Churchill on Democracy Revisited

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We so often hear the famous Churchill dictum on democracy:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Indeed quoting Churchill can be used against democracy as form of government:

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

As for the first quote, few people are aware of the source. That goes for most quotes, but when it comes to said dictum, the source would come as surprise to most people indeed. Here is more of what Churchill said:

We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, "playing the angel," as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.

Churchill said this as Leader of the Opposition in a speech before the House of Commons on the afternoon of November 11, 1947. The occasion was the Second Reading of the Parliament Bill, proposing to reduce the delaying period of the House of Lords from two years to one. Clement Attlee and his Labour Government saw the House of Lords as a brake on their expansion of government. The Conservative Opposition opposed this constitutional change, and it was against a further step towards an unbridled full-fledged democracy Winston Churchill spoke on this afternoon.

Churchill spoke earlier in his speech quite frankly about the Labour Government of the day:

Look at all the power he is enjoying today. No Government in time of peace has ever had such arbitrary power over the lives and actions of the British people, and no Government has ever failed more completely to meet their daily practical needs. Yet the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are avid for more power.

That was in 1947, and government has generally grown in the Western world since. Paul Gottfried notes in After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State:

Unlike older republican traditions, twentieth-century Western democracy did not long remain within a fixed cultural or national context. It became the legitimation for public administration, seen as globally applicable, a form of rule that took over not only economic planning but also the task of socializing citizens.

The democracy we have today is exactly, in the words of Winston Churchill, "a group of supermen and super-planners," who merely use the democratic legitimacy as an approval stamp of all the regulations, direct interventions, etc., that haunt us today.

Let us not fool ourselves. We all know that the word "democracy" is one of the most misused words in political terminology — if not the most misused word. It is not far from the truth that there are almost as many definitions of the word "democracy" as there are people using the word. One may even experience people at one moment speaking for "democracy" and at another moment speaking against "democracy," of course, with two different meanings of the word.

When reading the debate of November 10 and 11 of 1947 of the bill that was to become Parliament Act 1949, one gets the general impression that everyone was speaking for democracy. No one had the guts to speak up against it. That often leads to political death. Instead, as often happens, everyone was defending their "democracy."

Churchill was speaking for the right of a largely hereditary branch of government to protect the liberties of the people. Yet a quote from his speech is so often used as the justification for democracy. Of course, it could easily be argued that the issue was not about protecting liberty but democracy, i.e., against omnipotent "representatives," never minding an omnipotent electorate.

Henry Strauss, speaking some time after Churchill on November 11, 1947, said:

"What guarantee have we got that the House of Lords will continue to behave itself? What guarantee have we got that it will not suddenly go mad and do all sorts of things it ought not to do?" I suppose that anything is conceivable, but I suggest to hon. Members in every quarter of the House that there are things much more likely than that the House of Lords will go mad. There is the risk of an executive Government becoming tyrannical.

So very true indeed.

Mrs. Leah Manning, speaking next, told the House of Commons:

I am not in agreement with the hereditary principle. Like many other hon. Members who have spoken during the last two days, I am opposed to it because it is an anachronism in the modern State[…]

Well, the "modern State" is more absolute than what we had before, from which we have "anachronisms." These "anachronisms" should hence be more appreciated — at least among people who do not appreciate the absolutism of democratic modernity. No defense of the hereditary principle can be found in the entire Second Reading. Those who supported it kept quiet about it. Sadly, those who still supported the hereditary principle did not have the guts to say so. According to Mr. Ungoed-Thomas in the said 1947 debate the Tories abandoned the defense of the "indefensible" hereditary principle between June and December in 1910. The principle of popular sovereignty has cast a spell on us.

Bertrand de Jouvenel in On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth holds:

Where is liberty?

For two centuries now this European society of ours has been seeking it; what it has found has been the widest, the most cumbersome, and the most burdensome state authority ever yet experienced by our civilization.

That being so, when we ask where liberty is, "they" refer us to the ballots in our hands; over the vast machine which keeps us in subjection we have this one right; we, the ten- or twenty- or thirty-millionth of the sovereign, lost in the vast crowd of our fellows, can on occasion take a hand in setting the machine in motion. And that "they" tell is our liberty. We lose it whenever an individual will take sole possession of the machine: that is autocracy. We regain it when the right of giving the machine a mass-impulsion is restored to us: that is democracy.

This is all either misdealing or cheating. Liberty is something quite different. […]

The debate was not about any absolute blocking powers of the House of Lords. Those powers, save when it comes to extending the term of Parliament, were sadly removed already in 1911. This happened after their Lordships had dared block, not only delay, legislation passed by those democratically elected. They should probably be seen as heroes for doing so.

Gottfried tells us in After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State:

The English Liberal Party had begun to embrace the welfare state between 1910 and the First World War, abandoning free trade, introducing social welfare measures, and stripping the House of Lords, with the King’s connivance, of any effective veto power.

On August 8, 1911 the House of Lords resolved:

That in the opinion of this House, the advice given to His Majesty by His Majesty’s Ministers, whereby they obtained from His Majesty a pledge that a sufficient number of Peers would be created to pass The Parliament Bill in the shape in which it left the House of Commons, is a gross violation of constitutional liberty, whereby, among many other evil consequences, the people will be precluded from again pronouncing upon the policy of Home Rule.

Note also that the threat of creating new peers had been used also in 1832 to force Their Lordships to "yield to the people."

On the 10th of that same month the House of Lords gave in with a dissentient. The dissentient had the following justification:

  1. Because it destroys the balance of the Constitution itself.
  2. Because it deals with the problem of Constitutional responsibility, but as a party measure.
  3. Because it is destructive and not constructive.
  4. Because it abrogates the authority of the House of Lords without substituting anything for it.
  5. Because it releases the House of Commons from all substantial control.
  6. Because it thus establishes in these realms, contrary to all the traditions of this country and the experience of all great Constitutional Powers, a Single-Chamber Government.
  7. Because it preserves this House in a nominal existence so as to obscure from the people of this country the absolute and unrestrained power of the House of Commons.
  8. Because it is avowedly brought forward as a means of carrying a further Constitutional measure of the first importance without referring that measure to the people of the United Kingdom, who have twice expressed their repugnance to it.
  9. Because the method of carrying it is almost as great a strain on the Constitution as the measure itself.
  10. Because the whole transaction tends to bring discredit on our country and its institutions.

Thus, the last real fight over the British mixed government took place almost a hundred years ago, not through Tony Blair’s efforts to remove the hereditary peers from the Upper Chamber of the United Kingdom. The reforms of Tony Blair only go to show that reserving the right to block an extension of a Parliament term is worth little when there is no right to block an initiative to reform the House of Lords beyond recognition. The debates around the reforms of both Clement Attlee and Tony Blair tell us that the dissenting Lords were very right indeed in number 7 above. However, I do concede that removing the hereditary peers from their revising role at best will not make things worse.

When the last real fight over the British mixed government stood, Winston Churchill was on the side of the emasculators of the House of Lords. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn in Leftism Revisited refers us to Peter de Mendelsohn and his biography The Age of Churchill, 1874-1911 for the picture of Churchill as a leftist radical eager for nationalizations and the introduction of the Provider State in Britain. It is also quite obvious from the debate of November 11, 1947 that Churchill at that time still supported the reform of 1911. Moreover, in 1947 the Conservative Party had sadly accepted the Parliament Act of 1911. Of course, seeking votes it would probably be hazardous to do otherwise.

Herbert Morrison spoke on the day before Churchill uttered his famous dictum to Parliament and posterity:

It is 36 years since the previous Bill was passed, and all the prophecies made the Conservative Party at that time that it would bring hopeless constitutional disaster upon the country have proved to be wrong. The field of Government activity since that time has been greatly extended, and the claims upon Parliamentary time have been greatly increased.

I don’t know about said prophecies, but Mr. Morrison pointed at a problem, namely the expansion of government — and that has indeed been a disaster in the 20th century. Probably, he didn’t view it as a problem. No solution to the problem was put forward. Instead democratically elected politicians were given more freedom — an error indeed.

Speaking also on the day before Churchill, Mr. Wingfield Digby, however, was proposing a solution — at least to some point, although he also wanted to abandon the hereditary principle. He proposed to increase the powers of the House of Lords. In doing so he quoted William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s Democracy and Liberty:

Of all forms of government that are possible among mankind I do not know of any which is likely to be worse than the government of a single, omnipotent, democratic chamber.

What he did not say is that most modern democracies are quite close, having only remnants of real checks and balances of the Regimen Mixtums of old. However, Mr. Wingfield Digby conceded earlier:

So already the House of Lords is the next thing to having no Second Chamber at all.

Speaking of Lecky, he said also in Democracy and Liberty — as quoted in Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s Liberty or Equality:

A tendency to democracy does not mean a tendency to parliamentary government, or even a tendency towards greater liberty. On the contrary, strong arguments may be adduced, both from history and from the nature of things, to show that democracy may often prove the direct opposite of liberty.

Also in Democracy and Liberty as quoted in Liberty or Equality:

[N]o fact is more incontestable and conspicuous than the love of democracy for authoritative regulation.

Although Churchill in 1947 made the speech in which he gave his famous dictum to posterity, and although it can be argued this was more about rhetoric than defending democracy in the classical sense of the word, already in 1948 the first volume of Churchill’s The Second World War was published. In it he has less flattering things to say about democracy, when speaking of World War One:

Moreover, this had been a war, not of Governments, but of peoples. The whole life-energy of the greatest nations had been poured out in wrath and slaughter. The war leaders assembled in Paris had been borne thither upon the strongest and most furious tides that have ever flown in human history. Gone were the treaties of Utrecht and Vienna, when aristocratic statesmen and diplomats, victor and vanquished alike, met in polite and courtly disputation, and, free from the clatter and babel of democracy, could reshape systems upon the fundamentals of which they were all agreed. The peoples, transported by their sufferings and by the mass teachings with which they had been inspired, stood around in scores of millions to demand that retribution should be exacted to the full. Woe betide the leaders now perched on their dizzy pinnacles of triumph if they cast away at the conference table what the soldiers had won on a hundred blood-soaked battlefields. […] The multitudes remained plunged in ignorance of the simplest economic facts, and their leaders, seeking their votes, did not dare to undeceive them.

Democracy doesn’t sound like the least bad form of government here — at least not when it comes to peace and war. So much for democracy as a peaceful form of government. Now, Churchill isn’t innocent in the war that was to become Wilson’s war "to make the world safe for democracy," but at least he offers us some valuable hindsight.

Speaking of Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy, Churchill in the first volume of The Second World War had some nice things to say about the Habsburg Empire:

There is not one of the peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Hapsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought the tortures which ancient poets and theologicians had reserved for the damned. The noble capital of Vienna, the home of so much long-defended culture and tradition, the centre of so many roads, rivers, and railways, was left stark and starving, like a great emporium in an impoverished district whose inhabitants have mostly departed.

Some time ago, as a response to a critique against democracy, I was told to study Churchill. I now know that any serious study of Churchill and democracy will reveal several aspects. Firstly, it all depends on what time period one is considering. Secondly, the Liberal Party Churchill obviously wanted to remove the brakes on democracy’s tendencies to expand government. Thirdly, the older Conservative Party Churchill wanted to keep the severely weakened brakes. However, he did not concede the error made through the Parliament Act of 1911. I will not pretend to speak for a man who has not been able to speak for himself for 40 years. However, the older Churchill would probably not approve of the unbridled mass democracy we have today. Moreover, he would probably approve of undemocratic elements restraining it. Note also that Churchill in his famous quote was referring to what someone said.

As a general rule, it is unwise to refer to something said on the floor of a democratically elected parliament as evidence of democracy’s superiority. Moreover, when the dictum to serve as proof of democracy’s superiority was launched in defense of an undemocratic element, it gets sort of absurd.

Walter Bagehot, who — putting it mildly — was overly optimistic about the virtues of popular government — albeit a bit skeptical about expanding the franchise and direct democracy, nevertheless in The English Constitution said:

A people never hears censure of itself. No one will tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some almost unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced.

Basically, one should not rely much on what politicians say publicly while in office. What they say privately or in another role than as politicians tend to be more reliable. Especially, what they say when retired, i.e., when they no longer rely on being reelected, should be given considerably more weight than when they’re still active politicians. Churchill uttered criticism of democracy while he still was a democratically elected politician. That should be ample evidence of his not being a democrat — at least not at that time.

I consider the dictum that democracy is the least bad of all forms of government that have been tried as null and void. That is my contribution to the marking of the 40th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill this January 24.

Jørn K. Baltzersen [send him mail] is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.

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