Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
A question is asked, at length, and an answer demanded. “And I’m going to give it to you!” retorts New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, “If you hold your breath just for a moment… I can smell the uranium on it.”
This legendary line from a legendary speech was delivered 28 years ago at an Oxford Union debate, at a time when New Zealand made its tiny presence felt around the world by sticking to a principle.
With North Korea and Iranian nuclear programs again in the news, we could do well to review the simple elegance of Lange’s anti-nuclear argument.
There is, Mr President, a quality of irrationality about nuclear weapons which does not sit well with good intentions. A system of defence serves its purpose if it guarantees the security of those it protects. A system of nuclear defence guarantees only insecurity. The means of defence terrorise as much as the threat of attack.
Lange, the best loved New Zealand political figure of recent memory, demolished his opponent, American TV evangelist Jerry Falwell.
A huge, formidably clever, and witty man, Lange was a radical reformer, leading Labour to victory in a snap 1984 election with a nuclear ban as its flagship policy.
Lange took on the major powers, and they retaliated hard. Banning nuclear ships from New Zealand ports, he ruptured relations with Britain and Australia, and within days of this debate the US effectively cancelled the ANZUS alliance. Soon after, French agents sank the Greenpeace protest ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour, to stop it interfering with French nuclear tests in Mururoa Atoll. There was an international political furore, and at grassroots level, in Australia, New Zealand and Japan there were widespread boycotts of French products.
Lange’s booming voice, commanding presence and idiosyncratic flair for words are enormously engaging. He is lucid, logical, compelling and amusing – especially ex tempore, responding to interjections from the floor. Although a masterful impromptu orator, he wrote some notes (with speech writer and future wife Margaret Pope) on the flight over.
Lange’s support was huge. He drew a standing ovation from both sides of the house as he approached the dispatch box, before he even started.
There is audio and a transcript of the speech here.