Saturday, April 30, 2011

Winston Churchill, Parliamentary Democracy, and Steve

"The Prime Minister is the servant of the House and is liable to dismissal at a moment's notice by a simple vote."

Photo Karsh December 1941

Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Report, Jan. 27, 1942.


From time to time in the life of any Government there come occasions which must be clarified. No one who has read the newspapers of the last few weeks about our affairs at home and abroad can doubt that such an occasion is at hand.

Since my return to this country, I have come to the conclusion that I must ask to be sustained by a Vote of Confidence from the House of Commons. This is a thoroughly normal, constitutional, democratic procedure. A Debate on the war has been asked for. I have arranged it in the fullest and freest manner for three whole days. Any Member will be free to say anything he thinks fit about or against the Administration or against the composition or personalities of the Government, to his heart's content, subject only to the reservation, which the House is always so careful to observe about military secrets. Could you have anything freer than that? Could you have any higher expression of democracy than that? Very few other countries have institutions strong enough to sustain such a thing while they are fighting for their lives.

I owe it to the House to explain to them what has led me to ask for their exceptional support at this time. It has been suggested that we should have a three days' Debate of this kind in which the Government would no doubt be lustily belaboured by some of those who have lighter burdens to carry, and that at the end we should separate without a Division. In this case sections of the Press which are hostile-and there are some whose hostility is pronounced-could declare that the Government's credit was broken, and, it might even be hinted, after all that has passed and all the discussion there has been, that it had been privately intimated to me that I should be very reckless if I asked for a Vote of Confidence from Parliament.

And the matter does not stop there. It must be remembered that these reports can then be flashed all over the world, and that they are repeated in enemy broadcasts night after night in order to show that the Prime Minister has no right to speak for the nation and that the Government in Britain is about to collapse. Anyone who listens to the fulminations which come from across the water know that that is no exaggeration. Of course, these statements from foreign sources would not be true, but neither would it be helpful to anyone that there should be any doubt about our position.

There is another aspect. We in this Island for a long time were alone, holding aloft the torch. We are no longer alone now. We are now at the centre and among those at the summit of 26 United Nations, comprising more than three-quarters of the population of the globe. Whoever speaks for Britain at this moment must be known to speak, not only in the name of the people-and of that I feel pretty sure I may-but in the name of Parliament and, above all, of the House of Commons. It is genuine public interest that requires that these facts should be made manifest afresh in a formal way.

September 8, 1942

Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Report.

THE PRIME MINISTER (MR. CHURCHILL): Nine weeks have passed since I spoke here on the Vote of Censure. I am most grateful to the House for the substantial majority which they then gave to me and to the Government. Every proof that is given to the world of the inflexible steadfastness of Parliament and of its sense of proportion strengthens the British war effort in a definite and recognisable manner. Most particularly are such manifestations of our national will-power a help to the head of the British Government in time of war. The Prime Minister of the day, as head of the Executive, has to be from time to time in contact and correspondence with the Heads of the Executives of the great Allied States. President Roosevelt and Premier Stalin are not only Heads of the Executive but are Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. We work our affairs in a different way. The Prime Minister is the servant of the House and is liable to dismissal at a moment's notice by a simple vote. It is only possible for him to do what is necessary, and what has got to be done on occasion by somebody or other, if he enjoys, as I do, the support of an absolutely loyal and united Cabinet, and if he is refreshed and fortified from time to time, and especially in bad times, as I have been, by massive and overwhelming Parliamentary majorities. Then your servant is able to transact the important business which has to be done with confidence and freedom, and is able to meet people at the heads of the Allied countries on more or less equal terms and on occasion to say, "Yes" and "No," without delay upon some difficult questions. Thus we arrive, by our ancient constitutional methods, at practical working arrangements which show that Parliamentary democracy can adapt itself to all situations and can go out in all weathers. That is why I am especially grateful to the House for their unswerving support and for the large majority with which they rejected a hostile vote on the last occasion we were together.

The Harper Song (Steve It's Time to Leave)
by John Roby