“When Parliament met in the afternoon [of September 2, 1939], a short but very fierce debate occurred, in which the Prime Minister’s temporizing statement was ill-received by the House. When Mr. Greenwood rose to speak on behalf of the Labour Opposition, Mr. Amery from the Conservative benches cried out to him, ‘Speak for England.’ This was received with loud cheers.”
—Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm
I’ve always been moved by this passage. Mostly because it describes a moving moment, and partly because I have some interest in Leo Amery, a fascinating figure in a time and place replete with fascinating figures.
Amery was a staunch Conservative and imperialist. He wasn’t some kind of RINO avant-la-lettre. (Not that there’d be anything wrong with that!) That’s what made his plea to the Labour Party Deputy Leader particularly notable.
(It’s also what made his famous denunciation from the Conservative back benches of his prime minister—a fellow Member from Birmingham, Neville Chamberlain—on May 7, 1940, even more notable. Amery quoted Cromwell to Chamberlain, saying “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”)
Amery’s point on September 2, 1939, in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, was that there are times when the Loyal Opposition needs to speak not just for the opposition, but for the country. There are times when country comes first, when a government of one’s own party has utterly failed and needs to be called to account on behalf of the nation as a whole.
This is such a time in America, in 2020.
So it would be fitting and proper for Joe Biden, the challenger to the incumbent president, to self-consciously, indeed explicitly, speak for the nation. This doesn’t mean distancing himself from his own party. It doesn’t mean repudiating or modifying any public policy positions he holds. It doesn’t mean indulging in a self-conscious “Sister Souljah moment,” which has primarily a connotation of clever political positioning.
It means condemning violence on all sides, appealing to the national unity and civic comity. And it means doing so clearly as a national, rather than a party, matter.
That might in fact be good for Biden politically.
But the reason Joe Biden should now speak for America isn’t political. It’s that America needs him to speak for all of us—for America.