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If you're not liberal when you're young...

Posted by Lewis on August 05, 2004

In Reply to: If you're not liberal when you're young... posted by Bob on August 04, 2004

: : This was a letter to the editor in The Courier Journal, Louisville, Ky., today, Aug. 3, 2004. We should recruit him for Phrase Finder.


: : A July 5 letter writer alluded to a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill, which the writer paraphrased as "If you're not liberal when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not conservative when you're older, you have no brain." Despite the writer's cautious use of "attributed" and "parapharse," as an avid Churchill buff, I am compelled to set the record straight on this myth.

: : The quotation usually attributed to Churchill is, "If you're not Liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not Conservative when you're 35, you have no brain." However, the attribution is false. There is no record of Churchill ever speaking these words, and it is highly unlikely that he would have because Churchill himself did precisely the opposite. He entered politics as a Conservative and was a Conservative at age 25. He switched to the Liberal Party at age 29 and was a Liberal at age 35. (He returned to the Conservatives at age 49.) Also, his beloved wife, Clementine, was a life-long Liberal, and Churchill would hardly have delivered such an indirect insult to her.

: : It should also be remembered that "Liberal" and "Conservative" are the proper names of British political parties and do not translate precisely to theleft and right wings of the American political spectrum. That is too long a subject for this space, but it can fairly be said that Churchill's political viewpoint and guiding principles did not change radically, despite his twice switching his allegiance. In Churchill's own view, changes in the party, not in himself, compelled his party switches.

: : However, there is a verifiable Churchill quotation that may be relevant to today's political situation. In 1943 (at the height of World War II, when England's very survival was at stake), he wrote: "The power of the executive to cast a man in prison without formulating any charge known to the law and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government...."


: Amen to that. I almost gagged this morning listening to someone from the Knights of Columbus introducing Dubya as one who "restored decency and honor to the office." (He must have missed the parts about preemptive war, prison terms without charges, and torturing prisoners.)

Back to Winnie - I did research the great man about 3 years back and recall the quotation. I have a feeling that he did say it, but that the context was important - in fact I think he might have been expressing a sentiment said to him. He did swap political parties himself, but as the above poster said - it was more due to changes in politics than in his own beliefs.

Churchill had to face the paradox that protecting fundamental freedoms sometimes involved breaching those freedoms. He was also, fundamentally a romantic, believing in the heroism of the individual. He often admired the most unlikely of people - including certain Irish freedom-fighters and Communists; his admiration for heroism overcame his dislike for people's politics. It started with the Cubans and the Boers, where he saw heroism at close quarters - being a bit of a maverick himself.
You wouldn't have thought the rather tubby older Churchill had himself seen action close up.

I think in the version I recall, the emphasis of the remark was to approve liberality in the young, but lament the pragmatism seen as necessary in later years.