On Monday evening the High Commissioner and I attended a reception at the Canadian House of Commons to celebrate the opening of a Library exhibit commemorating 70 years since Churchill’s world-renowned “Some chicken! Some neck!” speech.
Few Canadians, I know, will be confused by that reference. But for the uninitiated, this was from Winston Churchill’s speech to the Canadian Parliament on 30 December 1941. It was a reference to a sneering comment by French Marshal Philippe Petain, future leader of the collaborationist Vichy French government, who was convinced that Germany would successfully invade Britain as it had done France. He told Churchill that in three weeks Britain would “have its neck wrung like a chicken”. Churchill’s defiant response was “Some chicken! Some neck!” a comment, and a defiance, that played a major role in keeping spirits high, and keeping the British confident that they could withstand whatever the enemy threw at them.
The speech came at an iconic moment in history. Japanese bombers had just attacked Pearl Harbour, bringing the US into the war. Churchill knew he was a gifted orator, and wanted to spread his message worldwide – he chose to address the Canadian House of Commons rather than a more run of the mill venue, partly because it was “more dignified” and partly because he wanted to have maximum impact with his words. He asked that the proceedings be filmed (at a time when, in the UK, there were still no cameras allowed in Parliament) and well-attended by the media.
Since arriving in Canada last year, I have been constantly struck by how often Churchill’s speech is quoted, and, indeed, how widely he is revered in Canada as an iconic figure in our shared history. I sometimes think he’s quoted more often here than he is back in the UK. It is a reminder to me of the extent of the ties between the UK and Canada – of the strength, depth and breadth of those ties, both historic, and contemporary.
And it is also a reminder of the power or oratory – of the importance of communication, not least during times of crisis. We’re in a different world now to the one of 1941 – a world of 24/7 news channels, social media – where the power of communication is limitless. This offers limitless opportunities for today’s leaders – and we saw for ourselves the incredible power of social media during the Arab Spring. But it also poses a challenge – the challenge to rise above the noise of continuous digital chatter, and make the long lasting impact that Churchill did in his well-timed, well-crafted speech of 30 December 1941.