Saturday, March 26, 2011

Did Churchill call democracy a bad form of government?

Much talk of democracy these days plus the occasional mention of Churchill saying it's the worst form of government.  It takes me back to 1967 when I watched a TV serial called Slattery's People. I can be sure of the date because I was 18 and in Trinidad for a year, boarding with a local family, and teaching in a secondary school on VSO.  (Latin and Algebra, since you ask.)  Slattery's People was a weekly American political drama series.  It says here, that the hero was the minority leader in a state legislature, who made it his duty to defend his constituents against the injustices they suffered from government officials, and fought to advance regulations that would end political corruption.

I can’t claim to remember all of that; but what I do remember is the opening voiceover for each episode ...  

"Democracy is a very bad form of government, but I ask you to never to forget it, all the others are far worse".

It seems the original was a Churchill speech in the House of Commons November 11, 1947:-

“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.”

That’s not as pithy as “Democracy is a very bad form of government …” which, I've seen it suggested, may have been a Hollywood scriptwriter’s improvement on Churchill’s original. Few people can make such a claim, and hats off if it’s true.

The context was a debate on the Parliament Bill brought forward by the Attlee Labour government.  Churchill was defending the right of the perpetually Tory-controlled House of Lords to enforce a 2-year delay on legislation. The Attlee Bill reduced the period to one year, the purpose being to pre-empt a Lords' delay to nationalising the steel industry. This context takes the shine off the quotation, does it not?   


  1. Interesting Pete. How do you rate Churchill as a speaker? I borrowed a CD from my Dad of several of his (Churchill's, not my Dad's) wartime speeches, and I have to say, despite his background, politics and apparently obnoxious personality, they were truly electrifying. Putting them in the context of what the country was facing and going through it was hard to imagine a better leader for that period in our history. His use of language was fantastic. Strange that he was kicked out of Downing Street straight after the war, you'd have thought he would have been popular.

  2. I was at college with a Cockney who said he had it from his parents that Churchill was booed when he toured the East End in the Blitz. He was consistently anti-working class and anti-Irish. He hammered the South Wales miners. Some people decided to overlook this during the war, but afterwards asked themselves if this was the man to build a new society with a health service and everything, and they got back the resounding answer NO.

    1. Yes, but his successor didn't accomplish much that was positive for the British people and Churchill was back in a few years later.

    2. Very true. Apart from the welfare state and the National Health Service, decolonising vast swathes of the British Empire, including India, and nationalising major industries. All in all I suppose Attlee’s achievements were pretty meagre really. Still, Britain had just been through a destructive war so maybe that's a mitigating factor.