On Civility, Some Recommended Reading (by Wilfred McClay)

We hear a lot of wistful talk about civility these days, but precious few examples of it in action. Maybe we need to look to the past, to find enduring standards against which we can begin to reckon our own deficiencies. I came across an excellent one the other day, and I thought it would share it with the readers of this blog.

It is a speech given by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, on November 12, 1940. The speech honors the memory of his recently deceased predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. The two men had been fierce political opponents and disagreed especially about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement directed toward Hitler’s ascendant Nazi Germany. The years that saw Chamberlain’s ascent to power had been, for Churchill, “wilderness years,” dark and depressing days of being insulted, used, marginalized, and shut out of power, relegated to watching and speechifying vainly against the steady rise of German military power, and the folly of Britain’s passivity in the face of this growing danger. During those years Chamberlain and his allies in government actively sought to thwart him and silence his voice, convinced that their benign interpretation of Hitler’s actions was the correct one.

By November of 1940, though, everything had changed. Appeasement had led not to peace but to renewed war. Britain faced a bleak future, as Hitler controlled nearly all of the European continent, and seemed likely soon to beat down British resistance. Churchill had been proven right in every important way, and if his views had prevailed earlier, rather than Chamberlain’s, the country and the world would have been saved from facing what was now a terrifying existential crisis.

But the speech Churchill gave that November, the full text of which is here, is an astoundingly gracious, generous, respectful, and even affectionate portrait of his sometime bitter rival Chamberlain. Let us read a few passages.

Churchill is consistently generous in evaluating the actions of Chamberlain as a man:

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart–the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.

Churchill does not renounce his differences with Chamberlain. But he does not dwell on them either. Instead he shows an impressive modesty, especially impressive at this particular juncture, about the limits of our ability to know the ultimate judgment of history—words that ought to be inscribed on the heart and mind of every statesman:

In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate [i.e., the gate to the graveyard] we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

And Churchill pays unstinting tribute to Chamberlain’s patriotic dedication to duty, and his willingness to subordinate his ego and his desires to the good of the nation:

I had the singular experience of passing in a day from being one of his most prominent opponents and critics to being one of his principal lieutenants, and on another day of passing from serving under him to become the head of a Government of which, with perfect loyalty, he was content to be a member. Such relationships are unusual in our public life. I have before told the House how on the morrow of the Debate which in the early days of May challenged his position, he declared to me and a few other friends that only a National Government could face the storm about to break upon us, and that if he were an obstacle to the formation of such a Government, he would instantly retire. Thereafter, he acted with that singleness of purpose and simplicity of conduct which at all times, and especially in great times, ought to be the ideal of us all.

There is much more in the speech, and like so much of Churchill’s great oratory, it rises to a very high level of both inspirational vigor and philosophical reflection. But above all else, it shows us exemplary civility in action. With it, he shows himself to be a political man who was nevertheless able to reach over politics and join hands in admiration for the humanity of his departed fellow Briton. Would that we could see more such generosity and statesmanship in our own pinched and querulous times.


Dr. Wilfred McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and director of the Center for the History of Liberty

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