In the sixth and final lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online Winston Churchill and Statesmanship course (which you can take along with me here), college President Larry Arnn explains how the former prime minister’s legacy helps us understand modern life.
Churchill’s time as a statesman was a mixed bag of both success and failure. While he pushed for the creation of a social safety net, he did so in order to prevent socialism, which was growing in popularity at the time. Socialism, he believed would necessitate a massive bureaucracy, which he did not like. He hated the idea of a permanent class of unelected people whose livelihood was earned by sponging off of the public. He deeply hated inequality and feared that a large bureaucratic state would perpetuate that.
He also worried that without a social safety net, inequality would forever persist in Britain’s classist society. Those who were born into wealth would get to to continue living their lush lifestyle, while people who were born otherwise would suffer greatly and likely fall into poverty if they got sick or if they were faced with other difficulties.
Eventually, the programs Churchill proposed and lobbied for bloomed into large bureaucratic entities. Thus by creating a social safety net, Churchill indirectly created a bureaucratic state which he hated so much.
In an article published in 1936, Churchill wrote that his greatest obligation was to the people he served, not to himself. He thought that citizens ought to be free to live as they liked and to speak freely — even if that speech was to harshly criticize its leaders.
I judge the civilization of any community by simple tests. What is the degree of freedom possessed by the citizen or subject? Can he think, speak and act freely under well-established, well-known laws? Can he criticize the executive government? Can he sue the State if it has infringed his rights? Are there also great processes for changing the law to meet new conditions? Judging by these standards, Great Britain and the United States can claim to be in the forefront of civilized communities. But we owe this only in part to the good sense and watchfulness of our citizens. In both our countries the character of the judiciary is a vital factor in the maintenance of the rights and liberties of the individual citizen
Churchill’s Deep Respect For The Constitution Ought To Be Remembered
Though Churchill considered himself a statesman, a man who does what needs to be done regardless of the obstacles in his path, he advocated for and deeply respected constraints and checks on power — including his own. He understood that limitless power leads to limitless corruption and evil. Churchill considered himself a constitutionalist and deeply respected both the American and British constitutions.
This attitude to embrace limits on his own power starkly contrasts with Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards it. During his ascent to power, Hitler insisted that the Enabling Act be passed in order to give him absolute control. Throughout his tenure in office, Hitler acted as a brutal dictator who violently annexed other sovereign nations, ordered and organized the extermination and harsh treatment of millions, and pushed racist propaganda.
American progressives, who were Churchill’s American contemporaries, also thought that the U.S. Constitution was irrelevant because it was written by men more than 100 years prior. They viewed the separation of powers as inconvenient and that other constraints over their powers were unnecessary impediments to progress. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others pushed to expand the role and size of government and to minimize the constitution as much as possible.
Churchill thought that, while it is necessary to make a country’s Constitution workable to address the given circumstances or difficulties one is facing at any given time, it is also necessary to uphold the timeless wisdom inscribed in it. He wrote that it would be a shame if a people were to toss aside the contributions of the men who came before them.
It is for these reasons among many others that the founders of the American Republic in their Declaration of Independence inculcate as a duty binding upon all worthy sons of America ‘a frequent recurrence to first principles’. Do not let us too readily brush aside the grand, simple affirmations of the past. All wisdom is not new wisdom. Let us never forget that the glory of the nineteenth century was founded upon what seemed to be the successful putting down of those twin curses, anarchy and tyranny … It would certainly be a great disaster, not only to the American Republic but to the whole world, if a violent collision should take place between the large majority of the American people and the great instrument of government which has so long presided over their expanding fortunes.
What Churchill Believed Made A Great Society
Churchill’s skepticism of aspects of modern society can help us today to know how to avoid the pitfalls of failed societies and 19th century despotism. Churchill believed that pontificating on “the good” and yearning for virtue are what make us human — these longings and thoughts are ones that no dictator can ever take away, no matter how brutal he might be. A good society enables its citizens to seek answers to these nagging existential questions and to pursue virtue for himself. These freedoms must be codified in a Constitution or some sort of societal pact which guards against despotism by placing restrictions upon its leaders, and this agreement must be held sacred.
Churchill’s final words in parliament — “never flinch, never weary, never despair” — speaks to the legacy of a man who firmly stood up to an evil empire at great cost. And in the end saved the Western World and pushed for a freer, more equal Britain all the while respecting the contributions of those who came before him.