or dictator. His speech impediment (and, sometimes, his irritability with having to rebroadcast what he had delivered with greater effect in the Commons), led some to think he was drunk at the microphone.

All this has long been documented, but does it add up to a radical revision? The answer is that much depends on the expectations readers bring to the subject. The myth as Toye defines it is essentially the myth of Britain’s finest hour, conflated in popular memory with the rest of the war years. Doubtless there are still corners of the English psyche where the qualifications introduced by Toye come as something of a shock. But for anyone with a more realistic sense of the past, his findings are much in line with what they might have expected.

For decades now historians have been revising the history of the home front to free it from the legacies of wartime propaganda and postwar nostalgia. Of course there were sceptics and dissenters. They were as much a part of the social fabric as the suet puddings and old maids of Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn.” But is there any reason to doubt the impact of Churchill on mainstream opinion?

Between July 1940 and May 1945 Churchill’s approval rating in the monthly Gallup Polls never fell below 78%. Toye tries to chip away at the figures. Polling, he writes, was still in its infancy; social pressures may have dictated a “patriotic” response.

Yet Toye himself quotes Mass Observation as reporting in November 1942 that Churchill’s normal approval rating was around 80%, which tends to corroborate Gallup. M.O. maintained that his popularity was much lower at times than Gallup indicated, but also that it soon returned to its normal level.

There is another case to be made in Gallup’s favour. From 1943 onwards, at the same time as they were monitoring Churchill’s approval ratings, Gallup were predicting a Labour victory at the next general election. Voters, in other words, were quite capable of distinguishing between Churchill’s qualities as a war leader and his limitations as a peacetime politician and leader of the Tory Party. Much of the evidence Toye presents actually tends to confirm the breadth, depth and durability of the esteem in which Churchill was held.

Revisionist claims are well worth airing, but the main strength of The Roar of the Lion lies elsewhere—in its patiently researched micro-histories of the speeches. Toye pinpoints the contexts in which they were written, the calculations that lay behind them, and their reception not just at home but also overseas. It is easy to forget that Churchill was addressing enemies and neutrals as well as allies and the British public. When he spoke of Britain’s relations with the United States and the Soviet Union he was dancing on eggshells. As Toye reflects, Churchill is often regarded as a hothead. But his speeches reveal the cool, calculating statecraft of a propagandist more subtle than Goebbels.


Professor Addison (University of Edinburgh) wrote the seminal Churchill and the Home Front along with two highly praised brief lives of Sir Winston, and participated in the colloquium which produced the Churchill Centre book Churchill as Peacemaker (1997). This review first appeared in The Literary Review.

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