The Secret of the Spirit of Britain
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 16 Sep 1941, p. 25-38
Birkett, Sir Norman, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club.
Reference to the loss of the Empress of Britain, and the speaker's recent trip to Canada by air. The speaker coming from a country which has been at war for two years. The situation in Britain with regard to the war, its people, and their experience. The Emergency Powers Defence Act of Britain, and what it means. The scarce need for such compulsory powers. The response to war by the British people, and reasons for it. The British determination to preserve their way of life. The realization of Hitler's true intentions. The witnessing of the loss of individual rights through Hitler's actions. The secret of the "Spirit of Britain." Anecdotes and illustrations of that spirit. The realization by the British that all that they value in life is now at stake. Illustrative evidence of Britain's commitment to justice. An analysis of the word freedom and what it means. The special obligation and trust laid upon a lawyer in a free society. The reality of bombings and rations and other conditions of war. Canada's desire to help. A concluding poem.
Date of Original
16 Sep 1941
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Full Text
A joint meeting with The Canadian Club.
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Tuesday, September 16, 1491

MR. C. R. SANDFRSON: The Canadian Bar Association, the Province, and the City, have already extended to Sir Norman Birkett the full warmth of their reception. Today it is the privilege of this joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club to welcome him and to express to him our very sincere appreciation of his kindness in sparing time to come and talk to us.

Even before the war, Lord Hewart, Lord Chief Justice of England, urged that Democracy should be extremely watchful of its liberties. During this generation, legislation has been extending more and more into social life. The aim undoubtedly is to establish a higher standard of life. But the tendency is that it becomes progressively difficult for any single legislature to deal with the increasing volume and extending minuteness of that legislation. The result is that details in statutes are left to be filled in by Orders in Council, and Government Departments and Commissions themselves become law-making bodies. They make law, they administer law, and they try offences against the very laws which they have made. Lord Hewart urged that we should be watchful lest Democracy might be supplanted by Bureaucracy.

Our own Chief Justice, Sir William Mulock, whose chair is here, and whom we had hoped to have with us, has put his own finger on that same weakness. Perhaps I might say he has hit with his fist at that same weakness, because he is no gentle fighter.

Along similar lines Sir Norman Birkett is urging that even now, at this time when Democracy is fighting for its existence against a foreign foe, it should be watchful lest its liberties are internally weakened. There is an urgent need, when a country is fighting for its life, that it should shut up--and keep shut up--those who are enemies within its own borders and who may strangle or sabotage its efforts for self-preservation. But Sir Norman Birkett urges that, even at such a moment and under such conditions, the inalienable right, in a Democracy, of the individual to an unprejudiced and impartial trial should be preserved.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, an Austrian Jew, told me that in his country they had a maxim: "As upright as a British judge". Gentlemen, British legal traditions, British legal character, British legal integrity, ride high, whether in the Mother Country or in the Dominions. And our guest speaker is one of the influential and outstanding representatives of the ethics of his profession. (Applause.)

There is no need for me to introduce Sir Norman Birkett to this audience. But for the benefit of those people who are more distant and who are listening on the air, may I say that he was educated at Cambridge; he had the privilege which is given to the outstanding member of the University in his year of being President of its famous Union; he has been a member of the British House of Commons; he is a King's Counsel; he has been a leader in some of the most outstanding trials of our time; he has been knighied by his King; and when war came, he abandoned his practice and offered his services to the British Government. One thing that perhaps isn't quite so well known is that Sir Norman and Lady Birkett made their house in the country available for use as a convalescent home for Canadian soldiers, (Applause.) Gentlemen, I present to you Sir Norman Birkett. (Applause.)

SIR NORMAN BIRKETT: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: My first manifest duty is to acknowledge the very great honour you do me in inviting me to address this large and representative assembly; and if anything could heighten and deepen that pleasure, Sir, it was the kindness of your introductory observations which made me for the first time almost fail to recognize myself.

When I was honoured by the invitation both from The Empire Club and from The Canadian Club, I said I would be glad to address them separately or to address them jointly, for when I came to Canada I determined to come in the spirit of the old local preacher in England who was overheard praying before he went out to his important duties, "O, Lord, use me; use me, O, Lord, even if it is only in an advisory capacity".

Mr. Chairman, I well remember my visit of four years ago, and the kindness which I then received upon every hand made me a lover of Canada and of all things Can adian. So you will understand the sense of honour and pleasure I experience at this moment in being invited for the second time.

You, Sir, referred to my very dear friend, Lord Hewart, from whom I received a cable only yesterday, expressing his admiration and affection for the people of Canada. I well remember when he came to Canada he said, "When the Queen of Sheba went to visit King Solomon, it is recorded she came 'with a very great train'. That was before the days of the C.P.R." Four years ago, when I came to Canada, I came by a noble ship, the Empress of Britain, and when the Empress of Britain was lost, I felt that something fine and something noble had gone out of the world. But I felt at the same time the absolute surety that the day will come when another Empress will ride the sea, a symbol of the indomitable, the unconquerable spirit of man, and of Canada, and a symbol also that, though the enemy may damage, may destroy, there are certain things which are indestructible. One is the unconquerable spirit of man.

This time, Mr. Chairman, I didn't come by a noble ship sailing the seas but--I can scarcely believe it even now as I stand here--I came all the way through the skies and found the world literally contracted to a span. Canada brought physically closer. But I have also found in all the meetings and in all the people that I have met that the spirit of Canada also is closer and dearer than ever. (Applause.)

So, Mr. Chairman, in whatever else I fail, let me succeed in this, that you understand how deep, how profound is the sense of honour and privilege I experience at this moment.

Now, Sir, I came fresh from a country which has endured two years of war, and I should like to take the opportunity which presents itself today of saying one or two things about that country, about its people, and about its experience. For I am one of those, Sir, who believe that, when the historian of the future comes to recount the glories and the trials of our day, its hopes, its fears, its triumphs, its disasters, its moments of heartbreak, its moments of exultation, he will write it with a golden pen, and, in that detached, judicial atmosphere of that far-away historian, he will record of a surety, in the words of the British Prime Minister, "This was their finest hour". (Applause.)

It will be quite impossible for me within the short compass of an address of this nature to present to you a full picture. The scene is too large and the emotions are too near. But there are one or two things one can pick out as illustrative, which are symbolic and suggestive, and the first is this. It is an almost astonishing thing that in Britain at this moment there is a law upon the statute books under the Emergency Powers Defence Act, which places at the disposal of His Majesty the person and the property of everybody in Britain. All we have, all we are, at the disposal of His Majesty! But, Gentlemen, the real importance of it lies here. That statute, that order, binding upon all the citizens of Britain, was passed by the British House of Commons in a very dark moment, when the news spread through London that France was no longer to be found fighting at our side. It was at that moment that the free representatives of the people in that home of freedom, the British Parliament, gathered all their resources, all their strength, all their power, and by that decisive and symbolic act flung it in the face of the enemy: And the astonishing thing which runs through every phase of British life at the moment is that, although the compulsory powers are there, they are scarcely needed.

It is true that we have conscription for the army, from 18 to 41, and all the classes from 19 to 37 are already called up. Britain is an armed camp. But we have over a million and a half in the Home Guard who responded to the call when the threats of invasion loomed near, and manned every town and village throughout the land within the space of a few short days. We have nearly a million women recruits in the Women's Voluntary Service for civil defence. Ninety per cent of our Civil Defence workers--our fire fighters, our A.R.P. wardens, our shelter wardens, our ambulance drivers--are voluntary, and the important, vital matter to remember is that the real spirit of Britain, despite criticisms here and criticisms there, mainly directed to the fact that our war effort is not as powerful as it ought to be, the whole spirit of the nation may be described in those famous words, "Here am I, send me".

Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen, there must be some reason for this remarkable manifestation, and there is. Let me try to state it to you in a few simple words. The people of Britain, like the people of Canada, like most people, were lovers of peace. Many in Britain were living for too close to the last war to wish for any repetition of the carnage, of the suffering, that came then upon untold millions. They loved peace. They were ready to make sacrifices for peace and, even during the years when it was known that Germany was arming, the hope was still kept alive in the minds of men that the disaster would be averted, and that peace would still reign. And there were many who believed in 1938 that in that desire for peace we had gone very near to the part of dishonour. But in March of 1939, when Moravia and Bohemia were seized in flagrant violation of sacred promises given, there was an instantaneous change. Men knew then and knew with certainty and faced it with clear eyes, that the disaster could not longer be postponed. The danger could be no longer averted and in their hearts men took the resolution that there could be no more peace, that there could be no more safety, that there could be no more security, until this evil thing should be destroyed and we should stand upon the further shore, and from that moment there began to arise that spirit which in these later days has so gloriously manifested itself. (Applause.)

Now, what were the reasons, Mr. Chairman, for the remarkable spirit which then did manifest itself? Again, let me try in a sentence or two to enumerate them. The first was this, and it has been growing day by day until now it is recognized everywhere. All the things that the ordinary people in Britain love, all the things which make up for them their way of life, all the things which they have prized and treasured, all the things for which their fathers have fought, the people of Britain realized and realize now, were in danger, every single one of them, and they were determined to preserve them, whatever the cost might be. They saw with their own eyes this first thing, that the word of Hitler was a broken reed. It could never be relied upon. They had hoped against hope through the years that peace might be preserved, and, when they suddenly found that, in dealing with our own statesmen, lies, deceit, trickery, were continuously employed, and whatever you may say about the British people-and don't let me for one moment put them on a pedestal where they ought not to be; they are very much like you in almost every way--one thing that they are keen about, as you are too, is that, in the ordinary concerns of life, let alone in the high domain of statesmanship, a man's word should be his bond. (Applause.)

And then they saw equally clearly, because the record was before their eyes, they saw that innocent people, going about their peaceful tasks, loving their institutions as we love ours, were suddenly struck down and struck down with the accompaniment of the same pretexts, the same lies, the same deceits. And all over Europe at this moment in which I am speaking to you, there are millions of people who treasured their institutions as you treasure yours, and as we treasure ours, people who desired nothing more than to live their lives in peace and to make such contributions as they were able to the good of mankind, suddenly, without any reason whatever, struck down, their freedom taken, their rights abolished. And the British people saw this on an increasing scale.

The third thing they saw which struck very deeply into their hearts and consciences was that individual rights were of no account, that those things which have been our very life blood and, indeed, the life blood of many other nations, to the aggressor nations were of no account whatever. The individual counted not at all. And more than individual rights were struck. There were great communities, Jewish communities, who were treated with a barbarity and a cruelty which shocked mankind.

There were the British people, desiring peace but irrevocably determined that a peace where such things could be was not worth having, and that life itself under such terms was not worth having.

So it came about that, clay by day, and hour by hour, through these long two years of war, the British people have been serene, unshaken, undismayed, though passing through the greatest ordeal that any people have ever been asked to pass through.

What is the secret, therefore, of what I have called--"The spirit of Britain"? It requires more than courage, I always think, to evoke and manifest and display that spirit about which I have been speaking. Where you have a people utterly unaccustomed to this kind of warfare--warfare from the skies with all the unimaginable horrors of the unknown--it requires more than courage to display the spirit which quite ordinary people in Britain have displayed. Mr. Chairman, I firmly believe that, if such things came to the people of Canada, to the people of Toronto, exactly the same spirit would be displayed. I am convinced of it because the thing which sustains, the thing which inspires, is that what the people are passing through must be endured because of the greatness of the issues at stake.

I could tell you of the remarkable manifestations. The British people have never been very good at explaining, they have never been very articulate, but I think they have been rather good at a crisis. There was one old lady down in one of the worst bombed areas of London. The authorities were trying to get her moved to a safer area, and she wouldn't go. Despite all appeals, all adjurations, she wouldn't go. So they said, "Well, why won't you go?" "Well", she said, "when the shells begin to burst at night and the bombs begin to fall, somehow it takes my mind off the war".

It is a most common sight on the morning after a raid, to find the little shopkeeper trying to open his devastated premises, and putting up little notices: "More Open Than Usual", or the deeper tone, "More Blasted Open Than Usual". Everywhere, that same fine spirit is displayed. And, as I say, the secret of it is that the people of Britain realize that all that they value in life is now at stake. And let us make no mistake about this. The aggressor nations have made it quite plain that they do intend to destroy freedom. The aggressor nations have made it quite plain by their actions that they are already engaged upon that task of destroying freedom, and although the British people-I dare say like the people of Canada for the most part-have never read Magna Charta, wouldn't know a great deal about the Petition of Rights, or the Bill of Rights, or the Habeas Corpus Act, or any other of the great constitutional documents-they would be mere words-and although freedom, in that sense, is not upon the lips, yet, believe me, freedom is in the heart, and the people of Britain are lovers of freedom, and lovers of justice, and they realize at this crisis in the world's history that those things are at stake.

Some years ago in Britain, as illustrative of the deep-seated desire for justice, there was a case in which I was myself concerned, in which the allegation was that a young girl who was going to give evidence in an important case had been bullied by the police. That was all. She had been bullied by the police. And there was such a stir in the House of Commons that the Home Secretary of that day appointed a Special Commission, quite a rare thing, presided over by one of the most eminent of the Lord justices, which took many days simply to ascertain the truth or falsity of the allegation that the police had exceeded their authority. The whole of England was alert, vigilant, because the rights of that unknown girl were alleged to have been infringed by the police.

In the midst of this very war in which we are now engaged and in one of its very darkest moments, the Government brought into the House of Commons Regulation 18 (b), which is a regulation, as you probably know, which gives the Home Secretary power to make an order interning any British citizen, upon the grounds named in the order, but the British House of Commons said to the Government, "Take it away, take it away, and, until you put in more safeguards for the citizen, we won't let you have it". The Government wisely bowed to the decision of the House of Commons, and withdrew the Regulation, and brought it back after consultation with the House of Commons, putting into that Regulation the important safeguards for all people who are interned under the Regulation, so that no man in Britain is at the mercy of an arbitrary power. (Applause.)

Gentlemen, I mention these things to illustrate how deep-seated in Britain is the sense of justice. I say that the great books of our literature are not read by all. Milton is not on every tongue, but the thing which is instinct. in the word "freedom" is very, very deeply engraved in the heart and in the conscience of the ordinary folk.

Just let us for a moment, and only for a moment, analyze it. So often it is said in these days that freedom is the issue, that liberty is at stake-and indeed it is-that the expressions become mere phrases and begin to lose their import, their significance, their meaning. Let us just examine them together for a moment. What do the British people themselves understand when they think about freedom and about justice? Simply this: their right to live their ordinary lives, without undue interference from the state or from their neighbours, secure from tyranny, secure from oppression, and, above all, secure from fear. That is what they understand. The love of home, the sacredness of home, that a man's house is still his castle, that the power of the secret police or of any other police to invade it should be confined by law, the right to worship, the right to speak, the right to think, the right to read. In a word, the right to live the ordinary man's life as to him seems best, so that he may develop his individuality and make such contribution as he can to the common rule. That is the kind of idea which invades the minds of the British people, the kind of idea which, although not put into words as I am putting it, is nevertheless felt in the blood. The British people at this moment really know that the issue which is being fought out is whether those things are still to live, whether, as a people, they are to be deprived of them or whether they are to continue to possess them-all those things which to them have become so very dear.

And the other strong and abiding matter which the British people feel so deeply and so keenly, is that not only must they be secure from any oppression of their rights by their neighbours, but that also they must be made secure from any oppression by the State. (Applause.)

And we feel in Britain that it is the law, it is the law, which can maintain those liberties which are so dear to the people of Britain.

I had the very great pleasure of addressing The Canadian Bar Association. It is my purpose to travel to the United States of America to address The American Bar Association, and I have spoken here, and hope to speak there, about the contribution which has been made in days past by the law to the preservation and the maintenance of those liberties which we now enjoy. Perhaps I might just say now, though reference was made from the Chair today to the part played by lawyers, that in my own country wherever oppression raised its head, whether it was from the autocratic ruler, or whether it was from an autocratic government, it was the lawyers of that day and generation who made war upon it, and the contribution which has been made by the lawyers of Britain to the liberties we enjoy is beyond all praising and beyond all calculation.

But, for my part, I always feel that I should like to end what I have to say upon this note. I always feel that there is laid upon the lawyers a very special obligation, a very special trust. If you were to see, as I have seen, the ordinary folk-the plain people, as Abraham Lincoln used to call them-if you had seen what I have seen, how, in disaster and difficulty and in the long trials which they are called upon to face, they have displayed such magnificent spirit, you would feel, as I feel, that lawyers are constituted, and in a very high sense constituted, trustees for such noble people.

When I speak of the big things like the bombings--a city bombed for fifty-eight nights in succession--the great cities with all their centres devastated--people homeless--that is only one side of the picture. There are other sides -blackouts--rationing--all the necessary restrictions and regulations which war time brings and imposes. But all are meant and all are received in that same magnificent spirit of good humour, with spirit serene, unshaken and undismayed.

And I say it to the lawyers, particularly, to whom liberty has in a very special sense been entrusted, that there is a very special and solemn obligation. I should like to say also that, to everybody who cares for these things, that same obligation comes with immense force.

I have found myself over in Canada, in this lovely sun, with the lights on at night, with the cars with their headlights--things which I hadn't seen for nearly two years-and I sometimes find it very difficult to cast my mind back to the blackouts and the restrictions. It is to me the most heartening thing, the most inspiring thing, to feel that in Canada, where there might be a temptation to say, "Well, it is no business of ours, we have had too much trouble with Europe, you get into your troubles, you get into your difficulties, you get into your wars, and you expect us to come and help you out",--thank God, nothing of that kind is ever said. And it has been the most inspiring and the most heartening thing to me to find that, everywhere I have gone in Canada, there is the same eager desire to help.

My kind host, who drove me down here today, said a thing which also inspired. Speaking about some matter, he said, "Tell us what to do and we will do it". That is the spirit which I have found and I would like to say to you that it is the greatest help and the greatest inspiration and the greatest encouragement to the people at home.

I have drawn you a picture, not too highly coloured, about some of the things the brave people have had to pass through and the way they have done it, but you know, in your own life, what a grand thing it is in time of difficulty to have a friend by your side, somebody whom you trust, ready and eager and willing to help. That is just how the people of Britain feel about the people of Canada, and, when I see every day of my life the Canadian soldiers walking down the streets, see them in the country towns, see them everywhere, I realize that, if that invasion comes--and for twelve months we were living in the belief that it might be around the corner--it will be the grandest thing in the world to have the help of such fine, upright, soldierly men, who are there to defend our land from every act of the aggressor.

Now, my time is practically done. Would you allow me to finish with a quotation which the Prime Minister of Britain used, because I can think of nothing better with which to finish, even though it be well known

"Say not the struggle naught availeth, The labour and the wounds are vain, The enemy faints not, nor faileth And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars; It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd, Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers, And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking, Seem here no painful inch to gain,

Far back, through creeks and inlets making, Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light; In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly! But westward, look, the land is bright!"


MR. A. B. WARD: Gentlemen: there is no story that is closer to our hearts than the story of Great Britain and her people in her finest hour. Sir Norman has rightly interpreted our desires in bringing us the message that he has given us today. Perhaps, like the old lady that he mentioned, it has helped to take our minds off the war. How rarely are we privileged to hear from one who knows the people of Britain, not only in their hour of danger but from long acquaintance, and who is also so closely acquainted with their great leaders! We in Canada hope that Sir Norman will be able to go home and give an account of what he has seen in Canada and to inform those leaders that we here are strongly and surely by their side.

Sir Norman, you have done us a great honour today in being with us and bringing this inspiring message, and, on behalf of The Canadian Club and The Empire Club, jointly, it is my pleasure to extend to you our most grateful thanks. (Applause.)

MR. C. R. SANDERSON: The meeting is adjourned.

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The Secret of the Spirit of Britain

A joint meeting of The Empire Club of Canada and The Canadian Club.
Reference to the loss of the Empress of Britain, and the speaker's recent trip to Canada by air. The speaker coming from a country which has been at war for two years. The situation in Britain with regard to the war, its people, and their experience. The Emergency Powers Defence Act of Britain, and what it means. The scarce need for such compulsory powers. The response to war by the British people, and reasons for it. The British determination to preserve their way of life. The realization of Hitler's true intentions. The witnessing of the loss of individual rights through Hitler's actions. The secret of the "Spirit of Britain." Anecdotes and illustrations of that spirit. The realization by the British that all that they value in life is now at stake. Illustrative evidence of Britain's commitment to justice. An analysis of the word freedom and what it means. The special obligation and trust laid upon a lawyer in a free society. The reality of bombings and rations and other conditions of war. Canada's desire to help. A concluding poem.