A bit of a divergence, but I hope an interesting one nonetheless. A discussion thread on the Washington Post website has just got me thinking. It all started because someone offered a list of their top ten American speeches of all time. The list was:
- Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream," 1963.
- JFK's Inaugural Address, 1961.
- Richard Nixon, "Checkers" 1962.
- Robert Kennedy's remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968.
- Truman, "The Truman Doctrine," 1947.
- Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet," 1964.
- Franklin Delano Rosevelt's First Inaugural Address, 1933.
- Franklin Delano Rosevelt's Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation, 1941.
- Woodrow Wilson, "War Message," 1917.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., "I've Been to the Mountaintop," 1968.
The list is actually hugely flawed (the exclusion of the Gettysburg address being the most obvious failing, whilst should Checkers really be up at three?). It occurred to me that it would be very hard to make a similar list for Britain (it is very hard to imagine a British version of this amazing website, for example). There are a number of reasons for this.
In part it is because our parliamentary system doesn't hold public oratory in such high regard as does the US's system of candidate / directly elected executive democracy. Nor do we have the large set-piece occasions (presidential inaugurations, party conventions and state of the union addresses) which allow oratory to florish. Party conferences are fairly mundane affairs which rarely catch the public's imagination, and parliamentary debates are just that - debates, not occasions for set-piece speech making. Perhaps as a result, rhetorical history doesn't have broad civic appeal, but tends, instead to be the preserve of a certain high-Toryish tendency. Additionally, whilst the vast majority of well remembered American speeches took place in the age of sound and visual recording, many great British speeches are lost in the mists of time, remembered (and often re-written) in fiction and folklore.
But I still reckon (perhaps foolishly!) that it is possible to construct a list based on British experience. Anyhow, I'm going to take a swing at it.
- Calgacus / Tacitus, speech to the Britons (85 AD).
- Winston Churchill, "We will fight them on the beaches..." (1940).
- Thomas Rainsborough, address to the Putney debates (1647).
- Queen Elizabeth I, "Heart and stomach of a king..." (1588)
- William Gladstone, first home rule bill (1886).
- David Lloyd-George, proposing the people's budget (1909).
- Oliver Cromwell, "for godsake go..." (1653).
- Geoffrey Howe, savaged by a dead sheep (1990).
- Earl Spencer, funeral oration for Princess Diana (1997).
- Harold MacMillan, "wind of change..." (1960).
This was actually a really hard exercise. Firstly, we have to ask what constitutes a British speech - is it based on who gave the speech, where they gave it, or its content? For example, does Engel's funeral oration for Marx at Highgate cemetery count as a British speech? Broadly, I have let the speeches in on three criteria - content, their historical impact, and the significance of the person giving them. Necessarily (and unlike many American examples) it is frequently going to be impossible to assess delivery, as the speeches were made centuries before they could be recorded in any way other than textually. Some other speeches that I considered also missed out. I didn't want to reward soundbites (so the "lady's not for turning" got binned - great one liner, but can anyone remember anything else in the speech?). Likewise, I tended not to go for debating speeches. Tony Blair's proposal of the Iraq war to House of Commons (2003) is by far the greatest piece of technical debating I have ever seen, but didn't really fit into a list of speeches. I also tried to limit fictional / mythical speeches. I felt completely justified in putting Tacitus at number one, because in my view it genuinely is the greatest ever British speech (even if it never was delivered...), but I deliberately omitted any Shakespeare.
The problem is that my list is not only hugely subjective but will also reveal a whole host of historical blindspots and omissions (I appreciate, for example, that my list is horribly anglo-centric). So I really want some help with this - either alternative top tens or just other suggestions for great speeches from Britain. Also, if you are from the US, what would be your top ten? Or indeed, if you are from anywhere else, throw in some suggestions for great oratory from your experience that has moved you or has historical significance.
A friend emailed me about this, so I wanted to clear it up to avoid any confusion. I put Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech at number 8 on the list. This was the famous occassion where he knifed Mrs. Thatcher and ended her leadership with his "captain breaking her own teams cricket bat" comment. I used the name "savaged by a dead sheep" for the speech. This is in fact a soundbite from an earlier speech by Labour's Dennis Healy, used to deride the debating prowess of Howe. Of course, this became hugely ironic when Howe gave his great speech and was often referred to in discussion of it.
OK, another email has just appeared, pointing out that Checkers was actually 1952, not 1962 - I'm afraid I blindly copied and pasted that one.