Harold Wilson – 1965 Memorial Speech to Winston Churchill

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Below is the text of the speech made by Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 15 January 1965.

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty humbly to thank Her Majesty for having given directions for the body of the Rt. Hon. Sir Winston Churchill, K.G., to lie in state in Westminster Hall and for the funeral service to be held in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and assuring Her Majesty of our cordial aid and concurrence in these measures for expressing the affection and admiration in which the memory of this great man is held by this House and all Her Majesty’s faithful subjects. In accepting this Motion, this House, and, by virtue of its representation in this House, the nation, collectively and reverently will be paying its tribute to a great statesman, a great Parliamentarian, a great leader of this country.

The world today is ringing with tributes to a man who, in those fateful years, bestrode the life of nations—tributes from the Commonwealth, from our wartime allies, from our present partners in Europe and the wider alliance, from all those who value the freedom for which he fought, who still share the desire for the just peace to which all his endeavours were turned. Winston Churchill, and the legend Winston Churchill had become long before his death and which now lives on, are the possession not of England, or Britain, but of the world, not of our time only but of the ages.

But we, Sir, in this House, have a special reason for the tribute for which Her Majesty has asked in her Gracious Message. For today we honour not a world statesman only, but a great Parliamentarian, one of ourselves.

The colour and design of his greatest achievements became alive, on the Parliamentary canvas, here in this Chamber. Sir Winston, following the steps of the most honoured of his predecessors, derived his greatness from and through this House and from and through his actions here. And by those actions, and those imperishable phrases which will last as long as the English language is read or spoken, he in turn added his unique contribution to the greatness of our centuries-old Parliamentary institution.

He was in a very real sense a child of this House and a product of it, and equally, in every sense, its father. He took from it and he gave to it.

The span of 64 years from his first entry as its youngest Member to the sad occasion of his departure last year covers the lives and memories of all but the oldest of us. In a Parliamentary sense, as in a national sense, his passing from our midst is the end of an era.

He entered this House at 25—already a national and controversial figure. He had fought in war, and he had written of war, he had charged at Omdurman, he had been among one of the first to enter Ladysmith, an eye-witness of the thickest fighting in Cuba, a prisoner of a Boer commando—though not for as long as his captors intended.

And he brought his own tempestuous qualities to the conduct of our Parliamentary life. Where the fighting was hottest he was in it, sparing none—nor asking for quarter. The creature and possession of no one party, he has probably been the target of more concentrated Parliamentary invective from, in turn, each of the three major parties than any other Member of any Parliamentary age, and against each in turn he turned the full force of his own oratory. If we on this side of the House will quote as a classic words he uttered over half a century ago, about the party he later came to lead, hon. Members opposite have an equally rich treasure-house for quotations about us, to say nothing of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway.

When more than 40 years after his first entry as a young M.P. he was called on to move the appointment of a Select Committee about the rebuilding of this Chamber, he proclaimed and gloried in the effect of our Parliamentary architecture on the clarity and decisiveness of party conflict; he recalled, with that impish quality which never deserted him, the memories of battles long past, of his own actions in crossing the Floor of this House, not once in fact but twice.

For those who think that bitter party controversy is a recent invention and one to be deplored, he could have had nothing but pitying contempt. And as he sat there, in the seat which I think by general wish of the House should be left vacant this afternoon, in those last years of the last Parliament, silently surveying battles which may have seemed lively to us, could we not sense the old man’s mind going back to the great conflicts of a great career and thinking perhaps how tame and puny our efforts have become?

A great Parliamentarian, but never a tame one—they misjudge him who could even begin to think of him as a party operator, or a manipulator, or a trimmer, or a party hack. He was a warrior, and party debate was war; it mattered, and he brought to that war the conquering weapon of words fashioned for their purpose; to wound, never to kill; to influence, never to destroy.

As Parliament succeeded Parliament he stood at this Box, at one time or another holding almost every one of the great Offices of State. He stood at the Box opposite thundering his denunciation of Government after Government. He sat on the bench opposite below the Gangway, disregarded, seemingly impotent, finished. His first Cabinet post—the Board of Trade—made him one of the architects of the revolution in humane administration of this country. He piloted through the labour exchanges; he led the first faltering steps in social insurance.

The Home Office and then the more congenial tenure of the Admiralty—Ministerial triumph and Ministerial disaster in the first War. Colonies, War, the Treasury: the pinnacle of power, and then years in the wilderness. The urgent years, warning the nation and the world, as the shadow of the jackboot spread across an unheeding Europe. And then came his finest hour. Truly the history of Parliament over a tempestuous half-century could be written around the triumphs and frustrations of Winston Churchill.

But, Sir, it will be for those war years that his name will be remembered for as long as history is written and history is read. A man who could make the past live in “Marlborough”, in his dutiful biography of Lord Randolph, who could bring new colour to the oft-told tale of the history of the English-speaking peoples, for five of the most fateful years in world history, was himself called on to make history. And he made history because he could see the events he was shaping through the eye of history. He has told us of his deep emotions when, from the disaster of the Battle of France, he was called on to lead this nation. I felt he said, as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams. His record of leadership in those five years speaks for itself beyond the power of any words of any of us to enhance or even to assess. This was his finest hour, Britain’s finest hour. He had the united and unswerving support of the leaders of all parties, of the fighting services, of the men and women in munitions and in the nation’s industries, without regard to faction or self-interest. In whatever ôle, men and women felt themselves inspired to assert qualities they themselves did not know they possessed. Everyone became just those inches taller, every back just that much broader, as his own was.

To this task he brought the inspiration of his superlative courage, at the hour of greatest peril; personal courage such as he had always shown, and indeed which needed a direct order from his Sovereign to cause him to desist from landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day; moral courage, the courage he had shown in warning the nation when he stood alone, now inspired the nation when Britain and the Commonwealth stood alone. There was his eloquence and inspiration, his passionate desire for freedom and his ability to inspire others with that same desire. There was his humanity. There was his humour. But above all, he brought that power which, whenever Britain has faced supreme mortal danger, has been asserted to awaken a nation which others were prepared to write off as decadent and impotent, and to make every man, every woman, a part of that national purpose.

To achieve that purpose, he drew on all that was greatest in our national heritage. He turned to Byron—”blood, tears and sweat.” The words which he immortalised from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” might well be a nation’s epitaph on Sir Winston himself. Not once or twice in our rough island-story, The path of duty was the way to glory; He that walks it, only thirsting For the right, and learns to deaden Love of Self, before his journey closes, He shall find the stubborn thistle bursting Into glossy purples, which outredden all voluptuous garden-roses. The greatest biographer of Abraham Lincoln said in one of his concluding chapters: A tree is best measured when it is down. So it will prove of Winston Churchill, and there can be no doubt of the massive, oaken stature that history will accord to him. But this is not the time.

We meet today in this moment of tribute, of spontaneous sympathy this House feels for Lady Churchill and all the members of his family. We are concious only that the tempestuous years are over; the years of appraisal are yet to come. It is a moment for the heartfelt tribute that this House, of all places, desires to pay in an atmosphere of quiet.

For now the noise of hooves thundering across the veldt; the clamour of the hustings in a score of contests; the shots in Sidney Street, the angry guns of Gallipoli, Flanders, Coronel and the Falkland Islands; the sullen feet of marching men in Tonypandy; the urgent warnings of the Nazi threat; the whine of the sirens and the dawn bombardment of the Normandy beaches—all these now are silent. There is a stillness. And in that stillness, echoes and memories. To each whose life has been touched by Winston Churchill, to each his memory. And as those memories are told and retold, as the world pours in its tributes, as world leaders announce their intention, in this jet age, of coming to join in this vast assembly to pay honour and respect to his memory, we in this House treasure one thought, and it was a thought some of us felt it right to express in the Parliamentary tributes on his retirement. Each one of us recalls some little incident—many of us, as in my own case, a kind action, graced with the courtesy of a past generation and going far beyond the normal calls of Parliamentary comradeship. Each of us has his own memory, for in the tumultuous diapason of a world’s tributes, all of us here at least know the epitaph he would have chosen for himself: “He was a good House of Commons man.”