Great speeches are an essential tool of democracy, and a bulwark against base populism, argues Paul Richards

On the plains of Africa, about 100,000 years ago, give or take, human beings decided to stop pointing at things and start using sounds to describe them. They developed words for their immediate surroundings such as ‘food’, ‘fire’, ‘stick’, ‘lion’, and for concepts like ‘danger’, ‘love’ and ‘fear’. Soon they developed sentences such as ‘there is a lion, it’s dangerous, let’s run away.’ And from Africa, the cradle of civilisation, sprang language designed to warn, to entertain, and most importantly, to persuade.

Fast forward roughly 97,000 years, and the Greeks decided to study, and teach, this use of persuasive language in the public space. Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric stands to this day as the best guide to writing speeches. A few hundred years later, Marcus Cicero took up the baton on behalf of the Romans, and developed the idea of five rhetorical canons: invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and I cannot remember the fifth.

Given how long the human race has been speaking in public, it is therefore persistently shameful how many speeches are terrible, and how few edge anywhere near greatness. Take a typical Labour party conference, or a debate in parliament. In all the hours of speeches, how many minutes stand out as great oratory? What a tragic waste of effort.

Philip Collins’ new book reminds us that greatness is still possible amid all the dross. His choice of material ranges across the centuries, and indicates that rhetoric can be used in pursuit of noble causes, as well as despicable evil. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth I, William Wilberforce, Aung San Suu Kyi but also Fidel Castro, Maximilien Robespierre, and Adolf Hitler each make their appearance.

Collins provides the kind of close textual dissection we are used to seeing him perform in the Times. This forensic analysis is always insightful because it comes from one who has sat at a desk staring at a screen, with a headful of competing ideas, and contradictory comments from colleagues, and a looming deadline. Collins recognises the realities of speech-writing in a world of hotel rooms, train journeys and political noises-off. Speeches are never written in perfect conditions, nor are they complete until the words are spoken from a podium or platform. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was written on the train. Martin Luther King’s Dream was a combination of script, extemporisation, and an on-the-spot rehash of his greatest hits.

But the conceit of the book is more than yet another anthology of the world’s greatest speeches. It seeks to make an argument (as all good writing should), that great speeches are an essential tool of democracy, and a bulwark against base populism. I think we would all like this to be true, but alas Donald Trump shows that an utter disregard for cogent argument, beautiful language and rhetorical tricks is no bar to high office. Trump’s triumph is to take moronic slogans, and repeat them endlessly, until they sink, via social media, into the popular consciousness. I bet you can recall three or four of Trump’s slogans. I bet you cannot do the same for Hillary Clinton. The title of the book is taken from Michelle Obama’s wonderful speeches during the presidential campaign in 2016. Unfortunately, when they go low, and we go high, they can still win.

This is a useful and intelligent book, destined to provide a useful lodestar for students of political history, and political speechwriters, in coming decades. If it prompts some future speechwriter to elevate their language to the heights of a Pericles or a Pankhurst, then it will have served its purpose.


Paul Richards is author of How to Win an Election. He runs training courses in speechwriting and tweets at @Labourpaul 

When They Go Low, We Go High by Philip Collins

4th Estate | 426pp | £16.99