Parliament in Wartime
A SPEECH TO THE HOUSE OF COMMONS AT THE OPENING OF A NEW SESSION
NOVEMBER 21, 1940
Winston S. Churchill
THE UNRELENTING STRUGGLE: War Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill, pp. 9-13 .
EVEN in times of the bitterest political controversy and party strife it has always been customary for all parties to listen with appreciation to the speeches of the Mover and the Seconder of the Address, and even when sometimes the circumstances have not entirely sustained the compliments which were paid, those compliments have not been denied. But today I am sure that all the compliments which were paid were not only sincere but were well deserved. We were very glad indeed to hear my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North St. Pancras (Squadron-Leader Grant-Ferris) and I think it is gratifying to the House that one of our fighter-pilots who has taken part in severe actions, and will be engaged again, should be able to take his place here to-day and discharge his Parliamentary duties. I entirely agree with what has been said about the desirability of Members of Parliament serving not only in the military forces but in all other forms of warfare, and discharging their Parliamentary duties at the same time or in alternation. No doubt difficulties arise, but I think they are well covered, and that the good senseof the House and of hon. Members will enable these dual and occasionally conflicting functions to be discharged.
In bygone days the House of Commons not only struggled for political power, but it did conduct a very great part of the business and activities of the country. Hon. Members led troops and squadrons of the Fleet and performed all kinds of functions of Government at the same time as they conducted their work here. Some of the things that they did would not entirely commend themselves to our present higher standards of decorum, but, none the less, that this House should be a House of active, living personalities, engaged to the hilt in the national struggle, each according to the full strength that he has to give, each according to the aptitudes which he possesses, is, I think, one of the sources of the strength of the Parliamentary institution, and will carry forward into the future the traditions that are our heritage and the precedents that have come down to us from the past.I thought the House was absolutely right in the cordial welcome which it gave to these speeches, and we hope that we shall hear both hon. Members again on matters which they are particularly qualified to speak upon.
I do not feel that this is a moment when it would be very convenient to make a statement on the war in the Mediterranean theatre — the two wars going on there, in both of which we have the very greatest interest. There is the defence of Egypt and the Canal, against greatly superior numbers of the enemy, which six months ago, at all events, looked rather a difficult affair, a doubtful affair, but which at the present time gives us a measure of confidence that we shall be able, as I said, to give a good account of ourselves when the invasion forces fall upon us — if they do fall upon us. And then there is the valiant, sudden uprising of the Greek nation, who, although taken by surprise and struck a felon's blow, have already almost entirely purged their soil of the conscript invaders, who were launched upon them in an enterprise which cannot be described as other than pure, unmitigated brigandage. We have both those theatres to consider, and I can only say that we shall do our best. I feel that deeds, not words, are what are expected from us, and I certainly hope that we shall be able to give from our resources, which are always heavily strained, a helpful measure of assistance to the Greeks,and that we shall be able to discharge our responsibilities to Egypt in defending its soil and in guarding the vital artery of the Suez Canal.
The War Damage (Compensation) Bill is a Bill of great complexity and difficulty, but every effort will be made to bring it before Parliament at the earliest moment and it will be a measure of amplitude and scope which will deal effectively with the damage which falls, now here and now there, upon individuals throughout the country. It will give effect to the feeling that there must be equality of risk and equality of treatment in respect of the damage done by the fire of the enemy. In other ways, many people have suffered material loss by the conditions of the war, but this measure deals with damage done by the fire of the enemy, and must be confined to that. Otherwise we should get into difficulties which would be beyond our powers to unravel. I feel that, if one man's home is smashed, that should be no special misfortune to him alone, and that all whose homes are not broken up should stand in with him as long as the need may last; and even if all the homes of the country be levelled, then we shall still be found standing together to build them up again after the fighting is over.
In present circumstances our efforts must be concentrated upon those matters or measures which are vitally connected with the effective prosecution of the war at home and abroad. So far as opportunities for Debates are concerned, the House must have noticed how many general Debates we have had, andI see no reason why that process should not continue in the new Session. We are, in fact, instinctively reviving the ancient practice of the House, which was that the Government of the day got through its necessary Business with considerable expedition, and the House devoted itself to debating, usually on Petition, whatever were the topics of general public interest. I am wholly in favour of that. I believe, if this House is to keep its hold on the imagination and the interest of the public, that it is necessary that the great questions which appeal to the nation out of doors and occupy the Press should also be the questions subject to current discussion in this House. I very much deprecate the House falling unduly into the debating of details and routine, and losing sight of its larger duty of giving guidance and encouragementto the nation and administering when required the necessary corrective to the Executive. Therefore, I consider that this practice which we have of very often disposing of Business rapidly and then having an extensive Debate upon the Adjournment, although it appears to be an innovation after the quarrels of the last 20 or 30 years, is no more than a reversion, under forms very slightly different, to the process under which the House of Commons gained its great ascendancy in the public mind.
The time-honoured ceremonial and procedure in which Crown and Parliament have played their part to-day carry with them to anxious minds the balm of confidence and serenity. When our beloved Sovereign and the Queen come from their battered palace to a building which is not without evidence of the strokes of war, when the Sovereign comes to open Parliament in person and calls his faithful Commons to the discharge of their duties, at every step, in every measure, in every formality, and in every Resolution that we pass, we touch customs and traditions which go back far beyond the great Parliamentary conflicts of the seventeenth century; we feel the inspiration of old days, we feel the splendour of our political and moral inheritance.
We are frequently asked to make declarations about our war aims. Some may think that example is better than precept, and that actions speak louder than words. To-day, in inaugurating a new Session of Parliament, we proclaim the depth and sincerity of our resolve to keep vital and active, even in the midst of our struggle for life, even under the fire of the enemy, those Parliamentary institutions which have served us so well, which the wisdom and civic virtues of our forebears shaped and founded, which have proved themselves the most flexible instruments for securing ordered, unceasing change and progress; which, while they throw open the portals of the future, carry forward also the traditions and glories of the past, and which, at this solemn moment in world history, are at once the proudest assertion ofBritish freedom and the expression of an unconquerable national will.
His Majesty's Government are conscious with gratitude that they enter upon this new Session, not only with the formal and official support of all parties, but with the general good will ofthe House. Immense surrenders of their hard-won liberties
have been voluntarily made by the British people in order in time of war to serve the better the cause of freedom and fair play, to which, keeping nothing back, they have devoted all that they have and all that they are. Parliament stands custodian of these surrendered liberties, and its most sacred duty will be to restore them in their fullness when victory has crowned our exertions and our perseverance.
We have a long road to travel. I have never concealed from the nation or from the House the darker side of our dangers and burdens, because it is there, and because I know that it is in adversity that British qualities shine the brightest, and it is under these extraordinary tests that the character of our slowly-wrought institutions reveals its latent, invincible strength. Up to the present this war has been waged between a fully-armed Germany and a quarter- or half-armed British Empire. We have not done so badly. I look forward with confidence and hope to the time when we ourselves shall be as well armed as our antagonists, and beyond that, if need be, I look to a time when the arsenals and training-grounds and science of the New World and of the British Empire will give us that material superiority which, added to the loyalty of constant hearts, will surely bring victory and deliverance to mankind.