October 5, 2011

Writing for Business Insider on September 29th, Grace Wyler correctly reports a Churchill misquote by presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Defending himself from charges that he is a “flip-flopper,” Wyler writes, Romney confused “the Brit every Republican loves with the Brit every Republican loves to hate.”

Romney said: “In the private sector, if you don’t change your view when the facts change, well you’ll get fired for being stubborn and stupid. Winston Churchill said, ‘When facts change, I change too, madam.'”

Wyler correctly notes that this was said by John Maynard Keynes, “the British economist whose theories about government intervention in the economy is reviled by conservatives everywhere.” (Keynes’s actual words were: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”)

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We heard Romney’s remark with only a small clang, instead of the large one we usually hear when Churchill is misquoted—because, while Romney had the attribution wrong, he had Churchill’s sentiments right.

Churchill changed parties twice (effectively placing himself against some of the people, all of the time). He even wrote an article defending himself: “Consistency in Politics” (Nash’s Pall Mall, July 1927, reprinted in his book Thoughts and Adventures): “The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.”

A quarter century later, chided for changing his mind in the House of Commons, Churchill retorted: “My views are a harmonious process which keeps them in relation to the current movements of events.” (5 May 1952).

When the present Queen was crowned Churchill mused over his diehard support for her uncle, Edward VIII, who had abdicated in 1936 in favor of his brother, George VI, Britain’s wartime sovereign: “I’m glad I was wrong. We could not have had a better King. And now we have this splendid Queen.” (June 1953).

The main reason Churchill “flip-flopped” so many times was the extraordinary length of his political career: fifty years on the scene. When after the war, the Labour Party wished further to curb the power of the House of Lords, Prime Minister Attlee quoted what Churchill, now a Conservative, had said about the Lords in 1911, as a Liberal, Churchill had called the Lords “one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible, absentee.”

Churchill replied: “Really, I do believe there ought to be a statute of limitations on my remarks. I’m willing to be held responsible for anything I’ve said for the past thirty years, but before that I think a veil should be drawn over the past.”

How many politicians last long enough to make that particular request?

–Richard M. Langworth, Editor, Finest Hour

Quotations from Finest Hour 151 and the author’s book Churchill By Himself.

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