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A thorough and level-headed examination of rhetoric under fire
on 4 August 2014
As a young man, Churchill had educated himself in the power of language. (He had, famously, done poorly at Harrow.) At the turn of the century, in his early twenties, he had drafted The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, an article designed to get him noticed by the heavyweight periodicals. Unpublished during his lifetime, it’s very much a young man’s piece: overwrought, passionate, recklessly revealing.
Throughout his political career, as he defected from the Tories to the Liberals and back, as he railed equally against the dangers of Nazism and against reform in India, Churchill used his speeches, not only to influence, but also to survive – politically and, perhaps, psychologically. By the 1930s, as Toye points out, the effect was wearing thin. “To MPs who had, as it were, heard it all before, his speaking style seemed not majestically impressive but overblown and hackneyed.”
But his constant interventions in the Commons over India seem to have jolted his rhetoric into a new register. In a letter to his wife, he writes that he is now speaking “with garrulous unpremeditated flow. They seem delighted.”
Churchill carries this new rhetoric into the war with him. He has reinvigorated his Victorian Ciceronianism by injecting the plain English championed during the 1930s by Greene, Hemingway, Orwell, and others. The synthesis will allow him to speak, more or less successfully, both in the Commons and over the airwaves. (One of Toye’s most intriguing discussions is about Churchill’s discomfort with radio.)
The book’s central thesis, in fact, concerns how Churchill’s speeches were judged by his many audiences. Toye uses material both from the Ministry of Information and from Mass-Observation. This material – including polls, reports and diaries – “is extraordinarily rich and variegated, and reveals the complexity of responses to Churchill, including surprising levels of criticism and dissent.”
By 1942, after the disastrous fall of Singapore, Mass-Observation was reporting a sense among the public that Churchill might not be up to the job. “The breaking of the oratorical spell is thus a shock as well as a disappointment.” In the Commons, however, on 23 April, he seemed to find a way forward. The MP ‘Chips’ Cannon reported: “No humour or tact, little oratory, no mea culpa stuff, but straightforward, brilliant and colourful, a factual resumé of the situation.” Something extraordinary was happening: “as the catalogue of catastrophe continued,” writes Toye, “MPs began to cheer up.” The sheer mass of fact and argument seemed to ground the speech in an ethical appeal that steadied a fractious House and increased MPs’ confidence.
For Toye, Churchill’s ability to explain, narrate and argue his case before parliament and the people matters more than the few remembered phrases or the occasional miscalculation. He never gave up speaking. He used rhetoric to inspire his electorate, cajole his allies and deceive his enemies; but he used it also to submit himself to the democratic power that kept him in office, and for which, ultimately, everyone was fighting.
Toye’s conclusion is itself powerful and inspirational. It closes a book that offers a remarkable insight, not only into these most famous of political speeches, but also the complex, conflicted society that responded to them.
A longer version of this review appears here: