Are there any great speeches any more? Or do we just have a rose-tinted view of history? To check out whether speech-making really is a lost art or if I am jaded, I’ve decided to look back at the best conservative speeches from the last century to the present day, in the order in which they were given.
The test of a memorable speech is simple. Does it have a poetry or power that echoes down through the decades? Does it have that one evocative line that once heard cannot be forgotten? For example Churchill’s ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’ or Thatcher’s ‘The Lady’s not for turning’.
Today very few politicians appear to have a way with words, let alone the capacity to deliver a great speech. Too few, perhaps, have read their Cicero to understand the rhetoric that a great speech requires. Perhaps modern politicians are simply passionless.
Tony Blair’s call for ‘Education, education, education’ went only skin deep. His emotion was but a veneer – an act – which is why this, his best-known speech, one of an ambitious young technocrat, has become less memorable by the year.
The only possible spark of a great speech we’ve seen from Labour in recent years came neither from Blair nor Brown. There was a moment when Hilary Benn stood up in Parliament to back airstrikes in Syria and spoke of the ‘the clear and present danger’ we face.
Sadly – for us all as well as Labour – his flame burned out as fast as it caught. He has not chosen to use the power of his words to defy his increasingly discreditable party.
Of living British politicians, only the MEP Dan Hannan has come close to great speech-making. Yet even with all the advantages of social media communication, his great European Parliament denunciations and declamations on behalf of Britain against the EU have not turned him into a household name.
A great speech reflects power of personality as well as command of technique. And it is a rare person indeed who has an instinctive understanding of the ethos and the pathos, in addition to the logic, that a great speech needs. It also a matter of responding to need or to circumstance, taking advantage of a moment in time and rising to the occasion, or in today’s parlance stepping up to the plate.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has and does all this in spades.
In a speech comprising only 272 words, Lincoln struck a chord that was to resonate not just with his audience of the time, but through time to this day.
America was in the midst of a raging civil war. Four months earlier Union troops had defeated Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in the war, with a death toll of 10,000. Lincoln’s stated intention was to dedicate a plot of land that would become the Soldiers’ National Cemetery to honour the fallen. But like Shakepeare’s Mark Antony – ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’ – he used it to another purpose. Lincoln had to inspire the people to continue the fight. So this is what he said to them on November 19, 1863:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
This is one of several similar recorded versions of his speech.
My pick tomorrow is one of Teddy Roosevelt’s two great speeches. Will it be the one he made right after an assassination attempt on him? Or his speech on citizenship in a republic? You will have to wait and see!