Enoch Powell: “Rivers of Blood”
Arguably one of the most forcefully intellectual British politicians of the post-war era, Enoch Powell condemned himself to the margins of political life with this speech, which was given in near-obscurity to an audience in Birmingham in 1964 but has never been far from the public consciousness ever since. Britain was dealing with the realities of the first wave of immigration from the Commonwealth when he chose to quote a constituent that “one day the black man would have the whip hand over the white man” and from another that she was followed everywhere by “grinning piacannines”. To these thoughts, he added his own, more learned take: like the Roman Sybil from the Aenid he looked to the future and saw the rivers “foaming with much blood”. This inflammatory mix of words led to his expulsion from the Tory party and 4 decades in the wilderness where he was simultaneously reviled as a racist demagogue and hailed as a visionary prophet. Although his speech continues to be a touchstone for race-relations in the UK, it ended Powell’s stint as a serious politician at the centre of the debate and his voice was rarely heard in public again.
George Bush: “Mission Accomplished”
In 2003, the defeat of the bulk of the Iraqi regular army was a foregone conclusion. The might and technology of the US Army had seen off the overwhelmed Iraqi troops, deposing Saddam Hussein's regieme far more easily than many commentators had predicted. All of this prompted President George W. Bush to give a valedictory speech from the deck of the US Aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Such speeches are common to all politicians in the afterglow of military victor, but this particular speech caused Bush much regret in later years. The content of the speech - which actually still counselled caution in proclaiming victory - was largely overshadowed by its theatrical presentation and a banner in the background which read "mission accomplished." Despite the fact that this phrase never occurred in the speech itself, it became a byword for the administration's hubris as the war continued to grind on for several years to come.
Iain Duncan-Smith: “The quiet man is turning up the volume”
A decent, if somewhat earnest and upright character, Iain Duncan-Smith was the surprise choice of the Conservative party to be its leader in 2002. Lacking the presence, pizazz and media savvy of his counterpart in number 10, he was forced to endure a whispering campaign against him that began almost as soon as he was elected leader. His woes weren’t helped by the fact that his public speaking was often marked by a noticeable frog in his throat giving his oratory a halting and seemingly reluctant tone. Facing the Conservative Party conference for the first time he claimed that he was “turning up the volume.” The mismatch between the public’s perception of him and what he claimed to represent was too much for the Tory party who swiftly toppled him soon afterwards.
Neville Chamberlain: “Peace in our Lifetime”
Chamberlain has been painted as little more than a craven appeaser of Hitler by history. The apogee of his hubris came when he claimed to have secured European peace in a deal with Hitler at Munich. Hitler’s biography was already by this time brimful of treachery and peppered with slaughter, yet Chamberlain claimed to have looked into his eyes and seen “a man of his word” with whom he could do business, and so put his name to a deal with the Nazi leader that was worth about as much as the paper on which it was written. On his death, Churchill was magnaminous in reminding the nation that Chamberlain had been driven solely by the love of peace and the pursuit of peace above all else. Nontheless his name, and that of Munich, have become bywords for defeatism.
Neil Kinnock: “Well alright! Well alright!”
In 1992 you couldn’t find a political analyst in the land who would put money on a Conservative victory in the general election that year. John Major’s government held the slenderest of majorities and were beset by internal divisions and public contempt caused by a deep economic recession. All Labour had to do was to maintain an aura of seriousness and they would stroll into number 10. Leader Neil Kinnock, however, completely misjudged the public mood with his 1992 election campaign speech. The triumphalism and glitzy showbusiness nature of the setting, with its laser-show and helicopter arrival were matched only by Kinnock’s absurd (and thrice-repeated) declamation that “well alright!” The public, put off by the showmanship, disagreed, Major was returned to power and Kinnock had to take to Europe to find a big enough stage for his rhetoric.