As you stand at the lectern prepared to give your well-rehearsed speech or keynote address, remember this is your moment. The audience is there for you to entertain, engage and inspire. Emphasising just how powerful speech can be, here are some of the most inspirational speeches delivered by an array of politicians from the lectern in the House of Commons.
Sir Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 4 June 1940
Among the thousands of stirring speeches that Churchill made during his time in politics, this is probably the best-known and most often quoted (or misquoted). It’s part of a speech that Churchill made following the Dunkirk evacuation just weeks after becoming prime minister.
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans… 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…”
It was, in effect, an exultation to the nation to pick itself up and start the struggle all over again, despite the setback at Dunkirk – and the impending defeat of France. The great man would strut around the room smoking a cigar, composing his oratorical tours de force – and this speech steeled the nation’s resolve at a vital time in our history when some members of the Cabinet wanted to open negotiations with the Axis powers. Any such deal would have been disastrous for Europe and would have meant the annihilation of the remaining Jews on the Continent. It’s also a speech that speaks to all of us who have had bitter disappointments in life.
Sir Geoffrey Howe, House of Commons, 13 November 1990
Geoffrey Howe was certainly not one of politics great orators. Denis Healey once famously declared that being attacked by Howe was ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’ – but in 1990, the Conservative MP delivered a stinging rebuke to the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that precipitated her downfall. Standing up in the House, he criticised her for undermining her colleagues’ efforts in Europe, describing her actions as…
“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 by the team captain.”
He went on to say that he realised that any attempt as foreign secretary to get her to change her mind was ‘futile’ and that he had resigned in the belief that doing so was ‘right for my party and my country’. It was the beginning of the end for Thatcher and is a reminder that speeches can change the course of history. It appealed to the British public because of the image it portrayed – a quintessentially British reference to a national sport.
Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference, 10 October 1980
Like her or loathe her, there is no doubt that Margaret Thatcher defined a generation and set policies in place that have had ramifications ever since. In this speech, she uttered the words that defined her as Prime Minister.
“If our people feel that they are part of a great nation and they are prepared to will the means to keep it great, a great nation we shall be and shall remain. So, what can stop us from achieving this? What then stands in our way? The prospect of another winter of discontent? I suppose it might.
“But I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learnt from experience, that we are coming, slowly, painfully, to an autumn of understanding. And I hope that it will be followed by a winter of common sense. If it is not, we shall not be—diverted from our course.
“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”