Before all else, I want to express my pleasure and gratification at having this most welcome honorary degree bestowed on me. It is the first I have ever received. The only other one I have was not honorary, and I was actually expected to work for it. Nor am I anywhere near the category of those great men who are swamped with such honour. I remember a ceremony at Quebec when the Governor-General, Lord Athlone, conferred L.L.D.s on President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Turning to Churchill, Lord Athlone, a soldier by training, said: "The Prime Minister and I have this in common: we have charged with the cavalry and we have been educated by Degrees."
It is my pleasant duty, on behalf of the National Trust of England and Wales, and the Royal Oak Society, to present to Westminster College, a beautifully-made replica of the writing table in the library at Chartwell. It comes to Westminster College through the generosity of Heritage Arts, Ltd., one of whose Directors, Mr. Shaifer, is here this afternoon, and it was actually made by the firm of Arthur Brett of Norwich. I know the National Trust, Mr. Shaifer, and all others concerned hope it will be regarded as a worthy addition to the Museum's beautifully arranged treasures.
If I had my life all over again, I should probably opt for Holy Orders. How pleasant to be able to stand up once a week in a pulpit and address a captive audience, inhibited by the sanctity of the surroundings from throwing things at you or even interrupting.
Well, here I am, at long last, in a pulpit; though looking around, I am not quite sure how totally captive the audience is. Let me, however, now address myself to somewhat more serious matters.
In a great many classrooms and lecture-halls, in every country and in each succeeding generation, the question is asked: to what extent are great men fashioned by circumstances? Does the occasion create the man more often than the man the occasion? As with most generalized questions, there is generally no valid answer.
If George III and Lord North had been more tactful, would the 13 colonies have revolted? If the German General Staff had refused to let Lenin return to Petrograd in a sealed train, would there have been a Bolshevik revolution in Russia? If Corporal Hitler had been killed on the Western Front in World War I would there have been another "Fuhrer" with a mesmeric hold on the German masses? The Ifs of history are fascinating, especially when they relate to the influence of individuals but they are food for fantasy and not for research. What does deserve careful examination are the personal characteristics, the qualities and defects, of those whose decisions did in historic fact mould our destinies; for if the characteristics had been different, the decisions might have been different too.
In his own country and abroad, Winston Churchill had a notable influence on people and on policies for many years, indeed for well over half a century. But it was for a much shorter period, of some 18 months, from May 1940 till America came into the war, that this influence was truly vital. Under his leadership, his country held the fate of western civilization in its hand, and it was Churchill's energy, resolution, and example that provided the necessary inspiration. In those 18 months, Churchill and the British stood like King Leonidas and his Spartans in the pass at Thermophylae: they were the sole active opponents of overwhelming military might and of submission to slavery. The Soviet Union, until herself attacked in June 1941, was an ally of Hitler; the Government of the United States was as helpful as it could afford to be, but after the isolationist years, it was unprepared and disarmed. The European powers were either defeated or cowed into surrender. All this, I am sure you know well, but I think that heroic stories bear repetition.
Churchill did, indeed, have behind him a united and determined people and a vast Empire, almost as woefully unprepared for war as the United States, but nevertheless embracing a quarter of the world's population and nearly a third of its territory. What seemed less impressive than the far-flung empire and the fervent goodwill of the United States, but was in the short-term more effective than either of them, was that narrow strip of sea called the English Channel. All the same, a British Government could quite easily, by bungling and miscalculation, or by faint-heartedness, have lost the battle for democracy and condemned us to see Hitler's 1000 year Reich fill the heads - and destroy the souls - of men and women in every continent for generations to come.