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Heroes of Hansard

By James Naughtie
Today programme

Seats in the House of Commons
Speeches from the green benches can shift the course of British politics

The worry in trying to think of great Parliamentary speeches is that there's a danger of turning the place into a theatre.

Performance is important - the power of a speech has a good deal to do with drama - but surely political purpose is the thing.

Talking to former MPs Matthew Parris and Tony Benn at Westminster about a collection of great speeches published by Hansard, the official report of the two houses of Parliament, was to realise again how much value the Commons puts on a contribution that is powerful, clear and authentic.

As Tony Benn puts it, the most admirable politicians aren't weathervanes, swinging with the prevailing wind; they're signposts, pointing the way. That's a category, incidentally, in which he includes Margaret Thatcher, despite his disagreement with her on almost every front.

The Hansard collection, published to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Parliamentary report becoming the official public record, features speeches chosen by Parliamentarians as outstanding. And there are some old favourites.

Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech in 1990 - the one that precipitated the end of the Thatcher premiership - is the choice of both Michael Heseltine and John Major.

For a thousand years men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'
Winston Churchill speaking in Parliament

Benn chose Aneurin Bevan's speech from 1951 after his resignation from the Labour Cabinet (soon after the young Anthony Wedgewood Benn was elected in Bristol).

Matthew Parris opted for the brave speech by the Conservative Alan Duncan in favour of civil partnerships, a speech which, he points out, was directed largely at elements in his own party who were hostile to the very idea.

The common theme in our conversation was that the speeches lingering in the memory had a power that wasn't simply oratorical.

They caught the drama of a moment, and expressed the weight of a personality.

Sir Geoffrey Howe delivering his resignation speech in 1990
Sir Geoffrey Howe's 1991 resignation speech spurred a revolt against the PM

Benn said he would have loved to be in the chamber to hear Churchill in full flood in wartime; or Mr Gladstone at his peak.

Matthew was slightly more nervous. He didn't worry about never having heard Disraeli, Palmerston or Lloyd George and didn't want to: it would spoil his mental soundscape of what they might have been like.

We could all agree on some recent highlights - Tony Blair on the Iraq war in March 2003 (a speech admired by many who deeply disagreed with his policy), Robin Cook's resignation speech on the same subject, Michael Foot at his best, vintage Enoch Powell.

They're all in the Hansard collection. And though sound broadcasting only came to the Commons chamber in the late 1970s (with television a decade later) and we have no way of knowing how Gladstone or Lloyd George really sounded in the Chamber, we have Hansard.

It's all there, and a quick flick through the pages brings them to life.

WINSTON CHURCHILL

With the nation at war, Winston Churchill urges Britain to fight on against Nazi aggression.

What General Weygand called the "Battle of France" is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. 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; but if we fail then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say, "This was their finest hour".

ANEURIN BEVAN

Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Labour, defends the NHS and warns against the coming Cold War in his 1951 resignation speech.

There is only one hope for mankind - and that is democratic Socialism. There is only one party in Great Britain which can do it - and that is the Labour Party. But I ask them carefully to consider how far they are polluting the stream. We have gone a long way - a very long way - against great difficulties. Do not let us change direction now. Let us make it clear, quite clear, to the rest of the world that we stand where we stood, that we are not going to allow ourselves to be diverted from our path by the exigencies of the immediate situation. We shall do what is necessary to defend ourselves - defend ourselves by arms, and not only with arms but with the spiritual resources of our people.

ALAN DUNCAN

Conservative MP Alan Duncan gives a brave defence of civil partnerships in 2004.

The simple fact is that love comes in many forms, and so do the relationships that give expression to that love. It would be odd indeed if those who espouse and defend traditional values of commitment and faithfulness opposed giving gay couples the choice to live their lives according to those values. There is a long way to go in eroding the homophobia that still exists in certain places in Britain today. Gay people still face many barriers to full acceptance, but eliminating discrimination from our laws is an essential first step to eliminating discrimination from our hearts and minds.

GEOFFREY HOWE

Geoffrey Howe resigns from Margret Thatcher's cabinet, giving impetus to a revolt against the Prime Minister.

The tragedy is - and it is for me personally, for my party, for our whole people and for my Right Hon. Friend herself, a very real tragedy - that the Prime Minister's perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation. It risks minimising our influence and maximising our chances of being once again shut out. We have paid heavily in the past for late starts and squandered opportunities in Europe. We dare not let that happen again.




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