The power of political oratory

By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show presenter

Image caption, David Cameron detailing the Saville Report to the House of Commons

Seventy years ago General Charles de Gaulle addressed the people of France from a BBC radio studio in Broadcasting House, London.

He had fled his homeland a day earlier as Philippe Petain made peace with Hitler.

Speaking to the nation, he declared himself leader of the "Free French" and vowed that "the flame of the French resistance must not and will not be extinguished".

A few weeks earlier, Winston Churchill had addressed the House of Commons on the growing threat from Germany.

He had assumed the leadership of a coalition government against the backdrop of inevitable defeat in France.

Yet, like de Gaulle, he seemed prepared to defy the odds and his speech has since become known as one of the greatest call-to-arms in history.

"I say to the house as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.

"You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.

"You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - victory in spite of all terrors - victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival."

Both Churchill and de Gaulle were staring defeat in the face. The odds of victory hopelessly stacked against them.

But this was not bravado. These words were meticulously crafted to build confidence and shape the public mood. Of course there was myth-making too. The French Resistance would never defeat the Germans and the British had little chance of doing it without America.

But they had to convince others that they thought they could and in Churchill's case he had to demonstrate to the Americans that the British were not giving up the fight - otherwise why would the Yanks ever enter the War?

In the House of Commons this week David Cameron was put to the test as he presented Lord Saville's Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry to Parliament. What he said about the findings and how he said it would matter almost as much as the report itself.

Image caption, Winston Churchill inspired the UK in its darkest hour

Unlike de Gaulle and Churchill, Mr Cameron avoided myth-making. In fact, his job was myth-busting and he did it with poise. Until a few weeks ago David Cameron was just the Leader of the Opposition, but this was the performance of a Prime Minister.

"What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.

"The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces, and for that, on behalf of the government and on behalf of the country, I am deeply sorry."

There was none of the rhetorical flourish of Churchill, but none was called for. Instead, dignified minimalism ruled. He quoted from Saville providing only very occasional commentary on behalf of the government. Less was more.

Will Mr Cameron's words have a transforming legacy like De Gaulle's or Churchill's? Impossible to say at this point, yet fascinating that the potential exists. Who even a week ago would have predicted a Conservative Party leader being applauded by a largely nationalist crowd in Derry's Guildhall Square.

On Sunday's Politics Show we tell the tale of two perspectives on Bloody Sunday from residents of 'the city with two names': Yvette spends the day with Martina Anderson and Gregory Campbell. And in the studio I talk to the Justice Minister David Ford about how best to police the past.


PS - Political insults aren't what they used to be. Churchill was particularly disparaging about Attlee: "A sheep in sheep's clothing." And "A modest man, who has much to be modest about."