Hay Festival : 15 Speeches That Changed the World

The second Festival Foundation Gala event at the 2019 Hay Festival celebrated the power of persuasion and words. From calls to arms to demands for peace, this performance captured the voices of prophets and politicians, rebels and tyrants, soldiers and statesman.

The selection of speeches was inspired by Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “new book” [sic] – presumably a revision of his 2007 book, which will be “published in October”. And by the two Penguin speeches anthologies edited by Brian MacArthur: Modern Speeches and Historic Speeches.

As with any selection, there are some speeches that might have changed the world, others, maybe not so much. For anyone who would like to see the speeches read by top-notch actors from the stage at Hay, I recommend the £10.00 annual subscription to the Hay Player.

Queen Elizabeth I: Addressing the Troops

Elizabeth IWhen Queen Elizabeth I visited her troops on the eve of the attack of the Spanish Armada, her authority emanated from the fact that she was Queen.

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

Greta Thunberg: Our Lives are in Your Hands

Greta ThunbergThe 16-year-old Swedish activist was the clear favorite at Hay. Her speeches are collected in No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. She is known for having initiated the school strike for climate movement that formed in November 2018. In March 2019, three members of the Norwegian parliament nominated Thunberg for the Nobel Peace Prize. In May 2019, she featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Her speech given at a protest outside Swedish Parliament was the first of three featured from the stage at Hay.

If people knew this they wouldn’t need to ask me why I’m so “passionate about climate change.” If people knew that the scientists say that we have a five percent chance of meeting the Paris target, and if people knew what a nightmare scenario we will face if we don’t keep global warming below 2 °C, they wouldn’t need to ask me why I’m on school strike outside parliament. Because if everyone knew how serious the situation is and how little is actually being done, everyone would come and sit down beside us.

Colonel Tim Collins: Addressing the Troops

Col Tim CollinsColonel Tim Collins, OBE, is a retired Northern Irish military officer in the British Army. He is best known for his role in the Iraq War in 2003, and his inspirational eve-of-battle speech, a copy of which apparently hung in the White House’s Oval Office.

We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them. There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

Dolores Ibárruri: They Shall Not Pass!

Dolores IbárruriThis Republican heroine of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and a communist politician of Basque origin is known for her famous slogan ¡No Pasarán! (“They shall not pass”). This was a battle cry appeal for the defense of the Second Spanish Republic.

The Communist Party calls you to arms. We especially call upon you, workers, farmers, intellectuals to assume your positions in the fight to finally smash the enemies of the Republic and of the popular liberties. Long live the Popular Front! Long live the union of all anti-fascists! Long live the Republic of the people! The Fascists shall not pass! THEY SHALL NOT PASS!

Nelson Mandala: Inaugural Speech

Nelson MandalaNelson Mandela was South Africa’s first black chief executive. His inauguration took place in Pretoria on 10 May 1994, televised to a billion viewers globally. The event was attended by four thousand guests, including world leaders from a wide range of geographic and ideological backgrounds.

We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign.

Malala Yousafzai: Address to the United Nations

Malala YousafzaiThis Pakistani activist for female education is the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate. Her address to the United Nations was given as part of her campaign to ensure free compulsory education for every child. She marked her 16th birthday by delivering the speech at the UN headquarters in New York.

So here I stand…one girl among many. I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys. I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights: Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

Oliver Cromwell: In the Name of God, Go!

Oliver CromwellCromwell delivered this speech when he dismissed the “Rump Parliament” on 20 April 1653. It was noticeable that, on 1 June 2019, the Hay audience reacted with wry amusement to a speech introduced as “seeming to say so much of what we all feel”. Ironic that a country embroiled in a divisive Brexit debate broke into laughter time and again as the dictator’s words echoed down the centuries.

The relevance of the speech was thrown into stark relief when, within the month, two candidates for the job as Prime Minister, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, proposed proroguing (i.e. dismissing) parliament so that MPs are unable to block a no-deal Brexit. Were a new Cromwell to take the stage in modern Britain one can only hope the outcome is less bloody than the last time.

Or the audience members might not find it so amusing.

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defiled this sacred place, and turned the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed, are yourselves become the greatest grievance. Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do. I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place. Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

Aneurin Bevan: Resignation speech

Aneurin BevanNye Bevan, was a Welsh Labour Party politician who was the Minister for Health in the UK from 1945 to 1951. He was one of the chief spokesmen for the Labour Party’s left wing, and of left-wing British thought generally. His most famous accomplishment came when, as Minister of Health, he spearheaded the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS), which was to provide medical care free at point-of-need to all Britons, regardless of wealth. On 23 April 1951 he delivered a rousing resignation speech over planned cuts to the NHS budget.

After all, the National Health Service was something of which we were all very proud, and even the Opposition were beginning to be proud of it. It only had to last a few more years to become a part of our traditions, and then the traditionalists would have claimed the credit for all of it. Why should we throw it away? In the Chancellor’s Speech there was not one word of commendation for the Health Service—not one word. What is responsible for that?

It’s notable that the extract read at Hay ended before Bevan’s conclusion:

I say this, in conclusion. 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.

Perhaps, unlike in the case of Cromwell, these words are too partisan in British politics today. Safer to laugh at the rants of a dictator speaking 300 years before Bevan.

Bobby Kennedy: Measuring America

Bobby KennedyIn a speech delivered at the University of Kansas on 18 March 1968, Bobby Kennedy took aim at materialist America. Twelve short weeks later a gunman took aim at him.

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Greta Thunberg: Whatever it Takes

The second of the three speeches chosen is also available on YouTube, delivered by Greta on a cold day in Sweden:

As Billy Bragg remarked on the previous day at Hay “We erect statues to suffragettes, some day we’ll erect statues to climate change activists.”

Aung San Suu Kyi: The Causes of Fear

Aung San Suu KyiThe controversial Burmese leader has drawn criticism over her alleged inaction to the persecution of the Rohingya people in Rakhine State and refusal to accept that Myanmar’s military has committed massacres. This speech (delivered in absentia) on the occasion of being awarded the Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought in 1990 — a time when her reputation was still intact.

Just as chanda-gati, when not the result of sheer avarice, can be caused by fear of want or fear of losing the goodwill of those one loves, so fear of being surpassed, humiliated or injured in some way can provide the impetus for ill will. And it would be difficult to dispel ignorance unless there is freedom to pursue the truth unfettered by fear. With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

John Ball: Cast off the Yoke of Bondage

John BallThis a radical priest took a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 against the 14-year-old King Richard II. Needless to say, it did not end well for the peasants. As historian Barbara Tuchman has noted, the conflicts of that distant mirror of the calamitous 14th century usually ended with peasants “swinging from trees”.

It’s curious that the extract read at Hay omitted the most famous quote from the speech: When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?

From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondsmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who would have had any bond and who free.

Greta Thumberg: Speaking to the British Parliament

A third and final speech by the young activist was delivered to Parliament in April of this year:

You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to. And the saddest thing is that most children are not even aware of the fate that awaits us. We will not understand it until it’s too late. And yet we are the lucky ones. Those who will be affected the hardest are already suffering the consequences. But their voices are not heard.

Harvey Milk: The Hope Speech

Harvey MilkThe first openly gay elected official in California gave a rousing speech at the June 1978 California Gay Freedom Day in San Francisco. Before the year was over his life was ended by an embittered Dan White, who shot him and Mayor George Moscone in City Hall with his police-issued revolver. Ah, those Second Amendment rights…

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Earl Spencer: Princess Diana Eulogy

Charles SpencerDiana’s brother delivered a controversial eulogy that was reported to have caused a rift in the royal family. In paying tribute to his sister, the 9th Earl Spencer reportedly angered the Queen with lines like “Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic” and “I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned.”

OK, fair enough. But is this really a speech that “changed the world”? Apparently so, according to the organizers of this event at Hay.

There is no doubt that she was looking for a new direction in her life at this time. She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.

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