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Are there are any great speeches any more?

Posted on 17 January 2011 | 4:01pm

I’ve just been asked to do Newsnight tonight to take part in a discussion about great speeches. The peg is Martin Luther King Day. The great human rights leader has been trending on twitter all day as people recall his achievements and some of his great lines and speeches.

At one point it seemed they were going to have Luther King’s speechwriter, Clarence Jones, who alas is now unable to do it, so it will be with another as yet unidentified speechwriter and Tom Hooper, the director of the runaway hit and near certain Oscar winner The King’s Speech.

I have my own views about the question, which I will air tonight, but meanwhile please feel free to make suggestions on what you consider to be the great speeches of this century and last.

  • Maewyn

    Ricky Gervaise at the Golden Globes?

  • Keith Warren

    Obama on race during the election campaign. Obama on Tucson. Obama on yes we can the night he won. I’m struggling now …

  • Philip Moore

    I was lucky enough to be in Manchester for Tony Blair’s farewell speech as leader. It was truly inspiring but probably more aimed at activists than the country. I liked his Diana response but does that count as a speech?

  • Surely Obama’s acceptance speech has got to be up there when it comes to ‘this century’.

    I’d like to say Robin Cook’s resignation speech (although I suspect you may disagree!), but I’m not sure whether that’s for the quality of the speech itself, or due to the extraordinary reaction, and the way it captured the mood of a great many people at the time…

  • Trudi Corrigan

    Clinton was a great speaker but the tragedy is the most video-played statement he ever made was about his non sexual relations with ‘that woman’. Tragic but true. He was a top speaker. Almost in Kennedy League.

  • Surely Obama’s acceptance speech has got to be up there when it comes to ‘this century’.

    I’d like to say Robin Cook’s resignation speech (although I suspect you may disagree!), but I’m not sure whether that’s for the quality of the speech itself, or due to the extraordinary reaction, and the way it captured the mood of a great many people at the time…

  • Christian Valdez

    I was at the Methodist Hall when Gordon Brown made a truly wonderful speech about values and politics. But these days we see so much of our politicians speaking it is hard for them to stand out. Obama is good but even he comes over as just words most of the time. MLK was fantastic

  • Paul Keating’s ‘Redfern’ speech: – gave voice to national sins & outlined paths to reconciliation.

  • Paul Keating’s ‘Redfern’ speech: – gave voice to national sins & outlined paths to reconciliation.

  • Martin Ballantine

    Sir Ken Robinson’s TED speech re. education is warm, witty and hard-hitting:

  • Stevenm7

    JFK’s inauguration speech sticks out, its still very influential. I saw a short speech at the Department of culture media and sport given by Cameron that basically ripped off JFK’s speech.

  • The sound-bite killed the speech.

    The need to cut and edit the key passage for the hourly news bulletins is probably to blame as speechwriters have adapted to the new technology.

  • mrs mullarkey

    I can’t think of any specific speeches but Neil Kinnock had a wonderful gift of rhetoric, Gordon Brown, (the reason that I continued to vote for the Labour Party when it disguised itself as New Labour), and the unforgettable Barbara Castle. They spoke from the heart with passion and conviction. These days our politicians can only be observed in edited sound-bites and we seldom have the chance to connect with their hopes and dreams and ideals. Maybe it’s not the lack of great speeches that is the problem, maybe it is the fact that we put our faith in the editorial judgement of those who control our media.

  • Matthewdunn1974

    President Nixon’s resignation speech was good as were all of President Kennedy’s speeches during the cuban missile crisis

  • Dawna Lee

    Great speeches still exist – but what made MLK speech so memorabe was the pasion- the pain – in the delivery. There are speech writers aplenty but what’s needed is real, true, life behind the words.
    Note – Michelle Obamas speeches – ‘ 2008 DNC Keynote Address, – ‘Be not afraid’ speech or her various speeches delivered to students e.g Academies at Anacostia – Oh – and Gordon Browns farewell on the steps of No 10! simple but effective.

  • I think the correct question is: Are there any great speech writers anymore? A question made ever more relevant with the tragic passing of Ted Sorensen last year. Speechwriting has been taken from the art of grand rhetoric and oratory to the art of getting all the information out mixed with enough sound bites to appease a hungry press with a short attention span and an even shorter caption space. How often today are speeches published in their entirety? The world of Speechwriting now belongs to the Favreau’s and not the Soresen’s. For my money, Aaron Sorkin has written most of the greatest speeches of recent times.
    That said, some examples of really good speeches: Tony Blair’s Speech to the Chicago Economic Club in 1999, Ted Kennedy’s final speech to the DNC and Gordon Browns Speech to African Leaders in Kampala in 2010: the last is especially good, ringing with the economic authority of Adam Smith and the humanitarian passion of presbyterian preacher…if that Brown had shown up to the election, with that speech, I honestly (and perhaps naively) think we would have a labour government.

  • Steve Howell

    Obama’s speech in Philadelphia (March 18 2008) trumped all his others on the campaign and since because, firstly, he was under intense pressure over Rev Wright; secondly, it was not only great oratory but also very analytical, and thirdly, it was on a subject (race) that was ironically the most difficult for him if he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the ‘black’ candidate. I have never heard anything better on the race issue in the US in recent times.

    The bravest and best passage for me was:

    “And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

    I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

  • Ukzjwri

    The key ingredient is one that is outside of the orator’s control and that’s the “moment”. Churchill, Kennedy, MLK, Gandhi all had defining moments in history on their side. They were able to capture and enhance the moment through their oratory of course.

  • I have to go for Gordon Brown’s speech Labour Party conf. Manchester 2010
    A great speech full of magnaminity delivered with great dignity whatever anyone’s politics are.

  • There are so many World acclaimed & leading speeches that I could have chosen.I will leave those to others.
    I have chosen Gordon Brown’s speech at Labour Party 2010 Conference Manchester.
    It was a speech full of magnanimity delivered with gravitas whatever anyone’s politics are.

  • Elison K

    Arggh…great speeches? Martin Luther King on the first day of the bus boycott in Montgomery in the 50’s; Martin Luther King I have a dream…Martin Luther King I ‘ve been to the Mountain Top..the last speech he gave when he ended with the words “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you..And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”..the next day he was dead. Or the great King Lines “On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” King as a speaker, preacher and crusader is almost unchallenged. Stabbed once, arrested over 16 times, home bombed over three times, hotel room bombed in Birmingham Alabama and finally shot dead..the missonary and the martyr.

    There was Nelson Mandela’s speech in court-An ideal for which I am prepared to die..Barrack Obama after losing the New Hampshire primary..the yes we can speech; Michelle Obama the Democratic National Convention; Bill CLinton at the same convention on the ability to work a crowd; Tony Blair in Sedefield saying goodbye; Gordon Brown last speech to the Labour Party at 2010 Conference; Neil Kinnock the speech where he said “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.”

    David Cameroon looks like he is about to deliver such a speech…Robin Cooks resignation speech..priceless (u may not like that one..)…and George Galloways performance before the US Senate Committee (another one u may not like)…

  • Mattgallagher

    I would point to Obama’s speech last week at Tucson, following the shooting of Gabby Giffords. A master craftsman at work. Catch it on YouTube.

  • Mabozza Ritchie

    Having already cited Team of Rivals as your favourite political book, I would be surprised if you don’t cite Abrahan Lincoln as a great (the best?) speech-writer. Lincoln was consistently brilliant as a communicator. While his Gettysburg Address is his most famous (it is truly a work of genius), it is by no means his only brilliant speach.

  • Steve Cooke

    You know what they say…Talk is cheap. I’d rather people make less speeches and do more. I have 2 ears, 2 eyes and 1 mouth and I intend use them proportionately – not my words. But perfectly sensible.

  • Anonymous

    It’s slightly parochial, I suppose, but Michael Foot’s speech at the outbreak of the Falklands war was described by Tony Benn as the strongest and best speech of his life, and I do remember it as particularly stirring.

  • Steve Brundish

    Martin Luther King’s I have a dream for me stands out as a speech that reads almost as good as it sounds. Most speeches tend to have dips and a few memorable parts but the whole of this speech is just electrifying.
    Kennedy’s ask not what your country can do for you is a very powerful setting the tone for his administration As did FDR’s The only thing we have to fear is fear itself
    Again a speech perfect for the time with America battling the effects of the depression. Churchill’s we will fight them on the beaches speech for me is the most important not just historically but for the effect it had on our country. But as the memorable part is at the end it does not have the overall theatrical effect of Martin Luther Kings.

  • Robert

    For a Labour politician: TB’s announcement that we’d be getting a new party constitution.

    But that comes way way behind MLK and Obama, esp the Rev Wright speech that doubtless rescued his presidential bid.

  • Charlie throup

    ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ – 4 June 1940 by Sir Winston Churchill; a true gentleman, a true leader.

  • Percepied

    Reagan ‘The boys of Point du Hoc’

  • In addition to all of those who have mentioned Martin Luther King & Obama’s inauguration and his one last week, which I totally agree with, I’d like to suggest two, and one I suspect you might have had a hand in.

    If the mark of a good speech, or in these rolling media times soundbytes, are about capturing and inspiring an audience, or nation i’d like to suggest Tony’s Blair’s ‘People’s Princess’ comments and then shortly after Earl Spencer’s ‘they have blood on their hands’ speech at Diana’s funeral.

  • Gilliebc

    I was naive enough to think that MLK’s speech were his own words! I didn’t realize they employed speech writers back in those days. I guess JFK’s great speeches were all written for him too?
    How about Winston Churchill, (that war-mongering old turncoat as my late father used to refer to him as) anyone know (or care) if he wrote his own “material”? This all seems a bit weird to me, because if the speech writers are that good, why aren’t they in the political front-line and if are so-called elected representatives can’t even write their own speeches, then why should we take any notice of them at all? Surely some of them write their own speeches or at least have some input into what they’re spouting at us?

  • This is an excellent collection of 20th-century speeches (The Guardian):

    Those by FDR, JFK, and Mandela are particular favourites. Woolf’s (Shakespeare’s Sister) is superb.

    I also wonder whether you could include the Sermon on the Mount? It’s beautifully constructed, and you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate it.

    And then there’s Obama . . . If you’ve never read it, read his 2004 address to the Democratic Convention. I cannot think of a more impressive speaker I’ve seen in the last 10 years.

  • Andy

    Two stick out in my mind – Obama’s victory speech (sends a chill down my spine when I hear it – “Yes we can”) and Gordon Brown at Citizen’s UK in 2010.

  • Nicky

    Gordon Brown made a fine speech to Congress back in the spring of 2009, where he had several standing ovations. This was in glaring contrast to the malign reception it received in his own country, given that the Brown hate-fest was so entrenched in the press and in parts of the online community.

  • Nicky

    Many people remember Mrs Thatcher’s ‘the lady’s not for turning’ speech. The speechwriter, Ronald Millar, was punning on the title of the play ‘The Lady’s Not for Burning’ – although (according to Wikipedia, anyway) Mrs T herself had never heard of the play, and had to have the pun explained to her. Millar himself came from a theatre background and assumed that most people had heard of ‘The Lady’s Not for Burning’. Perhaps he worried that maybe he was being too obscure and his clever line would fall flat. He needn’t have worried – such was the obsequiousness that greeted everything la Thatch said or did that it went down a storm, both at the Tory conference and in the press. Whether the pun was understood or not didn’t seem to matter.

    I don’t know whether Mrs T was irritated when Millar explained that the ‘the lady’ of the play’s title was a witch trying to avoid getting burnt at the stake.

  • Viviane King

    Agree with that. Amazingly it’s a very short speech. The clever thing is how all the words are made to work – nothing superfluous.

  • Viviane King

    Looks as though the Australian contingent are big Keating supporters. Another of his great speeches was the 1993 Rememberance Day Unknown Soldier funeral service. Check it out at

  • Nicky

    Cameron and Clegg also made speeches at the same event (Citizens’ UK). They did their usual platitude-filled phoney sincerity spiels. They didn’t impress. However, GB electrified his audience. It was said at the time that it was a great shame GB hadn’t showed his true mettle more during the run up to the election. However, with Ashcroft and the press fanatically pushing for Cameron to be PM, and the Guardianista tendency pushing for Clegg, Brown was fighting a losing battle through no fault of his own.

  • Ehtch

    Recently, wotshisname, the member of Rhondda, did a good speech on the recent News of the World “whose listening” in the Commons, and I remember Glenda Jackson give a superb hammering to the ConDems about the same time – on what I can’t actually remember exactly, but it was so sharp.

    But other obviuoses are Aneirin, with his self-cured stutter – he used to put a small stone pebble in his mouth to remove his stutter you know, and of course David Lloyd-George in the House of Lords in the 1930s warning of the nazzies, and he was prepared to take the flack off the Royal Family, to appear to be THE token high-up British Nazzie appeaser, so to protect Prince AHEM!. What a fella, for playing the whiteman to them.