Old friend and fellow fox-without-a-brush Anthony Clark has drawn my attention to an intriguing post by historian Richard Toye, asking what Churchill would make of, and how would he fare, in the 2015 election. Toye makes several observations, which I will give in capsule form, though the whole of his post is really worth a read:
1. "[I]f Churchill was fighting in this year’s election he might feel that the electorate is rather passive and perhaps even that politicians are getting a surprisingly easy ride."
Booyah! Toye hits this one out of the park. Yes, a thousand times. I won't spoil Toye's post for you, but the active, often ribald life on the hustings Churchill knew, compared to the soggy, dreary mess that passes for political debate now, well, yes. Passive electorate. As an American, I can't help but feel we've contributed to the downward slide of the mother country in this area; the UK seems to be copying our abysmal presidential debates where everyone tries like mad to avoid the actual question and to return to their pre-arranged talking points. And we let them get away with it, for the most part.
2. Citing Churchill's infamous "Gestapo" speech, Toye notes that "the level of debate has arguably declined somewhat over the last seventy years, but abusing the enemy is nothing new." Well, if Toye were writing about the US, I'd think he was somewhat downplaying the rabid tone of American poetical debate, which really is enough to make one despair, but he isn't. That said, With respect to Churchill's "Gestapo" speech, Toye himself writes that "[t]he reactions of ordinary voters to the speech were broadly negative." (P. 221). It hurt him with the electorate. We seem more inured to that sort of thing now, though again, that's from an American perspective. Still, I think Toye's larger point--that WSC would have thrived in the cut-and-thrust, overt the top world of social media is spot on.
3. "Equally, Churchill might well be appalled by the quality of today’s press, but then again he was not particularly impressed by the activities of the Fourth Estate within his own lifetime either."
Agreed. I think the modern divide between the court stenographer press and the lowest-common-denominator-tabloids would have been wearisomely familiar to Churchill. And, by the bye, to Anthony Trollope--look at his repellent Quintus Slide (who appears in my own Phineas at Bay), or his Tom Towers.
No, I think Toye is correct to point out that is two ways, at least--vituperation, and sensationalist press, we have nothing on the late Victorians or the first half of the Twentieth Century--but that we fall behind them in one major way: we ask far far too little of our candidates. Can you imagine any candidate, in any party, making a truly Churchillian speech--individual, brimming with allusions and metaphors, eloquent--and not being written off as a thundering old bore? We live in an age of rhetorical austerity, or maybe even of downright poverty.
(Edited for clarity.)