On 19 November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln rose to speak at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the battlefield which four and a half months before had seen the decisive turning point of the American Civil War. Lincoln was not even the principal speaker at the ceremony to dedicate a cemetery for those who had fallen in the battle.
Political speeches are no longer written by the puppets who deliver them
Before he spoke, the President had to sit through a two-hour address by a pompous official orator, a windbag called Edward Everett. But when he finally got to his feet Lincoln entered political immortality. He spoke for only two minutes, but the few words he uttered about “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” have echoed down the years – even Mrs Thatcher made a recording of them – inspiring and rousing generations to value and defend democracy.
Winston Churchill’s iconic status as Britain’s greatest Prime Minister largely rests on the handful of radio speeches he growled out to the nation in the darkest days of World War Two: “ …fight them on the beaches … so much owed by so many to so few … this was their finest hour…” and so on.
Ever since Roman statesmen such as Cato and Cicero delivered their speeches on the Capitol, oratory like that spoken by Lincoln and Churchill has been a mainstay of western civilisation and governance. A carefully constructed argument or a few ringing phrases having the power to change minds, stiffen sinews, and bring down leaders.
Until the end of the twentieth century our chief arena for oratory was the chamber of the House of Commons
Churchill himself was brought to supreme political power in 1940 by the power of the spoken word. Those words were spoken by one politician – his friend and schoolmate Leo Amery – quoting another, when Amery repeated Oliver Cromwell’s words dismissing the Long Parliament in calling for the end of Neville Chamberlain’s feeble administration: “You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you: in the name of God, go!” Chamberlain, albeit reluctantly, went.
To British politicians, schooled in the Classics, oratory came naturally, and prime ministers like the Pitts, (pere et fils); Palmerston, and Gladstone were never afraid to lard their speeches with Latin tags and classical references, which is why Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone addressed her “like a public meeting”.
Political speeches, in and out of Westminster were reported at length in the newspapers, and careers and elections hung on them. In pre-TV times, when politicians usually only encountered the public in person at loud and raucous mass meetings, oratory was an essential skill to get a hearing, win over voters, repel hecklers, and garner headlines.
Speech making can be used for malign as well as inspiring ends, and there is little doubt that the theatrical oratory of a Hitler or Mussolini played a key role in their rise to power. (By contrast communist dictators like Castro and Chavez outdid even Edward Everett in the length and tedium of their speeches.)
Hitler – and his pale imitators like Britain’s fascist leader Oswald Mosley – set great store by tricks and trappings to enhance and reinforce the message coming from the speaker’s platform: massed flags, uniforms, amplified sounds, gesturing arms and martial music.
But in Britain, with its long traditions of parliamentary democracy, political continuity and – not least – its habits of humour and self-deprecating irony, the over inflated absurdity of fascist or communist rallies never went down as well as in continental Europe. Until the end of the twentieth century our chief arena for oratory was not Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park, but remained the chamber of the House of Commons where sparks from the fires of yesteryear could still sometimes flash and catch the imagination.
For example, Nigel Birch, a High Tory critic of MacMillan’s tired governmental policy of managed decline and slow surrender to socialism in the early 1960s, summed up his critique in a single pithy phrase lifted from the Victorian poet Robert Browning: “Never glad confident morning again”.
Mere words may have finally lost their power to move us
The last major exponents of traditional oratory in the House came from the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum: Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. Neither man confined their speeches to the Commons, though the contributions they both made to the debate following Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands in 1982 certainly stiffened Thatcher’s will to take back the islands. Earlier, in April 1968, Powell, a Classics Professor himself, invoked the Roman poet Virgil in his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech in Wolverhampton warning against mass immigration.
For good or ill, Powell’s oratory on that occasion kick started a national debate on the subject which continues to this day, and was probably the last speech delivered outside Westminster to have a significant effect on politics. As a Westminster obsessed schoolboy, I got my first practical lesson in politics when I witnessed a confrontation at the Houses of Parliament between middle-class idealist and a crowd of belligerent dockers demonstrating in support of Powell.
Mrs Thatcher herself was no orator, and her most memorable sound bite: “the lady’s not for turning” was written for her by her (unpaid) speech writer, the playwright Ronald Millar. Possibly the last notably effective resignation speech in the Commons was that delivered by her formerly loyal Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe that precipitated Thatcher’s downfall in November 1990.
Ironically, Howe, like Leo Amery, had a reputation as a sleep-inducing speaker and had once been derided for it by Denis Healey, who compared his narcoleptic style to being “savaged by a dead sheep”. The drama of the occasion briefly brought the dead sheep to life for long enough to verbally give the prime minister her fatal nip.
The decline of political oratory has many causes: the replacement of public meetings by the TV studio; increasingly cynical contempt for politicians and resistance to their rhetoric; and the death of classical education. Another contributing factor is that political speeches – even by warriors like Thatcher – are no longer written by the puppets who deliver them, but by teams of researchers informed by focus groups, and therefore lack the passion of a personal input.
In an age when we are battered and bedazzled by information overload, have the attention span of mayflies, and are more moved by images, mere words may have finally lost their power to move us.
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