The Second World War was still eight months away when Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, interviewed Winston Churchill about the need for rearmament and the British attitude to war. Their conversation was published in the NS of 7 January 1939.
A famous journalist once told me of an alarming interview that he had with Mr Churchill some years before the last war. Mr Churchill happened to be in full Privy Councillor’s uniform and emphasized his points with finely executed passes and slashes of his sword. Mr Churchill himself declares that this is a fairy tale; and certainly, when I went to see him the other day, he was wielding nothing more ferocious than the builder’s trowel with which he was completing an arch in the house that he has built with his own hands this summer. He was not, however, too much absorbed to discuss very fully the problem of Democracy and Efficiency.
Kingsley Martin: The country has learnt to associate you with the view that we must all get together as quickly as possible to rearm in defence of democracy. In view of the strength and character of the totalitarian states, is it possible to combine the reality of democratic freedom with efficient military organisation?
Mr Winston Churchill: The essential aspects of democracy are the freedom of the individual, within the framework of laws passed by Parliament, to order his life as he pleases, and the uniform enforcement of tribunals independent of the executive. The laws are based on Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home. As long as these rights are defended, the foundations of freedom are secure. I see no reason why democracies should not be able to defend themselves without sacrificing these fundamental values.
KM: One point people are especially afraid of is that free criticism in Parliament and in the press may be sacrificed. The totalitarian states, it is said, are regimented, organised and unhampered, as the Prime Minister suggested the other day, by critics of the Government “who foul their own nest”.
WC: Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.
KM: Do you attribute the slowness in preparation of which you complain to any inherent defect in democratic institutions?
WC: I am convinced that with adequate leadership, democracy can be a more efficient form of government than Fascism. In this country at any rate the people can readily be convinced that it is necessary to make sacrifices, and they will willingly undertake them if the situation is put clearly and fairly before them. No one can doubt that it was within the power of the National Government at any time within the last seven years to rearm the country at any pace required without resistance from the mass of the people. The difficulty was that the leaders failed to appreciate the need and to warn the people, or were afraid to do their duty, not that the democratic system formed an impediment.
In my view, short-sighted leaders are just as likely to come to the front in Fascist countries as in democracies.