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Ideas & Debate

My selection of speeches that shaped history

A man giving a speech. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A man giving a speech. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches (available at Text Book Centre and maybe elsewhere locally) reproduces a fascinating collection of speeches that have influenced history, and today I write about two among them.

The first, delivered in 1960 to the South African Parliament by then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was about the “winds of change” that were blowing through Africa, spelling out Britain’s intended withdrawal as a colonial power in Africa and seeking to sway white South Africans towards abandoning apartheid.

Before he delivered the speech, Mr Macmillan went on a six-week African tour that ended in South Africa. There he met with Prime Minister Verwoerd and tried to explain the need for change brought about by the two world wars.

Some saw the policy outlined in Macmillan’s speech – which he knew his audience would find unacceptably inconvenient – as an abdication by Britain of Africa and the abandonment of the white settlers. Even among the black nationalists there was an ambiguous reaction.

They had been prevented from meeting Mr Macmillan and at first were skeptical about his speech. But even at the time Nelson Mandela thought it was positive, and when he spoke to the British parliament in 1996 he referred to the address.

Albert Luthuli agreed with Mr Mandela, stating that Mr Macmillan had given Africans inspiration and hope.

When Mr Macmillan ended his speech a shocked Mr Verwoerd immediately responded, saying that “there must not only be justice to the black man in Africa, but also to the white man”.

He said the Europeans there had no real other home, and that they provided a strong defence against Communism.

British Conservatives also felt betrayed by Mr Macmillan’s speech and Lord Kilmuir, a member of Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet, complained that “few utterances in recent history have had more grievous consequences,” adding that “in Kenya the settlers spoke bitterly of a betrayal”.

And hardline imperialist Lord Salisbury felt that European settlers in Kenya, alongside the African population, “would prefer to be under imperial rule regardless”.

The second speech I have selected was given in Birmingham in 1968, exactly 50 years ago, by British MP Enoch Powell, who forecast a terrible future for Britain thanks to what he saw as the excessive immigration into the country – including of Asians from Kenya.

Mr Powell’s became known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, an allusion to a line from Virgil’s Aeneid that he quoted: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

It caused a political storm, and led to his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath, who said it was “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions”.

In the speech Mr Powell recounted a conversation with one of his constituents, who said to Mr Powell: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

In 1960, Mr Macmillan was trying to help the white South Africans – as well as the many conservative supremacists among his own people in Britain – to come to terms with letting go of what they had previously enjoyed and taken for granted.

The situation was no longer tenable, and to reach a longer term sustainability it was clear they would need to accept significant shorter term losses.

Then in 1968, Mr Powell previewed the fears being expressed by Donald Trump today. Mr Powell’s language was infinitely more elegant than that of America’s President, but they both play to the same fear of loss.

The difference is that while Mr Macmillan was confronting the fears of the elite, Mr Powell and Mr Trump capitalised on those of people much lower down the social and economic ladders.

Even today the issues raised in the two speeches are far from fully resolved. Ever since, leaders like Mr Macmillan have sought to uplift those they sought to influence by adopting higher principles that lead to inclusive societies where citizens can rise from a state of dependence to one of full participation in society, while others like Mr Powell allow people to dream of holding on to untenable pasts.

For sure we must support and strengthen the former, and condemn the latter.

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