When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches that Shape the World – and Why We Need Them

By Philip Collins

4th Estate

Few know more about words – their power, their ability to make and shape history – than Philip Collins.

As the chief speechwriter to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and a journalist and commentator of the first rank, his has been a career steeped in the twisting journey from blank page to lyrical phrase, last-minute rewrite to standing ovation.

Amidst his regular columns for The Times and other assorted wordsmithery, he has somehow found the time to produce this gripping homage to some of the most famous political speeches in history – their construction, delivery, impact and much else besides.

But When They Go Low, We Go High is much more than just an educational tract about speechwriting. Collins uses the opportunity to branch out from his usual wordcount limits to pen a soaring call to arms for supporters of liberal democracies. Countering the recent advances of populism, which he describes as “a movement with no ideological content beyond its resentment of an elite”, requires nothing less than a poetic and clear message of hope that expresses why liberal democracies are “the best imaginable places to live”.

To illustrate his points, Collins cleverly arranges speeches from figures ranging from Cicero and Pericles to Lincoln, Reagan and Churchill, into five main sections. He begins with an exploration of democracy and why it is through politics that people are heard. This is followed by a chapter on how wartime speeches need to not to focus not only on the battles ahead but also be about winning the peace. Further chapters on nationhood and progress then follow, before he concludes with a chapter on revolution, which examines ways to avoid the pathway to tyranny.

Collins’ expertise on the art and mechanics of speechwriting adorns every page. Tips and insights come there many, particularly the need for every speechwriter to know their central point, which is “advice that has worked for all speakers, in every nation and every time, and will always work”.

He also sheds fascinating light on how some of the best speeches and lines come to fruition. For example, Collins spotlights Ronald Reagan’s speech in Berlin where he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall”.

The line, which was “electrifying”, says Collins, was only included after Reagan ignored the beseechings of his advisors and officials to opt for a more cautious approach. Reagan, however, was having none of it: “In the limousine on the way to the Berlin Wall, the president said: ‘The boys at State are going to kill me but it is the right thing to do.'”

This is one of those books that appeals a multitude of different audiences: the politics student keen to learn about democratic governance and history; communications professionals keen to polish their presentation skills; politicians keen to deliver their message well; and last but not least, writers themselves, who should always be learning anew about their craft – something that Collins has evidently made the habit of a lifetime.