Enoch Powell famously said that “all political careers end in failure”. This week I’ve been thinking about this and those politicians who have been the exceptions to the rule and how they did it.
One of the ways is to make a powerful resignation speech. Going out with a bang. Making one last wave as they sailed away from public office.
We were reminded of this last weekend with the passing of Lord Howe.
I want to reflect a little on two great examples of this type of speech – the aforementioned Geoffrey Howe and his 1990 speech that all but ended the Premiership of Mrs Thatcher and Robin Cook’s memorable speech in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War.
What made these speeches so special? Why do they live long in the memory? Why do they transcend almost everything else their makers achieved in their careers?
I suggest four reasons;
- They possess a great clarity of message and language – simple messages, coloured with incredible metaphors and imagery which paint a picture it would be difficult to misunderstand and impossible to ignore. They were forensic in their analysis and clinical in their use of words – only the words they needed to build their case – no waffle; not a word wasted.
- They tell a proper story – placing their remarks in context, relating the present crisis to history and the future – with the classic beginning, middle and end. They read as well as they sound.
- There is an extraordinary feeling that truth is being spoken to power like almost never before – a sense that the rules and conventions of normal exchanges have been set aside to allow the speaker to speak with the sort of frankness and directness seldom heard in the code-driven language of Westminster. They both stand before their peers and the nation and explain why the most powerful person in the country is wrong about the things they feel most passionately about. The subject – the first amongst equals of British government – are sat just a few feet away whilst their own career is being dismantled. This adds to the sense of intensity, theatre and impact.
- They are intensely personal and called “personal statements” for a reason – deeply emotional. You got the sense – and still get the sense watching them back – that they represent Geoffrey Howe and Robin Cook perfectly. They were written with the sort of care and attention as if they feared these would be the last speeches they would ever make. Ever word counting. Every word feeling like they came from the pen of the speaker. They felt then and still feel today like their best work.
Like all great speeches they were delivered brilliantly. They had impact. They set the agenda. They moved people. Looking back on them – twenty-five and twelve years respectively they still feel like they were delivered yesterday. Fresh. Raw. Powerful.
The last lines of both are worth recalling here. They both induced unprecendant reactions – the 1990 speech was greeted in stunned silence and incredulity of the brutality of the attack on the Prime Minister’s position – the 2003 speech with applause. Hardly ever heard in the Commons before – some say never – and hardly ever since. Re-reading these two finales it is not hard to see why. Forget their careers; no-one could say these speeches ended in failure.
“The conflict of loyalty, of loyalty to my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister – and, after all, in two decades together that instinct of loyalty is still very real – and of loyalty to what I perceive to be the true interests of the nation, has become all too great. I no longer believe it possible to resolve that conflict from within this Government. That is why I have resigned. In doing so, I have done what I believe to be right for my party and my country. The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long”
“From the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war. It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics. Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support. I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government”
As an aside, when watching the Robin Cook film your eye may be caught by the attire of the current Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, he is wearing a green suit! Why? I can only assume the date was a factor……St Patrick’s Day!