UK Politics

Memorable speeches from 750 years of Parliament

William Pitt speaking in Parliament Image copyright Getty Images

Choosing the best parliamentary speeches out of the thousands made during the past 750 years is a virtually impossible task - but, on BBC Democracy Day, here are some picked by experts.

Simon de Montfort's Parliament set to work on 20 January 1265. For the first time, this Parliament summoned two knights from each county and two citizens or burgesses from England's cities and boroughs, creating a tradition that led to the emergence of the House of Commons.

To commemorate this event, members and officials from both Houses, as well as constitutional experts, have been asked to nominate their favourite speech from our constitutional history. Here are some of the speeches they chose. Interestingly, these highly personal picks do not include oratorical wizards such as Churchill, Bevan or Gladstone.

BBC Democracy Day

  • Democracy Day takes place on Tuesday 20 January, across BBC radio, TV and online
  • A look at democracy past and present, encouraging debate on its role and future
  • 2015 marks the 750th anniversary of the first parliament of elected representatives at Westminster
  • It also sees the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta - a touchstone for democracy worldwide
  • Go to the BBC News website's Democracy Day page, for analysis, backgrounders and explainers on the debate

Cromwell dissolves the Rump Parliament, 20 April 1653

Paul Seaward, director of the History of Parliament Trust, nominated one of the most dramatic scenes ever witnessed in Parliament.

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Media caption"You are no Parliament, I say you are no Parliament" - a reading from Cromwell's speech

Following the establishment of a republic after the English Civil War, tensions remained between the Army and Parliament. The so-called Rump Parliament sat in almost continual session, refused to stand for re-election and sought to strip Cromwell of his position as commander-in-chief.

By 1653, Mr Seaward says, the Army had become suspicious that Parliament was planning to arrange elections "in a way that would only perpetuate its own power.

"On 20 April, Oliver Cromwell, the Army's most senior officer, though also a Member of Parliament, appeared in the House as it was debating the legislation to dissolve Parliament and set up new elections," he says.

Cromwell told the Commons: "You are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting."

Musketeers from his own regiment entered the chamber and cleared it of members.

And Cromwell commanded that the mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, be taken away, saying: "What shall we do with this bauble?"

William Wilberforce on the abolition of slavery, 12 May 1789

This defiant, well-evidenced and angry speech, calling for the abolition of slavery, was chosen by the Lord Speaker, Baroness D'Souza.

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Media caption"The number of deaths speaks for itself" - a reading from Wilberforce's speech

The baroness says she chose the speech as it illustrates some of the great aspects of parliamentary life.

"First, it shows the value of persistence - Wilberforce spoke these words on 12 May 1789, but it would take him another 18 years of relentless campaigning until the Slave Trade Act would receive royal assent," she says.

"Second, the rhetoric is combined with evidence, presented in a clear and accessible manner.

"One of the pleasures of sitting on the House of Lords woolsack is the opportunity it gives me to observe experts in their field bringing their subject knowledge to the House, the better to scrutinise proposed legislation and the actions of government.

"And finally, some of the underpinning themes of the abolitionist movement - recognition of basic human rights and equality of all people in the eyes of the law - remain as relevant, and topical, for parliamentarians today as they were in the 18th Century."

Ellen Wilkinson's maiden speech, 10 December 1924

In her first speech in the House, Ellen Wilkinson, one of the first female MPs, called for a widening of the voting age for women.

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Media caption"They need not be afraid of us" - a reading from Wilkinson's speech

"The present franchise law," she told MPs, "by disenfranchising women between 21 and 30 years of age, definitely cuts out a very important class of women who badly need the protection of the House."

The Labour MP Angela Eagle, who nominated the speech, says: "As one of the first Labour women elected to Parliament and to hold ministerial office, Ellen Wilkinson was a parliamentary pioneer.

"She co-wrote Let us face the future - the 1945 Labour manifesto - when she was chair of the party and led the Jarrow March to London.

"Her speech passionately makes the case for extending the franchise to all women, at a time when not all could vote.

"She says that without the vote, the government could just ignore women's concerns.

"At a time when voter turnout is so low, her speech is a reminder that the best way to get your voice heard is through the ballot box."

Stanley Baldwin on the abdication, 10 December 1936

Described by the American journalist HL Mencken as "the greatest story since the crucifixion", the 1936 abdication crisis shook both Parliament and the nation.

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Media caption"The King cannot speak for himself" - a reading from Baldwin's speech

Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the new King, Edward VIII, that his proposed marriage to the American divorcee Wallis Simpson would be unacceptable.

He spelled out two options to the monarch, either to renounce Mrs Simpson or to abdicate.

The King chose the latter, with his brother Albert, Duke of York, becoming King George VI.

Following the abdication, Baldwin told MPs: "The King cannot speak for himself.

"The King has told us that he cannot carry, and does not see his way to carry, these almost intolerable burdens of kingship without a woman at his side."

Conservative MP Sir Peter Luff says: "Baldwin's speech on the abdication was both highly dramatic and constitutionally hugely significant.

"Made apparently something close to spontaneously, this speech helped to heal the wounds of a potential disaster for the country and illustrates the leading role Baldwin played in saving the monarchy at a crucial time in its history."

Leo Abse on homosexual law reform, 19 December 1966

The Speaker, John Bercow, nominated Leo Abse's move to partially decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.

The then Labour MP for Pontypool told the House that the law as it stood gave gay men "a brutal choice".

"It offers them either celibacy or criminality, and nothing in between," he said.

"In many cases, it means that the homosexual feels that he is almost a selected minority specially chosen and persecuted, and he sees within the wider community, for good or evil, more permissive attitudes."

Mr Bercow says: "The reason behind my choice of Leo Abse's speech moving the second reading of the Sexual Offences (No. 2) Bill on 19 December 1966 is because I am a strong believer in LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered] equality.

"The first pioneering measure on this subject was Leo Abse's bill to decriminalise sexual acts between same sex consenting adults in private."

Sir Geoffrey Howe resigns, 13 November 1990

Lorraine Sutherland, the current editor of Hansard, the official report of the Lords and Commons, nominated this moment of drama in the Commons, which led to the resignation of Margaret Thatcher.

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Media captionExtracts from Sir Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech to the Commons

Sir Geoffrey, she says, "was moved from the post of foreign secretary, because of clashes over Europe, to the post of leader of the House".

"His resignation came after [Thatcher] had made some comments at a European summit in Rome which undermined the policy consensus that had held the government together," she says.

He told the Commons that this was "rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain."

"That speech brought home to me how powerful words can be," she says.

"There was no rhetoric or bombast, just carefully crafted sentences delivered with great timing and determination."

Robin Cook resigns over the Iraq conflict, 17 March 2003

One of New Labour's key figures quits the cabinet in the build-up to war with Saddam Hussein.

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Media captionRobin Cook explains why he could not remain in the Blair government

The former foreign secretary, then serving as leader of the House, received a standing ovation after saying he could not support UK involvement in the conflict.

"It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics," he told MPs.

"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."

The Labour MP, Frank Doran, who nominated Mr Cook's speech, says: "The delivery was electrifying.

"The speech summed up the history of East-West conflict in the Middle East, the weak case for war and the likely consequences of that war.

"His warnings were ignored, and we live today with the consequences.

"The Middle East is in turmoil, and a more dangerous place than ever before."

The experts have made their choices, but do you agree with their picks? What is your favourite speech from Parliament and why? Email us at politics@bbc.co.uk

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