Monday, 7 November 2011

Sir Winston Churchill on democracy, 1947

Winston Churchill was a Conservative who became a Liberal who became a Conservative, while remaining for the whole of his career within the broad Whig tradition.  This is an extract from a well-known speech by Churchill (taken from the debates on the Attlee government's Parliament Bill).  The speech was delivered in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947.

The whole history of this country shows a British instinct — and, I think I may say, a genius — for the division of power. The American Constitution, with its checks and counterchecks, combined with its frequent appeals to the people, embodied much of the ancient wisdom of this island. Of course, there must be proper executive power to any Government, but our British, our English idea, in a special sense, has always been a system of balanced rights and divided authority, with many other persons and organised bodies having to be considered besides the Government of the day and the officials they employ. This essential British wisdom is expressed in many foreign Constitutions which followed our Parliamentary system, outside the totalitarian zone, but never was it so necessary as in a country which has no written Constitution.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about Parliament, about the rights of Parliament, which I shall certainly not fail to defend. But it is not Parliament that should rule; it is the people who should rule through Parliament. That is the mistake he made, an important omission. All this was comprehended by those who shaped the Parliament Act and the settlement which developed upon that Act, so that it was never mentioned again for 36 years until now. That is what the Government are seeking to mutilate, if not to destroy. The object of the Parliament Act, and the spirit of that Act, were to give effect, not to spasmodic emotions of the electorate, but to the settled, persistent will of the people. What they wanted to do they could do, and what they did not want to do they could stop. All this idea of a handful of men getting hold of the State machine, having the right to make the people do what suits their party and personal interests or doctrines, is completely contrary to every conception of surviving Western democracy. "Some reverence for the laws ourselves have made," "Some patient force to change them when we will." We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of super men 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.