I’ve always been interested in speeches and it always seems interesting how easy it is to pick out those that are naturally gifted orators with those who merely give it their best shot. Last night much if the U.K wS watching a parliamentary debate that was rounded off by the latest in a long line of great speeches.
I always hated doing any form of public speaking and to be honest I still do. That’s why I write and don’t talk! I remember what a struggle it was at university in the first term even to give 10 minute presentations. Always ill with worry a week beforehand, each minute would seem like an eternity and I wasn’t very good at it though also apparently not as bad I thought I might be.
By the time I did my Masters, doing presentations was a very regular occurrence and if I say so myself I got to be quite good at them. I could chat away for 90 minutes or more on the most obscure historical points with only 2 or 3 keywords of notes for mental help in a way that at least got my fellow students through their papers and without anyone falling asleep.
Of course being able to talk for 90 minutes doesn’t make you a great speaker though it might help. Whilst some of the attributes can be the same in that all speakers want to hold the interest of the audience and if possible entertain and educate them; making a great speech also involves different qualities that separate speeches from presentations, acting performances and recitals or simply being confident enough to be good with words and say something meaningful on the spur of the moment.
There have been countless great speeches from around the world. You can recognise a great speech by the fact that no matter when it was spoken, by whom and whatever the circumstances of the time, it still resonates with people today with timeless qualities. It’s not even necessary that you agree with what is being said. Hitler was a great speaker, it’s just that he spoke the most detestable speeches in history.
Great speakers will always tailor their speeches to their immediate audience but often to the wider world or to posterity at large.
1. John F. Kennedy, “The Decision to Go to the Moon”
May 25, 1961; Houston, TX
Historical Context: President Kennedy was the first 20thC born American President. He was a great speaker and inspired a generation to think that what was ahead of them was going to be better than what had just been. This speech was especially important because a few years earlier, the USSR had shocked the world to launch the first satellite but with this speech Kennedy started the space-race.
Speech Soundbite: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Why I Like it: He came out and set his goals that were met after his death. Too many politicians worm are unambitious and don’t want to take any risks or make big promises incase they fail. In this instance, Kennedy did the opposite and went out of his way to do so.
2. William Wilberforce, “Abolition Speech”
May 12, 1789; House of Commons, London
Historical Context: William Wilberforce was a man with a strong Christian faith who dedicated his career in politics to ending the slave trade. Though he had much support, due to various vested interests it took numerous efforts but in the end, thanks to him the slave trade was abolished throughout the empire and his ideals quickly spread around the world.
Speech Soundbite: When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House-a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: and when I think, at the same time, on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause-when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task. But when I reflect, however, on the encouragement which I have had, through the whole course of a long and laborious examination of this question, and how much candour I have experienced, and how conviction has increased within my own mind, in proportion as I have advanced in my labours; when I reflect, especially, that however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall all be of one opinion in the end;-when I turn myself to these thoughts, I take courage-I determine to forget all my other fears, and I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out, and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade.
Why I Like It: There had always been slavery. White owned white, blacks owned blacks and people of different colours owned each other. For a time the spread of Christianity through Europe meant that actual slavery was hard to justify but then the transatlantic slave trade appeared and it was the biggest business imaginable. Wilberforce turned the world totally on its head by abolishing slavery and changed history by doing so. Probably the biggest ever positive contribution to the world by a politician ever.
3.Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!”
March 23, 1775; Richmond, VA
Historical Context: Though there are no contemporary records of this speech, it is largely thought to have swayed opinion and convinced the legislators of Virginia to send troops in support of the colonists.
The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable — and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!” — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
Why I Like it: This speech has it all, biblical references. Life and death. Even from centuries down the line, you can tell the passion in the words.
4. Abraham Lincoln, “2nd Inaugural Address”
March 4, 1865; Washington, D.C.
Historical Context: President Lincoln gave this speech just a few weeks before the conclusion of the terrible civil war in America. It was a war that tore a country apart and which saw the end of slavery in the southern states.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Why I Like It: Given the constraints of the time, it is clear in this speech that Lincoln intended to be as lenient as possible to the states of the confederacy. He was all ready looking to heal the wounds and build a future without recriminations.
5. William Faulkner, “Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech”
December 10, 1950; Stockholm, Sweden
Historical Context: The Cold War was getting into full swing with suspicion, mistrust and a sense of impending doom when William Faulkner won his Nobel Prize.
Speech Soundbite: I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.
He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Why I like It: This speech touches on why the arts and literature are so important and that without them, no matter who wins the war, life would be pretty much pointless.
6. Socrates, “Apology”
399 B.C.; Athens
Historical Context: Socrates is one of the greatest thinkers of the western world and he would teach his students to question everything, even and perhaps particularly the legislature. This lead to his trial.
Speech Soundbite: Some one will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me.
Why I Like It: Not only does it show that you should question the world and be inquisitive but even knowing he was going to be sentenced to death, Socrates was unrepentent and attempted to flesh out his thoughts even more. An approach later used by Nelson Mandela at the trial of his incarceration.
7. Winston Churchill – “Blood, Sweat & Tears”
May 13, 1940; House of Commons, London
Historical Context: This was Churchills first speech as Prime Minister. Germany was victorious and marching across Europe and there was talk of reaching a settlement with Hitler. Churchill blew this argument out of the water.
Speech Soundbite: I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.
You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – Victory in spite of all terrors – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
Why I Like It: Churchill is possibly the greatest political orator in the English language and hard as it is to imagine, he was actually born with a speech defect. Here, as a new Prime Minister, he starts off as he means to continue.
8. Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”
April 23, 1910; Paris, France
Historical Context: Following the end of his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt left the USA so that his presence would not overshadow his successor. Whilst in Europe, he gave a number of political lectures. This was his most famous.
Speech Soundbite: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Why I like it: Even as a child I new extracts of this speech without ever knowing where it came from. The speech generally was about democracy whilst this extract particularly deals with citizenship. Really inspiring!
9. Mahatma Gandhi, “Quit India”
August 8, 1942; India
Historical Context: India had been under British colonial rule for a century and though there was a slow end-game of independence, it was intolerably distant for most Indians. With the fight for freedom raging around the world, Gandhi pioneered the idea of peaceful protest which inspired the country to go on to freedom and become the worlds largest democracy.
Speech Soundbite: I believe that in the history of the world, there has not been a more genuinely democratic struggle for freedom than ours. I read Carlyle’s French Resolution while I was in prison, and Pandit Jawaharlal has told me something about the Russian revolution. But it is my conviction that inasmuch as these struggles were fought with the weapon of violence they failed to realize the democratic ideal. In the democracy which I have envisaged, a democracy established by non-violence, there will be equal freedom for all. Everybody will be his own master. It is to join a struggle for such democracy that I invite you today. Once you realize this you will forget the differences between the Hindus and Muslims, and think of yourselves as Indians only, engaged in the common struggle for independence.
Why I Like It: Gandhi was a student of law and he knew that a violent uprising was either bound to fail or would at the very least create a hateful or authoritarian society. The idea of a peaceful revolution is revelatory. He appealed for people to put aside their differences and peacefully work for their freedom. You have to wonder that if downtrodden people the world over were brave enough to follow his ideals that they might make more progress than by fighting.
10. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”
August 28, 1963; Washington, D.C.
Historical Context: At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dr Martin Luther King addressed a crowd of quarter of a million people in Washington D.C. demanding the end to institutionalised racism in the country.
Speech Soundbite: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
Why I Like It: This speech happened ten years before I was born but I remember it from an early age. I hadn’t even seen anyone in the flesh who wasn’t the same colour as myself and the idea of being treated different just because someone was black sounded awful especially as there was no such tradition in my country. I didn’t know about Georgia or social problems but I did know that Martin Luther King Jr. had a great speaking voice and said some of the most interesting things I had ever heard. I asked my mother why he was only ever shown in black and white tv footage and she said that some bad people didn’t like him and one of them killed him. I was only 5 or 6 but I remember that well, it made me sad then maybe that’s because I was judging him not by his colour but by the content of his character and he would have been glad of that.
11. Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”
June 4, 1940; House of Commons, London
Historical Context: During the Battle of France, the allied forces became pushed back to the Dunkirk beaches. While only a few thousand could reasonably expect to be rescued, the RAF, navy and hundreds of small ships managed to rescue 338,000 British and Free French soldiers allowing the war to go on . Churchill turned what was a huge defeat into a rallying call.
Speech Soundbite: I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Why I Like it: For another 18 months, no matter what the odds, he and his people would single-handedly fight against fascism. It is easy to be inspired by these most fighting of words today, imagine the impact when invasion was imminent.
12. John F. Kennedy, “Inauguration Address”
January 20, 1961; Washington, D.C.
Historical Context:Kennedy was such an inspirational speaker. As Churchill was the perfect man for a time of war and defiance, Kennedy was certainly the right man to lead a generation in hope and aspiration. The first president born in the 20th Century, the expectations were that he would be different. His speech didn’t let anyone down.
Speech Soundbite: In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Why I Like It: I like this speech because the delivery was spot on but also because Kennedy takes the approach that we as individuals should work for ourselves and help our country and not expect to be given everything on a plate. Something lots of people in lots of countries these days tend to forget in the state dependency culture.
13. Ronald Reagan, “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate”
June 12, 1987; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Historical Context: It was clear that Communism was all but bankrupt, there was no doubt it would end but would it end peacefully or in a blaze of glory. Western leaders frequently flew in to West Berlin and here with stirrings of reform in the wind, Ronald Reagan rather than lecture bellicosely instead took a softer and friendlier line.
We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Why I Like It: I remember watching this speech on the news. The Berlin Wall was legendary and the thought that one day soon it might be all over was exciting and probably more unbelievable than any situation today. Perhaps not since the walls of Constantinople fell in 1453 had such a cataclysmic event happened in a single day.
14. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation”
December 8, 1941; Washington, D.C.
Historical Context: The day following the the surprise attack by Japan on the Unites States and so drawing in the USA into WW2. From that moment on Britain no longer stood alone and victory against the Axis Powers was fast tracked much quicker than the 10 years or so Churchill originally had hoped for.
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives: yesterday, December 7, 1941-a date which will live in infamy-the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…..
But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounding determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.
Why I like it:
15. Winston Churchill “Our Finest Hour”
June 18, 1940; House of Commons, London
What General Weygand 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 civilization. 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, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
Why I like it:
16. Sir Geoffrey Howe Resignation Speech
And it is here, I fear, that my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister increasingly risks leading herself and others astray in matters of substance as well as of style.
We commit a serious error if we think always in terms of “surrendering” sovereignty and seek to stand pat for all time on a given deal by proclaiming, as my Right Hon. Friend the Prime Minister did two weeks ago, that we have “surrendered enough”.
We must be positively involved in this debate and not fearfully and negatively detached. The costs of disengagement here could be very serious indeed.
I believe both the Chancellor and the Governor are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope that there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors.
It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.
The tragedy is – and it is for me personally, for my party, for our whole people and for my Right Honourable Friend herself, a very real tragedy – that the Prime Minister’s perceived attitude towards Europe is running serious risks for the future of our nation.
It risks minimising our influence and maximising our chances of being once again shut out.
We dare not let that happen again. The effects will be incalculable and very hard ever to correct.
In my letter of resignation, which I tendered with the utmost sadness and dismay, I said: “Cabinet Government is all about trying to persuade one anotherfrom within.”
That was my commitment to Government by persuasion. I have tried to do that as Foreign Secretary and since, but I realise now that the task has become futile: trying to stretch the meaning of words beyond what was credible, and trying to pretend there was a common policy when every step forward risked being subverted by some casual comment.
The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to my Right Hon. Friend the Prime Minister – and in two decades together that instinct of loyalty is still very real – and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great. I no longer believe it possible to resolve that conflict from within.
That is why I have resigned.
In doing so, I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country.
The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.
Why I like it: This speech perfectly typifies just how even a quiet person given a well considered argument can shake the world. After years of being a loyal servant to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher he proved that even if you have the loudest person continually berating someone more quiet, eventually they will have revenge. Within a week of this incredible speech the unthinkable had happened and Margaret Thatcher was forced from office after over 10 years in power.
17. President Obama “Remarks on Nelson Mandela”
First National Bank Stadium
Johannesburg, South Africa
1:31 P.M. SAST
Historical Context: The wonderful Nelson Mandela who had given hope and inspiration to so many had finally died. The one global politician of the day who came closest to his appeal and who in his own way has much in common with Mandela spoke the words that we were all thinking but in a way many of us could not hope to equal.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you. To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of states and government, past and present; distinguished guests — it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other. To the people of South Africa — (applause) — people of every race and walk of life — the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.
It is hard to eulogize any man — to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person — their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.
Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement — a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would — like Abraham Lincoln — hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations — a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.
Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it’s tempting I think to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. (Applause.) Instead, Madiba insisted on sharing with us his doubts and his fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection — because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried — that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood — a son and a husband, a father and a friend. And that’s why we learned so much from him, and that’s why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, and persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.
Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. And we know he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people,” he said.
But like other early giants of the ANC — the Sisulus and Tambos — Madiba disciplined his anger and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their God-given dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and [with] equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Applause.)
Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and his passion, but also because of his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depend upon his. (Applause.)
Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough. No matter how right, they must be chiseled into law and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of unconditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”
But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy, true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.
And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa — Ubuntu — (applause) — a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.
We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him, or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small — introducing his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration; taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS — that revealed the depth of his empathy and his understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu, he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.
It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well — (applause) — to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.
For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a President.
We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice — the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle. (Applause.) But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.
The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today. (Applause.)
And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. (Applause.) And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.
The questions we face today — how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war — these things do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that is true. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.
We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world — you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. (Applause.) He speaks to what’s best inside us.
After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
What a magnificent soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa
Why I like it: Nelson Mandela had a special connection with London and everyone growing up in the 1980s in London was well aware of his incarceration and the terrible policies of Apartheid. He was the only politician of global stature to truly capture the popular imagination of the world. I loved Nelson Mandela and I love Obama’s speeches even if I have reservations about other things 🙂
“This was where Michael Foot’s brilliant speech came into its own. His target was Sir Keith Joseph, the highly intelligent but rather dotty Trade and Industry Secretary, who once jumped into a taxi and shouted at the driver “Where am I going?” Foot claimed that Sir Keith, with his puzzled and forlorn manner, reminded him of a magician he used to see in his youth at a theatre in Plymouth. When he asked for an expensive watch, a plant in the audience would rise to his feet. The magician would relieve him of a marvellous gold watch, and proceed to smash it with a mallet.
“Then on his countenance,” Mr Foot explained with relish, “would come exactly the puzzled look of the Secretary of State for Industry. He would step to the front of the stage and say ‘I am very sorry. I have forgotten the rest of the trick.’ It does not work.” As Labour MPs roared with laughter at the obvious reference to the monetarist experiment, Mr Foot continued in mock-serious vein. “Lest any objector should suggest that the act at the Palace Theatre was only a trick, I should assure the House that the magician used to come along at the end and say ‘I am sorry, I have still forgotten the trick.’”
Why I like it: This speech typifies what many debates are like in the House of Commons and its unique ability to use humour so well to vilify opponents where in other nations less poetic abuse would be hurled.
18. Sir Tim Collins ” Eve of battle” speech
19th March, 2003. Kuwait.
Historical Context: As the Allied forces of the United States and United Kingdom prepare for the invasion of Iraq, British officer Sir Tim Collins gives one of the best eve of battle speeches of all time. A signed copy of which later was hung in the Oval Office of The Whitehouse.
We go to liberate, not to conquer.
We will not fly our flags in their country
We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own.
Show respect for them.
There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly.
Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send.
As for the others, I expect you to rock their world.
Wipe them out if that is what they choose.
But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.
Iraq is steeped in history.
It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.
Tread lightly there.
You will see things that no man could pay to see
— and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.
You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing.
Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country.
Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.
If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day.
Allow them dignity in death.
Bury them properly and mark their graves.
It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive.
But there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign.
We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back.
There will be no time for sorrow.
The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction.
There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam.
He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done.
As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.
It is a big step to take another human life.
It is not to be done lightly.
I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts.
I can assure you they live with the mark of Cain upon them.
If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family.
The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.
If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer.
You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest — for your deeds will follow you down through history.
We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.
As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there.
Our business now is north
Why I like it: This speech was given almost on the spur of the moment and is in the finest spirit of officers inspiring their men in the spirit of Shakespeare and Henry V and more recently Churchill. It also embodies the very British ideals of respecting the enemy and not being blindly patriotic or dismissive of others.
19. Hilary Benn “Do Our bit in Syria” speech
9.50pm, 2nd December 2015. House of Commons, London.
Historical Context: Tired of the burden of seemingly endless wars and with a country still smarting at being tricked into the Iraq WMD dossier. PM David Cameron having lost a similar debate several years ago now relied on votes from the opposition Labour Party to win through. Here Shadow Foreign Minister Hilary Benn gives pretty much the final address of an epic session in Parliament.
Thank you very much Mr Speaker. Before I respond to the debate, I would like to say this directly to the Prime Minister: Although my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition and I will walk into different division lobbies tonight, I am proud to speak from the same Despatch Box as him. My right honourable friend is not a terrorist sympathiser, he is an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today, which is simply to say ‘I am sorry’.
Now Mr Speaker, we have had an intense and impassioned debate and rightly so, given the clear and present threat from Daesh, the gravity of the decision that rests upon the shoulders and the conscience of every single one of us and the lives we hold in our hands tonight. And whatever we decision we reach, I hope we will treat one another with respect.
Now we have heard a number of outstanding speeches and sadly time will prevent me from acknowledging them all. But I would just like to single out the contributions both for and against the motion from my honourable and right honourable friends the members for Derby South, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Barnsley Central, Wakefield, Wolverhampton South East, Brent North, Liverpool, West Derby, Wirral West, Stoke-on-Trent North, Birmingham Ladywood and the honourable members for Reigate, South West Wiltshire, Tonbridge and Malling, Chichester and Wells.
The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the yoke, the cruel yoke, of Daesh? The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from them. It could have just as easily been London, or Glasgow, or Leeds or Birmingham and it could still be. And I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. And I am also clear, and I say this to my colleagues, that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met.
We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution 2249, paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Isil, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.
So the United Nations is asking us to do something. It is asking us to do something now. It is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq. And it was a Labour government that helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. And why did we do so? Because we wanted the nations of the world, working together, to deal with threats to international peace and security – and Daesh is unquestionably that.
So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter – because every state has the right to defend itself – why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region including from Iraq. We are part of a coalition of over 60 countries, standing together shoulder-to-shoulder to oppose their ideology and their brutality.
Now Mr Speaker, all of us understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. They are the best hope we have of achieving a cease-fire. That would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional government and elections. And why is that vital? Both because it will help in the defeat of Daesh, and because it would enable millions of Syrians, who have been forced to flee, to do what every refugee dreams of: they just want to be able to go home.
Now Mr Speaker, no-one in this debate doubts the deadly serious threat we face from Daesh and what they do, although sometimes we find it hard to live with the reality. We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded, and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. And we know that in recent weeks there has been the discovery of mass graves in Sinjar, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.
We know they have killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc. 130 people in Paris including those young people in the Bataclan whom Daesh – in trying to justify their bloody slaughter – called ‘apostates engaged in prostitution and vice’. If it had happened here, they could have been our children. And we know that they are plotting more attacks.
So the question for each of us – and for our national security – is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much – including Iraq and our ally, France.
Now, France wants us to stand with them and President Hollande – the leader of our sister socialist party – has asked for our assistance and help. And as we are undertaking airstrikes in Iraq where Daesh’s hold has been reduced and we are already doing everything but engage in airstrikes in Syria – should we not play our full part?
It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. The House will remember that, 14 months ago, people were saying: ‘they are almost at the gates of Baghdad’. And that is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat them. Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobani. Now of course, air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh – but they make a difference. Because they are giving them a hard time – and it is making it more difficult for them to expand their territory.
Now, I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh – who target innocent people.
Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there’s been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that. But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I’ll tell you what else we know, is whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number. And so to suggest, Mr Speaker, that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end is, I think, to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others, and I think misunderstands the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes that is being proposed. And of course we should take action. It is not a contradiction between the two to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money and fighters and weapons, and of course we should give humanitarian aid, and of course we should offer shelter to more refugees including in this country and yes we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.
Now I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we have heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now. And it is also clear that many members have wrestled, and who knows, in the time that is left, may still be wrestling, with what the right thing to do is. But I say the threat is now, and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces. Now we heard very powerful testimony from the honorable member for Eddisbury earlier when she quoted that passage, and I just want to read what Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government high representative in London, said last week and I quote: ‘Last June, Daesh captured one third of Iraq over night and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan region. Swift airstrikes by Britain, America and France, and the actions of our own Peshmerga, saved us. We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We’ve pushed them back, and recently captured Sinjar. Again, Western airstrikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary.’ And that is the argument Mr Speaker, for treating the two countries as one, if we are serious about defeating Daesh.
Now Mr Speaker, I hope the house will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road.
And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.
Why I like it: Our politicians are often looked down on, sometimes rightfully so but usually when something important is happening, somehow they pull things together. I like this speech because it is probably the first really good Labour Party Speech in the Commons since Tony Blair.
He both defends his leader for voting against going to war and attacking the Prime Minister for some foolish comments. He then proceeds to illustrate how bad the terrorists are before stressing the important role his party had in both standing up to threats and creating the international framework to deal with threats in the future. Finally he demonstrates just how the terrorists would in now way shape or form agonise over doing to us in the way we do to them.
His resounding evocation of our solely standing up to Nazi German and his perfectly nuanced speech earned him a standing ovation around the chamber and seconds later he was congratulated by his political opponent, the Foreign Secretary.
Jesus Christ, “The Sermon on the Mount”
33 A.D.; Jerusalem
Historical Context: This sermon on the mount is one of the first of the public teachings of Jesus and also one of the longest.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after
righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the
children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake:
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Why I Like It: Many religious leaders from Moses to Muhammad gave both inspirational and thoughtful teachings. However this sermon probably did the most to change the world forever and gives hope to the poor, gentle and downtrodden. It’s probably the single speech that has had the biggest and longest lasting impact on the world and whether you believe in Jesus, some other prophet or none at all, it’s hard to argue with the ideas behind the words.