Tom Richmond: How Churchill’s words became weapons in oratory’s finest hour

Winston Churchill's speeches galvanised a nation to the war effort, offering a stark contrast  to the timid soundbites of today's political language.
Winston Churchill's speeches galvanised a nation to the war effort, offering a stark contrast to the timid soundbites of today's political language.
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“HITLER knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

These uplifting words, delivered on this day 75 years ago by Winston Churchill, remain emblematic of the stirring oratory of the Prime Minister as he sought to galvanise the country after the Germans had over-run France and retreating British forces had been rescued from Dunkirk in mission impossible.

One of the great defining speeches of 20th century history, it should, I contend, be studied verbatim by today’s politicians struggling to get their message across to an electorate that no longer holds its leaders in high esteem.

Reading the text, it was remarkably conciliatory towards those who had presided over this military disaster – Churchill warned the country that it would lose its future “if we open a quarrel between the past and the present”.

It was surprisingly reassuring about the country’s readiness for the looming Battle of Britain – “We have a very powerful Air Force which has proved itself far superior in quality, both in men and in many types of machine, to what we have met so far”.

And it was inspiring thanks to this rousing final passage: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say ‘This was their finest hour’.”

As Boris Johnson has observed, the difference between the German Führer and Churchill was “that Hitler made you think he could do anything; Churchill made you think you could do anything”.

Not many actually heard Churchill’s tour de force at first hand – this address to Parliament came three and half decades before the first Commons speeches were first broadcast and Britain’s wartime leader, no doubt fortified by alcoholic replenishment, would record his speeches at a later hour so they could be relayed to an anxious nation by the BBC.

Families would huddle around the radio and listen in awe; indeed such broadcasts became news events in their own right because the Prime Minister only spoke when he had something momentous to say.

Contrast this to the exasperating tendency of today’s leaders to provide a running commentary on the affairs of state because of a mistaken belief that it is their responsibility to help Sky News, BBC News 24 and other channels to fill air time.

It is not. Yet, because of this, the impact of a speech is diluted when Prime Ministers, and others, have something meaningful to say. Apart from those political obsessives who understood the importance of David Cameron’s “One Nation” message, delivered on the steps of 10 Downing Street after his election victory, how many voters can remember what the Tory leader said?

Of course the competing distractions of today are very different to the 1940s when the country’s sole focus was on the defeat of Nazism. Yet, in this regard, it is even more important to draw lessons from Churchill and other accomplished orators like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or Nelson Mandela.

On this, there is unanimity. “A good speech can only carry one message properly. Know what you want that message to be. Write it down. Give it as much poetry as you can and then deliver it with passion and conviction,” ventured Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader.

This view is shared by Keighley-born Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s communications director, who says a good speech must contain the following: “A strong and powerful argument. Clear language. Beautiful writing. A memorable phrase. Context helps too”.

Significantly, Sir Gary Verity – the man who bought the Tour de France cycle race to this region – has named Churchill as one of his heroes. Speeches, he says, need a “compelling and memorable message” and “should, wherever possible, be inspirational”.

And that is the point. The frequency of today’s speeches – and the fact that politicians rely on special advisers to craft them – means that they blur into one. Even soundbites, which have supplanted a more philosophical narrative, have lost their impact because politicians are reading texts written by others.

As Parliamentarians look to rebuild the public’s trust, communication is critical. As Tory grandee Douglas Hurd observed: “People have lost confidence in politicians because politicians have lost confidence in themselves. They bustle about, renouncing power at every opportunity, eagerly shifting decision-making down to expert bodies or local governments. All this may be virtuous but it ducks the main difficulty – that politicians are too timid to say interesting things.”

Winston Churchill, a man hindered by both a stammer and a lisp and who often sought the counsel of his wife Clementine on the text, could certainty not be accused of this when he delivered his “Finest Hour” speech. Timidity was not an option in 1940 – but Lord Hurd’s critique does apply to those who have become rather fond of the sound of their own voice. Their verboseness is not doing themselves, or the country, any favours.

As Churchill did, they should think before they speak.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk