A speech to the Sir Winston S Churchill Society of Edmonton, Alberta, 1979
By Christopher Soames
Published by permission in Finest Hour 58, Winter 1987-1988
YOUR HONOUR, Mr Justice Steer, Mr Ivany, Gentlemen. You’ve been so kind to me that I must say there were some moments when I hardly recognised myself. You referred to the GCMG [ed. Grand Cross of the Order of St. Mary and St. George] which stands for “God Calls Me God,” and then the GCVO [ed. Grand Cross of the Victorian Order]. I received these very close together, and I then received a rude telegram from a friend, who said, “What! Twice a knight at your age?” [Laughter] It’s not strictly true, actually, it’s about someone else; but it will do…
Nothing would have more gratified and indeed moved Winston Churchill than to have known how successful has been this Society which he knew had been founded in his closing years here in Edmonton. And what great personal efforts have been made by successive presidents and executives to make a constructive contribution to its work.
Indeed it is now one of three well established Winston Churchill Societies, here, in Calgary, and now the new one in Vancouver.
Societies which bear his name are founded not only to preserve his memory but also to keep alive those themes and ideals which were the mainspring of his life’s work and achievement. You do me a great honour in inviting me to address you, and I thank you all, and in particular Mr and Mrs Ivany, with all my heart on behalf of my wife and myself, for the kindness and hospitality you have shown us.
I follow in the line of distinguished men who combined their own achievements with the experience of having worked closely with Winston Churchill, of having known him as chief, as colleague or as friend and many of them combining all three of these categories. They all possessed a close personal knowledge and indeed affection of Winston, withal at the same time a degree of detachment and evaluation.
By now so many of his intimate friends and colleagues have attended these memorial functions that it would normally be invidious to pick out anyone in particular. On the other hand I would not like this moment to pass, nor I believe would you wish me to, without mentioning Lord Mountbatten, who not only came here as your guest, but was also your Patron, who was so cruelly murdered in the evening of his gallant and distinguished life. He was born to a great position but his one desire was to serve his country and this he did throughout his lifetime. He was a born leader and as is the mark of a great leader, he commanded not only the respect but the affection of those who served him. He was the epitome, the man who walked with Kings but never lost the common touch, and he is mourned by free men far beyond the bounds of his native country.
Mr. Chairman, other of your speakers have dwelt on the panoramas of Winston Churchill’s amazing life and career. The story is of a young subaltern who rode in the cavalry charge of Omdurman, who saw the dramatic and moving apotheosis, personalities and achievements in the trauma of world events which have shaken our generations and broken the molds of societies. He became not only the champion of his own country at its finest and loneliest hour but also the voice of free men everywhere and who, living into a grand old age, battered but valiantly striving still, saw the ushering in of the nuclear age and grasped the implications of these terrifying elements in world politics. From a cavalry charge at Omdurman to the age of the hydrogen bomb – what a lifespan.
I hope you will bear with me if I start by telling you some personal memories of this great human being and forgive me if there is a good deal of “Vitamin I” in what I say. It will be a joy for me to recall for you some of my recollections. Life hurries one on so fast. The present is so full, and the future so perplexing. One must not dwell in the past; but it is good to remember, to take out the family album sometimes, and to recall moments, sad or funny, trivial or tremendous, which have made up the tapestry of one’s time and one’s relationships.
I must confess that the first time I met Winston Churchill, it was with some trepidation not only because he was who he was, but also because I knew I had taken no mean liberty, in that I had proposed marriage to his youngest daughter, blue eyed in more ways than one, not only not seeking his permission, but without even having met him. And after, indeed, Mary and I had spent but a few handful of hours in each other’s company.
I met him, it was arranged, when she had dined alone with her parents and I went round to join them afterwards. Any anxieties that I might have felt, and there were some, were immediately swept away by the warmth of their welcome. They were still in the dining room sitting over coffee and brandy. After some time Mary and her mother withdrew and Winston and I sat on at the dinner table discussing all manner of things.
This was the first of many hundreds of such occasions during the 17 years which lay ahead and it was for me the beginning of the most important relationship with another man of all my life: a relationship which spanned the years which took him from his middle seventies to his middle nineties. And me from the middle twenties to my middle forties. And it is this side of Winston, as a loyal and true friend, and the best of all companions that I would like first to talk to you about this evening. For I must tell you that what lives most in my memory is not just a giant among statesmen, but a giant among men: a man of great humanity.
After our marriage in early 1947, Mary and I lived in the farmhouse that was a stone’s throw from his beloved Chartwell. He had recently bought the farm and he had made me his manager. In the five years of opposition, those five years from early ’47 to late ’51, he spent a great deal of his time there. It was his headquarters for his books on the history of the war, and it was there that he liked to entertain his friends and his colleagues and visitors from abroad. During this period, hardly a day went by without my having the chance to spend some hours in his company. He brought me into and discussed with me more and more facets of his life, and as time went on he gave me to a growing degree his affection and his trust. Imagine, what a joy and delight and what an opportunity this was for me, a man in his 20s, to live so close to this great and extraordinary being. For, apart from anything else, he was so full of life and above all such fun to be with.
He was fascinated by all the farming operations. We used to get into a wartime Jeep together and travel around the farm, and he loved to question the men on details of the work. If there was anything particularly heavy going on, like the felling of trees, we’d stop and he would take command of the situation. When friends of his or visitors from abroad would come, he would take them around the farm himself. I remember him saying, “You know, on a Sunday afternoon the egotism of the landed proprietor knows no bounds.”
Now his wit, of course, is legendary. And there are many amusing anecdotes attributed to him, some of them true and some mythical. I’d like to tell you one or two which I don’t think you will have heard before.
Your chairman referred to a certain grey colt, which was a good buy. We bought him in France as a maiden three-year-old. And he won, as you said, a lot of races. There came the time when he was to run in the Gold Cup at Ascot. He was a difficult horse; he was a character and he didn’t like people making too much of him. Well, Winston went as close as he felt right to talk to this horse just before the race in the paddock. He said to him, “If you win this race, you will spend your life surrounded by delicious mares. If you don’t win, you’ll become a gelding.”
Now I must tell you he used a rather more earthy phrase than that. Although there are but few women in this room there are a lot of others listening in, and I’m told that I’ve got to be careful. But I must say, I for one have never heard such judicious use of the stick and the carrot!
He then was watching the race, and we thought we were going to win. In the event, we were beaten by a head, but as he was watching I was very jittery about it – he said to me, “You know, I never thought I’d see myself living on the immoral earnings of a horse.”
Of course in the House of Commons from time to time he used to bring the house down. There was a little fellow called Sidney Silverman; when he sat on the bench his feet didn’t reach the ground. He was somewhat extreme in his political views and he had a habit of interjecting sitting down, without rising to his feet, which as you all know is rather a non-U activity in the House of Commons. Eventually, one day when Winston was making a speech, Sidney Silverman thought he had a frightfully good point and he did clamber off the bench and get to his feet. Winston sat down and waited for his question, which he asked. Then Winston said, “How nice to see the honourable gentleman hop off his perch.” And that was the end of that.
One day, I remember, in the smoking room, he and I were sitting together and he said, “Who’s that fellow over there?” He was a man of about his own age. I said, “You know him, he’s been in the House as long as you have!” “No,” he said, “I’ve never seen him before.” “You have,” I said, “he’s always been around.” “What’s his name?” I said “Bossum, Alfred Bossum”. “Good God,” he said, “what an extraordinary name, neither one thing nor the other.”
Oh, he was great fun, I assure you. And this was a sort of constant dialogue – it went on constantly.
Mr. Chairman, I have noticed that others who have been your guests on these occasions have, apart from personal reminiscences of their times with Churchill also had a theme to put before you. I would like to dwell on one single period of Winston Churchill’s life’s work, the only period of which he never wrote about himself, which I witnessed personally. It was the coda to his career: from shortly after the hour of national victory, which also combined for him personal and political defeat, throughout five years of opposition to the political victory of 1951 which saw the Conservative party once more in power and Winston Churchill Prime Minister again until his resignation in 1955. This was a period which I was privileged to witness, personally and intimately, at first hand.
Now there were, first of all, these five years of opposition at Chartwell. We made frequent trips together abroad. Then when he and his party won the 1951 election, he made me his parliamentary private secretary – at first unofficially because he was somewhat frightened of the charge of nepotism. (I think I set myself up as one of the founders of the son-in-law club. Indeed when Peter Jay was sent by Prime Minister Callahan to Washington, I sent him a telegram saying “Welcome to the son-in-law club.”) But of much greater importance to me, he admitted me to his small and close personal circle of men with whom virtually everything was discussed. And this gave me the opportunity to observe him closely and constantly for a long period of time.
It has now become fashionable with some people and in some quarters to, as it were, write off this last decade of public life and service. There have been revelations about his medical history; and accounts of his personal foibles and the irritation at times caused to his colleagues, by the manner in which he conducted business, or did not conduct it. The fact is that there were in those last years of office whole areas of political administration or activity which he delegated entirely to others, in which a younger prime minister would have taken more of a hand. There was restiveness in political circles, not only within his own party but also within his own government and cabinet.
All these factors have contributed to what I believe is a distorted picture in the minds and expressions of some: of a feeble old man, sustained first as Leader of the Opposition and then as Prime Minister only by the memory of past glories and achievements and by the loyalty and forbearance of his colleagues. Recently, I hear, some colour has been lent to this version, for those who wish to see it thus, by the revelation of Clementine Churchill’s own views in her biography, just published by my wife Mary (there’s a good plug).
Clementine Churchill was a perfectionist in all aspects of her life, and by no means least in her ambitions and heart’s wishes for her husband. She could not bear to contemplate a tarnishing of his bright armour, nor for any to perceive decline in his performance. In our private circle she made no secret of this view, so much so that in 1945 she thought, and I quote from my wife’s book, “Winston should, at the victorious conclusion of the war, resign from office and not seek reelection at all. Having led a coalition government and a united nation, she felt very strongly that he should retire rather than become the leader of one-half of the nation against the other. To this view Winston was wont to retort that he was not ready to be put upon a pedestal.” (Copyright permission sought, graciously granted, and the fee was waived.)
Although, as was her lifelong wont, Clementine having voiced her view fell in loyally with his decision to battle on through thick and thin, she never changed her view on this subject. But I think it important to remember that her feelings in this were undoubtedly influenced by the fact that she was, like many others, feeling the heat and burden of the war’s long day. I remember well her saying to me, “Winston may not want to retire, but I do.”
I must tell you that deeply though I loved and admired my mother-in-law, neither I nor my wife agreed with her view on this particular point. And I want to avail myself, if you will allow me, of the opportunity given to me by the invitation to address your Society, to put a juster proportion to this picture.
I would like to recall some of the services he rendered in those last years from 1945 to 1955, to his country and indeed the world which, we should recognise and be thankful for. This is not to deny or to conceal the fact that when Winston Churchill embarked on his last lap of public life he was older, not only by years, but by the heavy toll exacted by the toil and the burden of the war years. His extraordinary constitution became impaired and undermined as years went on – by time, by the burden of stress, and by strokes. But his stamina and his strength were still amazing, and a constant wonder even to those who knew him best. His mind-speed was still powerful and clear even if less capable of pyrotechnic effects, and less able to deal with the detailed intricacies of problems.
There was, of course, the reluctance on his part to lay aside the fascinating possibility of the exercise of power again; the endless adventure of governing men. He had no illusions about “next time.” There would be no next time. Once he went, that would be it. The long story of his splendid and varied life would be over. And the prospect of brooding over its cooling embers did not appeal to him.
But with this reluctance of an old man to retire was combined a simple and sincere conviction that there remained services he could still render his country and world. That he still had a gift to bring. I firmly believe that he was right in this, and that events proved it so. His accumulated wisdom, his immense prestige, and the unique – I use the word advisedly – the unique position he held internationally, put him in a position of influence which can seldom if ever be attributed to any other statesmen down the course of history.
It was natural from the moment Churchill, then 78 years old, took office once more as Prime Minister in the Autumn of 1951, that there should exist – sometimes openly expressed but more often as a background factor – the question: “How long can he last?” How long, they wondered, would his health stand up to the heavy burdens of leadership and government; how long could he command the loyalty and cohesion of his colleagues and the party? On health, of course, no one knew the answer. He sustained a major stroke in the summer of 1953, and yet he faced the Conservative Party conference in October of that year and confounded family, colleagues and critics alike by delivering a major oration, in which he made a moving but simple personal declaration. I quote: “If I stay on for the time being, bearing the burden at my age, it is not because of love for power or office. I have had an ample share of both. If I stay it is because I have a feeling that I may, through things that have happened, have an influence about what I care about above all else, the building of a sure and lasting peace.”
He was quite well aware that his various illnesses had left their mark. To his wife he wrote in May 1954, referring to an important speech he had to make, and I quote again, “This is a toil which lies ahead of me, and I do not conceal from you that original composition is a greater burden than it used to be, while I still have a horror of having my speeches made for me by others as much as ever I did.”
Politically, Churchill felt himself to be secure. He headed a government which included distinguished, brilliant and experienced men as well as young stars, among them Anthony Eden, just rising on the political firmament. His colleagues were mostly loyal, many were old comrades. But they suffered bouts of frustration and irritation, particularly in the last year before Churchill resigned in April of 1955, when he himself showed indecision and procrastination in relation to his tenure of office. There were rumblings and grumblings. Churchill remained unmoved. He knew he commanded not only the loyalty of the Tory party, but that his prestige transcended party political barriers and that the country as a whole would not look approvingly upon any form of palace revolt by frustrated or impatient colleagues.
I remember one day about that time when I was travelling in the car with him for the annual luncheon given by the Parliamentary Conservative party for him as leader. I said to him, “I know you’re not going, you don’t want to go; okay, that’s your decision and that’s for you to make and no one else. But you must at least show to them that you are aware of these rumblings and grumblings.” “All right,” he said, “I will.”
He made a charming speech, a delightful speech, captivating them. Then, as he was drawing toward the end of his speech, he said, “Christopher tells me [that was a great help!] that some of you think I ought to go. Well, let me tell you. I don’t intend to go until either things get a lot better, or I get a lot worse.
Now gentlemen, if he decided in 1945 to remain leader of the Conservative Party, and in 1951 to take over again the burdens of premiership, it was because he had the deep desire to see accomplished, or at least set in motion, some major purposes, each one of which would contribute to his main objective: building a sure and lasting peace. He was among the few, you will remember, who saw clearly from the immediate postwar days the need for a united Europe, if only to prevent a third world war originating in western Europe. He pointed the way with a clear voice which was listened to as none other would have been. Many were astonished when as early as 1946, while the Nuremberg trials were still in progress, Churchill was preaching the necessity for the early return of Germany to a place in the family of nations, and in particular a Franco-German reconciliation. What foresight – and how right he proved to be.
At the same time he constantly sought, both in opposition and later in government, to maintain the close relationship between himself and the President of the United States – a link which had played a vital part in the war years and which he still saw as the foundation of the English-speaking peoples – as leading to more hopeful times in those immediate postwar years of uneasy and fragile peace.
Another example of his clearsightedness is a speech at Fulton, Missouri in March, 1946, when he used the phrase which has now passed into the bleak phraseology of our time. He referred to the “Iron Curtain” which had descended, from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic behind which now lay all the capitals of central and eastern Europe. You may remember that at the time, this factual warning was highly criticised in many quarters on both sides of the Atlantic. Stalin accused him of adopting the position of warmonger. Yet by 1953, when Stalin died, the words “cold war” and “iron curtain” had become commonplace in the vocabulary and accepted, alas, as political facts.
By that time in 1953, Churchill was again Prime Minister. And what I’m going to recall to you now is I think, an excellent example of how immediately flexible he still was in his political thinking and how ready he was to grasp an opportunity.
The Korean War was drawing to its end and Churchill’s belief and instinct was that Stalin’s successor, Malenkov, far from being in the same mold as his sinister predecessor, was at heart a man of peace. So he was convinced that this was the time and opportunity to seek to open up and unfreeze western relations with Russia. This, remember, was in 1953, when the United States’ nuclear superiority was overwhelming. The word “detente” came into current use more than 20 years later at a time of nuclear parity, and indeed with a threat of Russian nuclear superiority less than a decade away. But it had its genesis in Churchill’s mind 20 years earlier, when the relative military strengths were of quite a different order. He did his best to carry with him in his thinking General Eisenhower, who was soon to become President of the United States. But although personally full of warmth, Eisenhower reflected the opposition of his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and I must add that Churchill also ran into opposition from his own Secretary of State, Anthony Eden.
Yet he still continued through his own channels to try to get through to Malenkov. Whether Churchill was right or wrong in this we will never know, for in the event Malenkov was soon removed from power and replaced by the redoubtable Khruschev- who was, where international affairs at least were concerned, in the old political mold. But had things gone smoother and more quickly, who knows whether Churchill’s instincts might not have proved right and if so, to what extent the course of history would have been altered.
In another area Winston Churchill succeeded in these last years of activity and power to appreciate and to grasp the enormity of the military and geopolitical significance of nuclear power, with all its terrifying, doom-laden implications for humanity. By 1952, Great Britain had become the third power after the United States and Russia to include the atomic bomb in its armoury, and work on the hydrogen bomb had started in Britain at that time. It was due very largely to Churchill’s realistic appraisal of the nuclear situation, and his own initiative, that the chief of staff were set out and to think through a new policy for defence. The resulting global strategy paper came to be regarded as a classic among military documents, and had a marked influence also on American thought and policy. When in February, 1954, details of the American tests of the hydrogen bomb began to he publicly known, Churchill immediately grasped the difference in the intensity of destructive power between the two nuclear weapons, and the sinister implications for the world.
A few months later, he again visited President Eisenhower specifically to discuss these new developments, and their talks had a major bearing on world affairs. That meeting with the President in June, 1954 was to be his last as Prime Minister. By early 1955, Winston knew that he must take a final and definite decision to retire. Parliament was now in its fourth year and he knew he couldn’t fight another election as Prime Minister. On the first of March 1955 he made his last important Parliamentary pronouncement when he delivered, what could only be called a majesterial speech, on the hydrogen bomb to the House of Commons. He resigned as Prime Minister a month later.
Mr Chairman, Winston was a great fan of Harry Lauder, who was a homespun popular Scottish comedian, not only in his native Scotland but throughout Britain for many years. Winston knew many of his songs and he became a friend of his. My wife well remembers during the war an occasion when Harry Lauder and her father sat long over luncheon. As he used to say, “Let us command the moment to remain.” They sang together many of Winston’s favourite songs. But the one that he loved the best seems to epitomize the ragged, dogged resolution of Churchill’s public life and particularly of those last ten years from 1945 to 1955:
Keep right on to the end,
Though the way be Long
Let your heart be strong,
Keep right on round the bend.
Though you’re tired and weary, still journey on
Till you come to your blessed abode,
Where all you love and you’re dreaming of
Will be there, at the end of the road.
It was not granted, Mr Chairman, to Winston Churchill to keep right on to the very end of his toad. Life was to hold on to him for nigh onto another decade. But he kept on as long as the strength lay in him, and I think that future generations will recognise and be grateful for the services he still sought to render and indeed in great measure did for his country and the world. Because his heart was strong, and tired and weary as he was, he battled on.