21 Speeches That Shaped The World compiled by Chris Abbott, Rider Books, £14.99
Every good speech has at least one memorable image or phrase that echoes through time.
President Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration speech, a time of economic depression and despair, gave Americans “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
In December 1956, Aneurin Bevan stood up in the House of Commons and attacked the Conservative Government’s invasion of Suez so wittily that members from all sides of the House laughed loudly.
“When a nation makes war upon another nation, it should be quite clear why it does so. It should not keep changing the reasons as time goes by,” he said as a preliminary to outlining the changing reasons and then demolishing them.
In 2008, future US president Barack Obama challenged the idea that words don’t change anything, quoting from that speech by Roosevelt, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and the line from the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
A memorable speech has the power to change perceptions, warn people to danger and/or lift their spirits. Some, like Churchill’s backs-to-the-wall speech in 1940, alert and inspire. The 20 speeches set out in Chris Abbott’s book, made between 1913 and 2009, do all those things and more.
A writer and researcher specialising in international security and foreign affairs, he is also an honorary visiting research fellow in Bradford University’s Peace Studies department.
However, one of his purposes in compiling this selection – which includes Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech in 1968, George W Bush’s war on terror speech in 2001 and Osama bin Laden’s 2004 warning to the west – is to bring a sword to the debate, figuratively speaking, in his accompanying essays.
As he says in his introduction, “The chapters that follow… are deliberately polemical, designed to provoke critical thinking on key events from the last hundred years.”
An example of this can be found when Abbott writes about capital punishment, centring on the case of Napoleon Beazley, executed in Texas in 2002 for a murder committed eight years earlier when he was 17.
Beazley’s last dignified, regretful statement, made at Texas State Penitentiary is reinforced by Abbott’s declaration: “Supporters of the death penalty claim it has a deterrent as well as a punitive effect. But it is based solely on vengeance and only acts to perpetuate the very violence it condemns. In short, the death penalty does not bring about justice and rehabilitation, it simply creates more victims.”
This is a clever argument, turning the culprits into victims of criminal justice; but its moral basis is dubious. Capital punishment is meant to remove from outraged individuals, families, clans and tribes, the desire for blood vengeance or honour killing. Not taking the law into your own hands is part of the contract implicit in democratic governance, too often forgotten.
The book begins with suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s 15-page speech in 1913 about female emancipation and ends with President Barack Obama, addressing the Muslim world in Cairo just over a year ago.
Charismatic leaders or public figures have a vested interest in striking the right chord. But on occasion nothing is more eloquent and telling than that which comes from the heart of an ordinary person. I defy anyone to read the speech by Marie Fatayi-Williams, made four days after the 2005 London bombings in which her 26-year-old son Anthony was at first listed as missing, without at least a sharp intake of breath.
“He didn’t do anything to anybody, he loved everybody so much. If what I hear is true, even when he came out of the underground he was directing people to take buses, to be sure they were okay. Then he called his office at the same time to tell them he was running late. He was a multi-purpose person, trying to save people, trying to call his office, trying to meet his appointments. What did he then do to deserve this? Where is he, someone tell me, where is he?”