Churchill Speeches – A Mixed Reaction To Wartime Propaganda

the_roar_of_the_lion17:18 Wednesday 21st August 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: A Cambridge University academic is casting doubts on the effects Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches had on the British public. Using the archives of Churchill College, Professor Richard Toye has questioned the accepted view that Churchill’s oratory was received enthusiastically by Britons, and was a decisive influence on the nation’s willingness to fight on against Hitler and the Nazis. His new book argues that Churchill’s speeches generated considerably more controversy and criticism than historians previously thought. Well Professor Toye joined me earlier.
RICHARD TOYE: The widespread popular belief is, and indeed amongst many historians is, that the speeches were received with near universal enthusiasm, and maybe there was a very tiny residue of people who were irreconcilable, but that basically the vast mass of the population felt completely inspired by these speeches.
CHRIS MANN: But your research for the University of Exeter which you’re carrying out this week at the Churchill Archives in Cambridge shows differently apparently.
RICHARD TOYE: Well what I’m saying is that the reactions were actually much more complicated and complex, so that although of course there were large numbers of people who experienced what we might call the classic reaction of feeling invigorated, inspired, energised and so forth, there was actually a very large number of people who had different reactions, and there was much more controversy and criticism. And so, for example, Churchill’s first broadcast speech as Prime Minister on 19th May 1940, the Ministry of Information did a spot door to door survey of what people thought about it. About half of people had that classic reaction of feeling inspired. The other half felt depressed.
CHRIS MANN: Because …
RICHARD TOYE: Well because Churchill was conveying very bad military news. And in fact part of his job was not simply to inspire people, but to bring people up to the reality of how serious the situation was. So a depressed reaction was not necessarily a bad reaction. And one can see this in another speech which he made, he gave in Washington in December 1941, where he makes reference to the fact that we must start making our military plans for 1943. And people in Britain going, oh my god, is the war still going to be going on in 1943? That’s terrible news, which of course it was. But the fact that Churchill kept emphasising that the war was going to be long lasting and bitter, it wasn’t quite clear how it was going to end, meant that he established credibility. So that when in due course towards the end of the Summer of 1944 when he starts to say actually we think the war might come to an end quite soon, people are ready to believe him.
CHRIS MANN: Churchill was a very complex character obviously. He did many things in his life. He was a journalist, as well as being a politician. He had been a soldier. He had voyaged all over the world. And when it came for him to lead the country in the Second World war, he was an old man. Very fond of alcohol. So he wasn’t the archetypal hero. People knew that he was flawed at the time didn’t they?
RICHARD TOYE: Yes. And there were many criticisms which people voiced. So that there’s a great deal of evidence where we can examine the reactions. The Ministry of Information compiled so-called Home Intelligence Reports to monitor popular morale. There was an organisation called Mass Observation which was a sociological research organisation which, amongst other things, monitored the reactions to Churchill’s speeches, and we’ve got ordinary people’s diaries. And there are some very angry and dismissive comments including people who actually liked Churchill perfectly well, but thought that his speeches were a bit boring.
CHRIS MANN: Even speeches like “We’ll fight them on the beaches”? The great ones?
RICHARD TOYE: Well I think that yes, we don’t necessarily see this universal mass enthusiasm in the speeches of May and June 1940. You do see it in the speeches of July and August 1940, and I think that what has happened is that some of that has been projected back upon the earlier speeches, so that people think that what they experienced in July and August they must have been experiencing in May and June.
CHRIS MANN: This was the real great era of propaganda though, wasn’t it? And there must have been a publicity machine that got behind Churchill to turn him from perhaps a divisive character in some ways, into this national hero, this figurehead.
RICHARD TOYE: Yes, certainly part of the reason that we’ve got the story that we have is because contemporary wartime propaganda did assert that he had this effect of being able to change cowards into brave men and so on. And of course you’ve got to remember that it was maybe difficult sometimes for people to express what they did feel openly, that there was such a social pressure to conform, to not rock the boat. People might feel that .. people who criticised Churchill weren’t against fighting the war. They may have differed of Churchill’s view of how he should fight it. But they may have felt that to voice criticism openly was not really the done thing.
CHRIS MANN: Such a great man of course that he has a Cambridge college named after him. And you working in the archives this week. Would he have made it today as a political leader, with all the spin doctoring that’s involved, but also all the prying and the Twittering and everything else?
RICHARD TOYE: Well, I think that he would have had to adjust radically.
CHRIS MANN: The drinking before lunchtime would have had to have gone.
RICHARD TOYE: I think that he obviously was a very capable person, so there’s no reason to think that he couldn’t adapt, but what we have to remember is that he felt that the media at the time .. he was often resentful of media criticism, and got angry about it. The volume of criticism that would now be expressed would be something that is, well, very difficult for any politician to cope with I think.
CHRIS MANN: Professor Richard Toye of the University of Exeter. Thank you so much for joining me. Looking forward to the book. It is called The Roar of the Lion. Out when?
RICHARD TOYE: It’s out tomorrow.