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Churchill and Parliamentary Democracy

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On Sale: June 18, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-36922-2
Published by : Vintage Canada RH Canadian Publishing
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The Will of the People is an incisive, in-depth look at Winston Churchill’s lifelong commitment to parliamentary democracy. First elected at twenty-five, Churchill was still in the House of Commons sixty-four years later. By far the largest part of his life – of his working days and nights – was spent in the cut and thrust of debate in the service of the people, whose instrument he believed Parliament to be. “I am a child of the House of Commons,” he told a joint session of the US Congress in December 1941. “I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. Trust the people – that was his message….”

Throughout his career, Churchill did his utmost to ensure that Parliament was effective and that it was not undermined by either adversarial party politics or by elected members who sought to manipulate it. Even the defeat of the Conservative Party in the General Election of 1945, which ended his wartime premiership, in no way altered his faith in parliamentary democracy. “It is the will of the people,” he told a small gathering of friends and family the day after the results were announced. And he meant it. Reflecting on the importance of the Second World War as a means of restoring democracy, Churchill told the House of Commons: “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

Today’s readers will readily compare Churchill’s regard for democracy and the importance of that “little man” with the attitudes of contemporary leaders, and of those who seek leadership.


First Steps

Parliamentary democracy is an easy concept to grasp but a difficult one to sustain. Throughout the twentieth century, and into our present ­twenty-­first century, the institutions and ideals of parliamentary democracy have been under continual threat. The power of totalitarian regimes to dominate their own people is – and remains – attractive to those who wish to control the life of a nation without checks and ­balances.

In Europe, for many decades of the twentieth century, Communism, Fascism and Nazism ruled through small elites, backed by secret police to ensure their dominance. An independent judiciary and a free press were both anathema to the rulers. In the ­twenty-­first century, these democratic values, which are universal in their implications for the quality of life and fulfilment of each person on the planet, are still under threat in many ­lands.

Dictatorships of one form or another continue to control their people in many of the countries of the United Nations. The world’s most populous country, China, is a closed society. Fundamentalist Islamic nations adhere to ­anti-­democratic norms. The rule of law and the rights of the individual are upheld in only a minority of the countries on the globe. Yet these principles have their champions everywhere, even in prison camps and under house ­arrest.

Parliamentary democracy celebrates diversity and dissent. It seeks to exclude no one from the benefits and protections of citizenship. Today, as in every decade in the past, its basic tenets are under threat: the male and female electoral franchise, the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, the value of peaceful public criticism and opposition, the evolution of practical and egalitarian legislation, and, above all, the belief in impartial justice and the right of every adult citizen to determine his or her own destiny. The twin pillars of parliamentary democracy are the secret ballot and open ­debate.

More than a hundred years ago, this same system of parliamentary democracy, facing similar threats as it does today, including the apathy of those who are its bene­ficiaries, was championed by Winston Churchill. He was the scion not only of an aristocratic British lineage but also, on his mother’s side, of an American heritage. He was only ­twenty-­five years old when he first entered Parliament and ­eighty-­nine when he left ­it.

By far the largest part of Churchill’s life – of his working days and nights – was spent in the interchange of parliamentary debate. Legislation and the governance of Britain were his constant companions, the objects of his persistent work and evolving expertise. Elections and electioneering were part of his ­life-­blood. His fellow parliamentarians were among his closest, lifelong ­friends.

Throughout his long life, Churchill considered the people to be sovereign, through Parliament, in deciding the destiny of the nation. During more than fifty years of political life, he did his utmost to ensure that the efforts of Parliament were effective and that its will was not undermined or ­bypassed.

The defeat of the Conservative Party in the General Election of 1945, which ended his wartime premiership, in no way altered Churchill’s faith in parliamentary democracy or its procedures. Reflecting on his defeat the day after the results were known, he told a small gathering of family and friends: “It is the will of the people.”

Not only did Churchill serve as a parliamentarian for more than half a century but he faced the electorate and campaigned for election or ­re-­election eighteen times. In five of those campaigns he was unsuccessful. Those five defeats – the first, in 1899, a year before he entered Parliament – did not deter him. Nor did the defeat, twice, of his party, first in 1922 (the Liberal Party, of which he was a stalwart), and then in 1945 (the Conservative Party, of which he was then leader). Indeed, each of these defeats spurred him on to make effective use of the democratic and parliamentary process, to make democracy ­work.

For just over five years during the Second World War, Churchill headed an ­all-­party coalition. Within it, Conservative, Liberal and Labour politicians all had important positions in every aspect of his administration, from the War Cabinet to the running of government departments. His path to the leadership of these combined political forces – hitherto almost always beset by disagreement – had begun almost forty years earlier, in 1901, shortly after the death of Queen Victoria. That year, after six crowded years as a soldier and journalist, he entered the House of Commons. From that moment, he was first and foremost a parliamentarian: a supporter, practitioner and upholder of parliamentary democracy and the rule of ­law.


Even before he entered Parliament, Churchill knew, and had become steeped in, many aspects of the parliamentary world. When he was nine years old, Woodstock, the parliamentary constituency represented by his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was abolished. It was one of the notorious “rotten boroughs” whose electorate was small and controlled by the local landlord: in this case, his grandfather, the seventh Duke of Marlborough. Lord Randolph had therefore to find a constituency with an independent electorate. He chose to fight a largely radical Birmingham seat and, defiantly, to raise the flag of Tory Democracy ­there.

The young Churchill watched this process with fascination. When his headmaster’s wife visited the Midlands, Churchill wrote to his mother, “they were betting two to one that Papa would get in for Birmingham.” Lord Randolph was indeed successful. The concept of Tory Democracy, whereby Conservative Party policy could encompass all classes in the nation, was one that attracted the young Churchill. It enshrined one of his basic understandings of parliamentary democracy: that no one class, no one interest – economic, social or political – no one segment of the political spectrum could use the system for its own exclusive ­interests
Martin Gilbert

About Martin Gilbert

Martin Gilbert - The Will of the People

Photo © Mohamed Hussein

Martin Gilbert, the author of more than seventy books, is Winston Churchill’s official biographer and a leading historian of the modern world. In 1995 he was knighted “for services to British history and international relations” and in 1999 he was awarded a Doctorate of Literature by the University of Oxford for the totality of his published work. As a three-year-old Briton he was sent to Canada in the summer of 1940, returning to Britain in May 1944, just in time for Hitler’s V bombs. He now divides his time between London, Ontario, and London, England.


Praise for Sir Martin Gilbert:

“An exceptionally gifted historian with the zest to ferret out every kind of source materials and the skill to analyze and to interpret them cogently and convincingly.”
The Guardian (UK)

“Sir Martin Gilbert is the authority on Winston Churchill. All kinds of people approach him for information and for stories: people in every walk of life, from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace.”
–Dr. Myer Horowitz, President Emeritus, University of Alberta

“Mr. Gilbert is in the first rank of contemporary historians.”
Times Literary Supplement

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