Doomsday rhetoric and undelivered speeches

Under the ‘Thirty-Year Rule’, the UK government has just released the text of a speech written for Queen by Whitehall officials which was never delivered.  It was drawn up as part of an exercise in which officials ‘war-gamed’ the country’s response to a chemical attack by the Soviet Union and their allies.  The 1983 speech assumes that a nuclear exchange between NATO and Eastern Bloc countries is imminent.

You can hear an actress reading the text on the  BBC News website.   Bloggers and columnists  have been criticizing the tone and content of the speech and making unfavourable comparisons with the real ‘eve of war’ speech broadcast on the radio by Queen Elizabeth’s father in 1939.  Interestingly, the hypothetical speech references that earlier speech:

‘I have never forgotten the sorrow and the pride I felt as my sister and I huddled around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspiring words on that fateful day in 1939. Not for a single moment did I imagine that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me.’

The speechwriter then has the Queen go on to describe how ‘the enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology’.   There are no references to tyrannical enemies and the rhetoric of democracy is muted: the Queen calls on the ‘the qualities that have helped to keep our freedom intact twice already during this sad century’ in the face of ‘the terrors that lie in wait’.  The speech then focuses on the importance of loved ones, family and looking out for neighbours. There is some patriotism in the form of praying for relatives in the armed forces. But there is no reference to hoped-for victory and it ends with a distinctly un-partisan prayer for ‘men of goodwill wherever they may be.’

It would be easy for me to claim some parallels to the content of ancient Greek or Roman speeches made on the eve of battle here or to mine it for classical rhetorical devices.  But the differences outweigh the similarities.  There is something distinctive about the way in which these speech-writers have imagined what a figure-head would say in the face such a destructive, impactful and all-encompassing form of warfare.

This is just not very Periclean, Demosthenic or Ciceronian stuff.  Perhaps classical rhetoric could not deliver plausibility or comfort in the face of the uniquely modern social and political failure which nuclear war represents.  How can you stir your people in terms of the defence of values when such values have clearly failed to deliver protection from ‘the deadly power of abused technology’?  The speech seems to quietly acknowledge this rhetorical problem. Like some ancient  speeches I can think of on different subjects which also refer to the inadequacy of words to encompass and fit the occasion, it is very revealing and effective as a result.  To that extent at least, it has an ancient rhetorical feel to it.