Blair’s former speechwriter Philip Collins considers the greatest hits and why
they matter, with orators from Elizabeth I to Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama
In Philip Collins’s new book, 25 great speeches through history are given around 10 pages or so each. They include a potted biography of the speaker, a sketch of the historical moment, and a discussion in accessible but not simplistic terms of what the speech is doing and how it works. It deserves to find a home in many places, in the library of anyone interested in oratory or political theory, and on many student’s reading lists.
As far as the choices go, it’s a parade of greatest hits: Pericles’s funeral oration; Cicero’s first philippic against Antony; Jefferson’s first inaugural address; Lincoln’s snappy sally at Gettysburg; JFK’s “ask not”; Churchill’s “finest hour”; Elizabeth I at Tilbury; Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate; Mandela in court; and Nehru round midnight in Delhi. Collins throws in the odd baddie – Hitler, Castro, Robespierre and Mao – and the odd semi-baddie (Dolores Ibárruri, the communist firebrand better known as La Pasionaria, is ticked off for her lifelong Stalinism but admitted to have been on the right side in the Spanish civil war). And he chooses – unexpectedly and interestingly – Obama’s second-term victory speech over the more usual anthology candidates. But for the most part it’s a middle-of-the-road list.
Among other things, using such well known examples means that all the speeches he’s talking about can be found online in transcript and (except for the obvious exceptions) audio or video form, too. That’s helpful: in the first place, a speech lives in its delivery; and in the second, more practically, the reader can look at the whole thing. It’s always difficult to analyse a speech on the page because – with the merciful and rare exception of the Gettysburg address – most political speeches run to several thousand words and some run to tens of thousands (Collins mentions that Castro smuggled the text of his four-and-a-half-hour trial speech in Santiago de Cuba out of his cell in matchboxes: “A lot of matchboxes, presumably.”)
A downside of choosing the most famous ones, though, is that in looking at these speeches it can be tricky to find something new to say. Collins, an attentive reader, deft in spotting allusions and near-quotations and in each case knowledgeable about the political context, just about manages to keep it fresh. Also, before he was a journalist he was a speechwriter for Tony Blair, so he brings to his analyses a deep knowledge of the pragmatics of speech-making.
He talks shrewdly about structure, and spots where the tricky transitions get fudged or finessed with an abstraction or a gag. He remarks wryly that if we’re going to pick nits, JFK’s “Ask not … ” is “the conclusion to a different speech [but] a brilliant conclusion nonetheless” (the whole speech had been about foreign policy, an area in which the average citizen can’t do much for his or her country). And he attends to how speeches are delivered. Of Obama, on whom he has a serious crush, he marvels: “Read a speech by Dr King out for yourself and you can electrify the air. It’s not as easy to do with a text by Obama. You can’t say it like he does.”
Collins is interested, too, in the drafting process – for instance how the Reagan line was, variously, “bring down this wall”, “take down this wall”, “take down that wall”, “machen sie dieses tor auf”, and “one day this ugly wall will disappear” before it was “tear down this wall”. Or how Mrs Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech was, at one point, going to blether on about “how European cuisine apparently spurred British cooks to higher endeavours”.
A good reader of tone, marking Wilberforce’s calculated pragmatism and Nehru’s “sober tranquillity”, Collins is dry in his humour, attentive to minutiae and marshals his considerable learning well. Also, he’s winningly enthusiastic about the material he likes. He concludes the section on Churchill with the words (a slightly groan-making callback to an anecdote about the great man accidentally igniting himself with a cigar): “You are on fire, sir.” And to the peroration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream”, he simply says: “Goodness and heavens above but that is good.” No argument there. Collins’s honours both halves of his subtitle, showing the power of, and need for, speeches: this is more than just a collection of essays on the five-star speeches in the political canon. It is, through them, an impassioned and forensic argument about the centrality of oratory to liberal democracy, and the superiority of liberal democracy to all other forms of government. Collins is a Ciceronian. He believes, with the Roman, that rhetorical skill and political virtue are, or should, be boon companions. Pericles, as he sees it, first gave voice to the basic democratic principle in his funeral oration in 431BC – and a line continues that leads directly from Pericles to, in Collins’s epilogue, Michelle Obama. “Barack Obama may be the best male speaker in living memory,” Collins writes, “and the second-best speaker in his own family.” He picks out how commonplaces descend through that line, and makes the case that a single slate of values – pluralism, individual liberty and (more controversially) market capitalism among them – are all part of the package.
To this end he arranges his sort-of-anthology as an argument. It comes in five main sections, each of them using several examples to address one aspect of oratory’s role in society. First he explores the idea of democracy itself (politics as a means of giving the people a voice), then the idea of war (in every wartime speech, he argues, the theme is not victory but the way in which victory will remake the polity for the better). He then moves on to ideas of nationhood (nations, he argues, are spoken into being), progress (how politics is the means for the betterment of the populace or the inclusion of out-groups) and finally revolution (a cautionary counterpart to the first section – arguing that an impatience with the untidy gradualism of democracy is always the route to tyranny). In this way, Collins makes his chosen speeches speak to each other. He is assembling a Great Tradition.
His sallies against the utopian fantasies of populism – which he casts as liberal democracy’s fraudulent shadow self – are, of course, pretty pointed at the time of publication. The jabs at the messianic strand in Trumpism and what he regards as the ideological purity fetish of Corbynism are seldom explicit, but they are there. Camus – whom he quotes nearly a dozen times – is a touchstone. And one of the most telling of his apothegms is to the effect that the greatest virtue of democratic politics is a negative one: “It is more valuable for what it prevents than for what it achieves.”
Collins is an unashamed liberal centrist for whom process is all. It’s the project of his book to argue that “disillusionment with conventional politics” is at best a callow, and at worst a dangerous, form of cynicism. Having recruited everyone from Pericles onwards for his debating team, he more than makes his case.
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