The Prime minister’s WW1 speech today in 1914 and why I don’t rate it.

800px-Herbert_Henry_Asquith100 years ago today Britain’s Prime minister, Herbert Asquith, stood before Parliament and asked for their support.

At 11pm on the 5th August Britain had declared a state of war on Germany. Asquith was asking Parliament to fund £100,000,000, a phenomenal sum of money, towards the war effort.

Parliament agreed without any division, and his speech was recorded for the ages.

I had wanted to write about what makes this speech great, but, having read it through several times, I’m not a fan of it.

In fact, I think the best lessons Asquith can give us as speechwriters is to try not to be like him.

Lessons we learn by not being Prime minister Asquith

  1. Use fewer words.
    Asquith writes like Charles Dickens, with long sentences, meandering thoughts and countless asides. This is fine in epic literature, but to a modern audience, and I imagine even to the audience of his time, is almost impossible to easily follow.
  2. Get to the point early.
    Asquith is asking Parliament for money, but fails to make that point clear at the start. A political speech is not like a mystery novel, you are not trying to keep your listeners guessing until the last few minutes, instead you are trying to get them to agree with you as quickly as possible. The best way to do this is to state your point as early as possible, and then use the rest of your time explaining why your point is correct.
  3. Keep quotations to minimum.
    Asquith actually picks up a report in the 1st half of his speech and quotes it verbatim.

    “The terms by which it was sought to buy our neutrality are contained in the communication made by the German Chancellor to Sir Edward Goschen on the 29th July. I think I must refer to them for a moment. After alluding to the state of things as between Austria and Russia, Sir Edward Goschen goes on:

    “He [the German Chancellor] then proceeded to make the following strong bid for British neutrality.  He said that it was clear, so far as he was able to judge the main principle which governed British policy, that Great Britain would never stand by and allow France to be crushed in any conflict there might be.That, however, was not the object at which Germany aimed.  Provided that neutrality of Great Britain were certain, every assurance would be given to the British Government that the Imperial Government”

    Let the Committee observe these words:

    “aimed at no territorial acquisition at the expense of France should they prove victorious in any war that might ensue.”

    Sir Edward Goschen proceeded to put a very pertinent question:- “I questioned His Excellency about the French colonies”.

    What are the French colonies?  They mean every part of the dominions and possessions of France outside the geographical area of Europe – “and he said that he was unable to give a similar undertaking in that respect.”

    How incredibly dull!

    Yes, he is using the quotations to underscore how useful his Right Honourable friend had been but the point of these quotations could have been summed up in just a few words.

    How much better if he had said, “The German chancellor made a ‘strong bid for British Neutrality,’ stating that if ‘the neutrality of Great Britain were certain’ Germany ‘aimed at no territorial acquisition at the expense of France should they prove victorious in any war that might ensue.’ He could not however given the same reassurance about the colonies.”

    Or even better he could have just reworded it as ‘Germany promised not to invade France if Britain remained neutral, but could not promise the same for the colonies’.

    I know which one I find the easiest to grasp.

  4. End on a strong note.
    Here at least Asquith does a good job, indeed the whole second half of his speech is significantly more interesting and inspiring. I will leave you with his last 2 paragraphs, which helped fund the Great war.

    “I do not believe any nation ever entered into a great controversy – and this is one of the greatest history will ever know – with a clearer conscience and a stronger conviction that it is fighting, not for aggression, not for the maintenance even of its own selfish interest, but that it is fighting in defence of principles the maintenance of which is vital to the civilisation of the world.

    “With a full conviction, not only of the wisdom and justice, but of the obligations which lay upon us to challenge this great issue, we are entering into the struggle. Let us now make sure that all the resources, not only of this United Kingdom, but of the vast Empire of which it is the centre, shall be thrown into the scale.”


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