Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My Top 10 Political Speeches

Folllwing the success of my top 10 political books - well, four comments are better than none! - here's my list of the ten best political speeches I have heard during my lifetime. Unfortunately, I am too young to have heard either Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King in their prime.

1. Neil Kinnock, party conference speech, 1985. No surprises here. This was the speech that, in my view, defined modern politics, in that it set in train the process that eventually led to New Labour. But don't hold that against it - this was political passion at its best. No full text exists online sadly, but James Naughtie's Guardian report of the time has been re-created here while the key paragraph, about the far-fetched resolutions that were pickled into a code and ended in grotesque chaos, has a permanent home at the foot of the contents panel of this blog.

2. Robin Cook, resignation statement, 2003. This was the best Commons speech I heard in nine years as a Lobby Correspondent, and the hushed atmosphere in the Chamber as he delivered it - and the spontaneous applause when he finished - was something I will never forget. The statement, explaining his opposition to the Iraq war, has become all the more poignant in retrospect for being right, and in view of Cook's tragically early death. Full text here.

3. Geoffrey Howe, resignation statement, 1990. If Kinnock's speech was the most passionate, and Cook's the most prescient, Howe's was easily the most lethal. Denis Healey memorably said that being savaged by Sir Geoffrey was like being savaged by a dead sheep. I doubt if Margaret Thatcher sees it that way. Full text here - the only British political speech to get its own page on Wikipedia.

4. Roy Jenkins, Richard Dimbleby Lecture 1979. This was the speech that laid the ground not just for the SDP but arguably also New Labour in its appeal for an end to class-based politics and the "queasy rides on the ideological big dipper" that accompanied it. At the time, Jenkins looked like the likeliest successor to Thatcher as PM. No text, but more information by following the links from here.

5. William Hague, "annual report" debate, 2000. With the possible exception of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn's attempt to describe the homosexual act, this was the funniest speech I heard in my time at the Commons and deserved to inflict much greater damage on Tony Blair than it actually did. A fuller appreciation from the BBC's Nick Assinder can be read here.

6. Denis Healey, party conference debate, 1976. With the economy in a state of near-meltdown, Chancellor Healey dashed to the Labour Conference in Blackpool to defend his proposals for an IMF loan coupled with savage cuts in public spending. With the Labour left baying for blood - his - it took all the guts this great man possessed. More here.

7. Norman Lamont, resignation statement 1993. Unlike Healey, Lamont was not a great Chancellor, but he was very unfairly made to carry the can for the 1992 Black Wednesday debacle, which was really much more down to Prime Minister John Major's decision, when Chancellor, to enter the ERM at the wrong rate. Lamont had his revenge by memorably describing Major as "in office, but not in power." Full text here.

8. Tony Blair, post 9/11 conference speech, 2001. This speech was much derided, notably by Matthew Parris. "Tony Blair left the runway on a limited strike to remove one individual from a hillside in Afghanistan - and veered off on a neo-imperial mission to save the entire planet," he memorably wrote. True, but even for a cynic like me, it was impossible not to admire the passion and brilliance of his oratory. Full text here.

9. Margaret Thatcher, party conference speech, 1981. It's no great secret that I had very little time for Mrs Thatcher and spent most of my teenage/student years wishing she was no longer Prime Minister. But this was a wonderfully crafted speech capped by possibly the greatest sound-bite of the late-20th century - "U-turn if you want to - the Lady's not for turning." More here.

10. David Steel, Liberal assembly speech 1981. "I have the privelege of being the first Liberal leader in half a century to be able to say to you: go back to your constituencies and prepare for government," declared Steel. Okay, so history records that it turned out to be a false dawn for the fledgling Liberal-SDP Alliance, but there could be no doubting the power of the moment. More on Steel here.

Before anyone asks, I'm not going to compile a list of the ten worst speeches I've heard, because I've forgotten most of them. But if I did, it's a fair bet that IDS and his "quiet man turning up the volume" speech would be up there!

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Unknown said...

Have to agree with your number 1 choice. I've got the recording on my 'Great Political Speeches' CD and everytime I listen it sends a tingle down my spine.


MatGB said...

Kinnock's speech was played in part in a Radio 4 broadcast last night, wsn't listening, heard it start in the background and just switched on.

I was a kid, didn't hear it at the time, but whenever I hear it now it just sounds so right. Kinnick as a politician / policies not got much time for overall (some very good points; some), but as an orator, that was good.

I think it deserves a Wiki entry, may need to go do one at some point. Great roundup; those I'd heard, I agree with, those I haven't, I'll likely look into.

Bob Piper said...

Must disagree with your No.1 choice. It was the speech that defined New Labour... and for that it can never be forgiven. It's key passage was something along the lines of: You can have all the principles in the world... but without power, they count for absolutely nothing.

The flip side of that coin was: You can have all the power in the world... but without principles, it counts for nothing. The New Labour project people must have gone to bed at night dreaming of that.

For a far more passionate (but ultimately a failed plea) Kinnock speech, I am staggered you have not included this:

stalin's gran said...

Good stuff Paul, but what about Thatcher's valedictory speech in the Commons - " I AM enjoying this" - for a place? I'd have thought if you spent your youth wanting rids of her it might have stuck in your mind!

Paul Linford said...

Bob - if Kinnock had been making the point that principles without power are fairly useless, then I think he would merely have been stating a fact. But I don't think that was what his speech was really about. What he was really attacking was not the idea of having principles - he had plenty of his own, after all - but the style of gesture politics which had overtaken the left in the 1980s and which ultimately was a betrayal of the very people it purported to serve.

I experienced it first hand as a young local government reporter in Derbyshire covering the antics of David Bookbinder and co. They had their own far-fetched resolutions, eg pegging school meal prices at 30p irrespective of economic circumstances. That become pickled into a code, and ended in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council closing libraries and axeing free school music lessons with the result that the only children who could learn how to play instruments in Derbyshire were those who could pay to do it privately. That was the reality of what happened when politicians like Hatton, Bookbinder and Ted Knight put "principles" before serving ordinary working people.

Yes, the speech did prepare the ground for New Labour, and I can see why you would be uncomfortable with that, but Kinnock himself wasn't New Labour, and would in no sense have been a "New Labour" Prime Minister had he won in 1992.

As for Thatcher's valedictory speech, I would compare that to a dead rubber in a Test series. You wouldn't put one of those in a list of the greatest matches, because they aren't real cricket. Similarly, this wasn't real politics, because the outcome of the great drama of her downfall had already been determined by then.

skipper said...

Actually I would include somewhere there- though I hotly opposed the decision- Blair´s speech in favour of invading Iraq March 2003. Not sure where it would be placed though. Agree with most of Paul´s picks.

Whatever one says about the man(Blair, not Paul) it´s hard not allow he´s developed into a parliamentarian of the first rank and that speech reflected his ability to command the House like few others have ever managed. Gordon is merely workmanlike by comparison.

Paul Linford said...

It may have been a powerful parliamentary performance, but it was a complete confection of lies, Skipper! I would put it down as one of the most infamous speeches in recent political history, especially in view of the spin operation which surrounded it and the publication of the "45-minute claim."

skipper said...

Maybe a list of top most infamous speeches is waiting to follow? I wouldn't argue Blair's speech was misleading and probably deliberately so, but it was a good example of a powerfuilly persuasive parliamentary speech.

skipper said...

Paul suggests foreign speeches qualify but does not mention any. I didn't hear Khruschev either but how about his speech at the 20th Party conference in 1956? It bravely revealed all the torture, imprisonment and executions which took place under Stalin and shocked the hard left the world over. Suppose this effort was content over style as nowhere have I heard it said that the podgy Russian could equal the rhetoric of a Churchill or even a Kinnock.

Phil Gyford said...

Re the principles vs power issue... I haven't read or seen Kinnock's speech, but I'm guessing he was quoting or referencing Aneurin Bevan's speech of 29 November 1959, after Labour's election defeat, in which he said:

"What is the lesson for us? It is that we must enlarge and expand those personalities, so that they can become again conscious of limitation and constriction. The problem is one of education, not of surrender! This so-called affluent society is an ugly society still. It is a vulgar society. It is a meretricious society. It is a society in which priorities have gone all wrong. I once said -- and I do not want to quote myself too frequently -- that the language of priorities was the religion of Socialism, and there is nothing wrong with that statement either, but you can only get your priorities right if you have the power to put them right, and the argument, comrades, is about power in society. If we managed to get a majority in Great Britain by the clever exploitation of contemporary psychology, and we did not get the commanding heights of the economy in our power, then we did not get the priorities right. The argument is about power and only about power, because only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct..."

Robert said...

The problem is of course most of these rants or speeches are written by wise men, not normally the person who then gives that speech, Kinnock did not write his great speech, and thats the problem is it not, you do not see the person you see what a speech writer idea of what he should be.

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