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The phrase sunlit uplands denotes an idealised or longed-for future time of happiness, prosperity, good fortune, etc.
Popularised by a speech made by Winston Churchill on 18th June 1940, this phrase has recently been associated with the bright future that Brexit was supposed to usher in.
EARLY OCCURRENCES OF SUNLIT UPLANDS
In the text containing the earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found, sunlit uplands denotes a position of superiority. This text is To the Jew first, published in The Friend of Israel (Glasgow: Thomas Murray and Son) of February 1857—in the following, the author appeals to “the feeling of veneration with which we cannot but regard the ancestry of Israel”:
What a series of great men shone in the lustre of mighty deeds all along the line of that history! What a pastoral staff was that of the great patriarchs! What a rod was Amram’s son’s! What a voice was his who bade the sun stand still! What a sword was Gideon’s! What an arm the ‘strong Danite’s’! What a harp did David strike—on what a throne of magnificence did his successor sit! What reformers were Hezekiah and Josiah! What an incorruptible statesman was Daniel! What a disinterested patriot the cup-bearer of Artaxerxes! What a hero Paul! What titles some of these ancients wore—Abraham the friend of God—Moses the servant faithful in all his house—David the man after God’s own heart—Daniel the man greatly beloved—Nathanael the Israelite, in whom was no guile! In a word, we find in the nation as a whole, the people chosen of God to preserve his name and worship throughout many generations, moving on the sunlit uplands, while the world sat in shadow beneath.
The phrase sunlit uplands denotes a position of safety in the following passage from Charlotte’s Inheritance, by the British novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), published in Belgravia: A London Magazine (London, England) of December 1868:
He had almost lost her. All was said in that. She had been almost taken from him—she, who to this man was father, mother, wife, household, past, present, future, glory, ambition, happiness, everything except that God who ruled above and held her life and his peace in the hollow of His hand. He had been face to face with death […].
The darksome valley was past, and Valentine stood by his darling’s side, safe upon the sunlit uplands.
The doctors had declared their patient safe. The hour of danger had been passed in safety.
The earliest occurrences that I have found of the phrase sunlit uplands used in the sense of an idealised or longed-for future time of happiness, prosperity, good fortune, etc. are as follows:
1-: From Anastasia, published in By the Atlantic: Later Poems (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1892), by Ira Damon Van Duzee:
She travelled with him, all his days, and when
The dewy nights came down, and mantled him,
And led him in the land of dreams, she was
With him, a voiceless angel lighting all
His steps, and guiding him all days and nights
Into the sunlit uplands, where men find
Their highest dignities, and sweetest rest.
2-: From Black Rock: a tale of the Selkirks (New York, Chicago, Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899), by Ralph Connor, pen name of the Canadian novelist Charles William Gordon (1860-1937):
A man, to see far, must climb to some height, and I was too much upon the plain in those days to catch even a glimpse of distant sunlit uplands of triumphant achievement that lie beyond the valley of self-sacrifice.
SUNLIT UPLANDS IN WINSTON CHURCHILL’S SPEECH
The phrase sunlit uplands was popularised by the speech that the British statesman Winston Churchill (1874-1965) delivered as Prime Minister to the House of Commons on Tuesday 18th June 1940—speech in which he mentioned in particular the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops from Dunkirk (cf. meaning and origin of the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’):
What General Weygand 1 called the “Battle of France” is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
1 Maxime Weygand (1867-1965) was the commander-in-chief of the Allied armies in France.
SUNLIT UPLANDS ASSOCIATED WITH BREXIT
With reference to Winston Churchill’s speech, the phrase sunlit uplands has recently been associated with the bright future that Brexit was—and still is—supposed to usher in.
For example, the following is from a speech made by the British politician Andrea Leadsom (born 1963), who was then candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, as transcribed in The Spectator (London, England) of Monday 4th July 2016—Andrea Leadsom was referring to the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum of Thursday 23rd June 2016:
The decision we took on the 23rd June was a great moment in history. Not just a historic opportunity for our country but for Europe as a whole. Perhaps the biggest moment since the Berlin Wall came down. We are not leaving any of our historic ties with our European friends, We are choosing freedom away from the stifling EU institutions. […]
[…] I want to make an appeal to the country. Our democracy is the oldest in the world. We are the mother of all parliaments. We have led the world in human rights. Let’s show the world that we can disagree. We can disagree strongly, but let’s also show them that we treat each other with respect. I believe this nation can become the greatest on earth. Our future is not written until we, the people, write it. As your prime minister my ambition will be to guide our country to the sunlit uplands—a future for our children and grandchildren of aspiration, tolerance and hope.
The SNP (Scottish National Party) politician Pete Wishart (born 1962), Member of Parliament for Perth and North Perthshire, sarcastically used the phrase sunlit uplands during a debate that took place in the House of Commons on Thursday 10th February 2022—the Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg (born 1969) had just been appointed Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Boris Johnson:
Pete Wishart: It is also right that we pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). How we will all miss his affectatious patronisation. At least one good thing has come out of the oxymoron of his new job: one person has been gainfully employed by the Government’s disastrous Brexit.
Mr Speaker: Order. Hopefully we might get on to the business. This is very funny, but come on.
Pete Wishart: Can we have a debate about the lorry park that is now the county of Kent 2? I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is walking up and down the queue saying, “Hark! The sunlit uplands are just around the corner.”
2 Long queues of lorries outside Dover, in Kent, have been caused by increased customs checks brought in after Brexit.