On 19 November 1863, speeches were given at the consecration of the Gettysburg Cemetery, which a few months earlier had been the scene of a ferocious battle in the American Civil War. Edward Everett — regarded as one of the foremost orators of his day — delivered a two hour speech but it is Abraham Lincoln’s two minutes or so of “dedicatory remarks” that are remembered as the Gettysburg Address. Even divorced from the time and situation, it is a stirring and noble message; today will probably offer many opportunities to hear it on the radio (Radio 4 is certainly noting the anniversary).
I was struck by the contrast with Lincoln’s stately words and the playground caterwauls reported on yesterday’s session in the Commons of the British Parliament. Regardless of whether or not David Cameron should have gone to Sri Lanka or if Ed Milliband rarely gets out beyond Primrose Hill, their debates stir in not an ounce of what Lincoln’s address is made of. Instead, it sounds like a cacophony of yobs, yahoos and oiks. It makes you want to sentence the whole lot of them to an after-school detention, perhaps writing out the Gettysburg address to drill it into their minds.
One doesn’t expect every speech to echo down the years but I long for those moments when leading politicians of all sides can lay childishness aside and work together with the task we charged them with by voting for them as MP: contributing to the good governance of our nation at all levels from local upwards.