The King’s Speech and Licensing

by Nathan on November 10, 2011

(The King’s Speech, (From L to R) Lionel, “Bertie”, and the Archbishop. Source: LA Times)

In the King’s Speech, there is a scene toward the end of the film when Prince Albert, or “Bertie”, is preparing the specific details for his coronation at Westminster Abbey as King George VI. Right before the entrance of Lionel, his speech therapist, with whom he has been working with for several years to improve his stammer, Bertie learns from the Archbishop of Canterbury the truth of Lionel’s credentials. Confronting Lionel, Bertie, more embarrassed than mad, tartly says, “True, you never called yourself ‘Doctor’. I did that for you. No diploma, no training, no qualification. Just a great deal of nerve.” Lionel admits that he is not a doctor. But he was, however, a self-taught therapist who learned his craft helping desperate shell-shocked soldiers who came back from fighting in the First World War. In helping them regain their voices, he “did muscle therapy, exercise, relaxation, but I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young blokes had cried out in fear, and no one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their voice and let them know that a friend was listening. That must ring a few bells with you, Bertie.” Admitting the crux of the problem, Bertie replies “You have no idea who I have breathing down my neck! I vouched for you and you have no credentials.” But, Lionel retorted, he has had “lots of success! I can’t show you a certificate – there was no training then. All I know I know by experience, and that war was some experience.”

Indeed, Lionel’s unique experience, working with veterans of the First World War and helping them get to the psychological root of their speech problems, gave him special insight into the problem of Bertie. What Lionel recognized that so many other experts before him did not – including Dr. Blandine Bentham who recommended emulating Demosthenes’ method of speaking with pebbles in his mouth – was that Bertie’s problem wasn’t necessarily with the mechanics of his speaking. His stammer was, in fact, rooted in his childhood, especially in the oppressive overshadowing of his older brother. That’s why so many therapists before Lionel failed. They tried mechanical technique after technique, but all ended in frustration. Lionel’s gift was that he paid acute attention to Bertie’s feelings, whether about his father, brother, or even worldview. In discussing his feelings, Bertie inadvertently revealed to Lionel hidden clues about the nature of his speech impediment. With this information, Lionel performed various exercises with Bertie which were aimed specifically at overcoming the fears and insecurities from his youth and family life. By forcing Bertie to confront those fears and insecurities head-on, Lionel infused in him the confidence and skill necessary deliver a powerful speech.

At its most fundamental level, The King’s Speech is about how a man, whose entire life was under public scrutiny, overcame his fears and insecurities and ultimately went on to assume the throne and lead his nation in one of the tensest climates in world history. But on another level, it was about how a middle class man, without connections or a prestigious education or a fortune, overcame such disadvantages, through enterprise, experience, and tremendous sensitivity, to be the chosen personal aide of the future King of England. That Bertie was able to look past Lionel’s lack of pedigree, especially in such an aristocratic country as England where titles and family heritage are so important, and turn to him for help is a triumph in itself. So despite much pressure from people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose position has been integral to English history since the 6th Century, Bertie feels the utmost of confidence in Lionel’s abilities, not to mention character, and readily overlooks such perceived shortcomings.


Even though Lionel was the only speech therapist who had any noticeable impact on Bertie, he was still questioned because of his lack of a pedigree. And to some people, the lack of a degree or certification or accreditation of some sort, especially a prestigious one, is an automatic disqualifier for a job or activity despite the proven ability to be successfully at it.

But these disqualifiers aren’t confined to just presumptuous beliefs and judgments. They are, in fact, embedded into our public policies in the form of occupational licenses. An occupational license is an accreditation given by a governing body of people of a certain trade or profession that permits someone from practicing that trade or profession. To obtain this accreditation, one must usually take a costly examination, which formal schooling is probably a prerequisite. And the school’s curriculum will probably be influenced and approved by that governing body. Without the license, one disqualified from following the occupation of his/her choosing. No license, no job.

To understand the limitations of occupational licensing, think of the fact that in today’s age Abraham Lincoln could not be a practicing lawyer. To be a practicing lawyer in the United States today, one must first pay for and attend a four-year bachelor degree. Then one must pay for and attend a three-year law school, the curriculum of which has to meet the standards of the American Bar Association (ABA), the governing body of American lawyers. Then finally, one has to take the bar examination. After all has been said and done, the accumulated costs of becoming a lawyer are at least seven years and upwards of $250,000.

Lincoln, however, completed none of these. [It must be noted that he was admitted to the bar, but did not have to pass any of the aforementioned requirements.] He barely had any formal education at all, in fact. But he was a very successful lawyer. How did he do it without adhering to the standards of the ABA? He taught himself and he learned by experience. According to biographer, David Herbert Donald, Lincoln purchased a copy of William Gladstone’s authoritative Commentaries on the Laws of England, a book read closely by many famous American lawyers such as John Adams, at an auction and then “went at it in good earnest.” Indeed, he was a voracious reader. He devoured many texts on the law, including Joseph Chitty’s Pleadings, Simon Greenleaf’s Treatise on the Law of Evidence, and Joseph Story’s Equity Jurisprudence. He retired so deeply into himself with his books that one of his colleagues said: “He read so much – was so studious – too[k] so little physical exercise – was so laborious in his studies that he became emaciated and his best friends were afraid that he would craze himself,” [Quote from Donald].

Along with his self-education, Lincoln also gained practical experience by serving in the Illinois General Assembly. After his second campaign, he was elected as a representative as a member of the Whig Party. In this role he drafted legislature with painstaking detail, listened to formal procedures, and debated local political matters. After his term was up in the Assembly, Lincoln practiced law and then was reputed enough to open his own practice in Springfield.

Like Lionel, Lincoln had no formal degree, no credential bestowed upon him. What he learned, he learned from an insatiable appetite of books and from the experiences of putting himself out there into the workplace, where he learned from a wide array of jobs (particularly in the legal field). Over time and steady practice, Lincoln became one of the best known lawyers in American history just as Lionel is one of the best known speech therapists in history.


Milton Friedman has presented a thoroughly persuasive case against occupational licensing in his Capitalism and Freedom, so we need not repeat such arguments here. However, in today’s dismal economy, with such a worrisome rate of unemployment, the costs of occupational licensing must be recognized. Lionel and Lincoln, each an exceptional practitioner of his craft, would today be ineligible, by trade association edict, to work in their respective fields. They would have to spend years of their life and tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars, most likely in loan debt, on just being admitted as an entry-level practitioner. Clearly this is not beneficial to them or to those who use their services (notably a king!).


See also:

For the effects of such licensing on young people, see “Doctorate in Babysitting” by Nicole Gelinas.

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