Whatever Happened to the Art of Oratory?

The need to provide soundbites while avoiding "gaffes" has reduced politicians' speeches to intolerable banality

Andrew Gimson

Blockbuster Bill: Clinton’s speech to the Democratic Convention was watched by more people than the NFL’s season kick-off game

Our politicians have stopped talking to us. They talk instead among themselves. Words are the most powerful weapon at their disposal, yet they employ them so evasively that no normal person could wish to listen to what they have to say. Our political class conducts its disputes like the worst kind of academic: the sort who uses the English language in such an opaque, tedious and self-regarding manner that only those whose careers depend on it can be bothered to follow what is being said.

A case can be made for allowing parliamentarians to address other parliamentarians without having to worry how their words will sound to the man or woman in the Dog and Duck. William Windham made it in 1798, when Britain was at war with France. According to Windham, Secretary at War, parliamentary reporting was “an evil in its nature” and was to blame for the naval mutiny in 1797. He contended that “newspaper writers were not the best judges of political affairs” and observed that newspapers “were carried everywhere, read everywhere, by persons of very inferior capacities, and in common alehouses and places frequented chiefly by those who were least of all accustomed to reflection, to any great mental efforts”.

Windham warned that if parliamentary reporting were allowed, it would have the effect “of changing the present form of government, and of making it democratical”. This is what happened: the story is well told by Andrew Sparrow in Obscure Scribblers, his history of parliamentary journalism (2003). As early as 1828, Macaulay noted that “the gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.”

But in the 1990s, Sparrow relates, “newspapers abandoned the custom of employing gallery reporters to provide a straightforward record of what was said in the House, a form of journalism that had survived more or less unchanged since the 1770s.” People of a conservative disposition were distressed by this change, but few of them imagined there was anything to be done about it. Nor was there much discussion of why a straightforward record of what our politicians said was no longer of interest.

The gallery still contains five sketchwriters (of whom I was until recently one): parliamentary proceedings are considered just about tolerable if leavened by the laboured witticisms of irreverent observers. But editors no longer detect an appetite among their readers for the quotation of more than a few words of what a politician has actually said. Nor do the politicians think, when composing an extended text, of how to engage the interest of the widest possible audience. After all, a mass of unreadable verbiage can still gain wide coverage if it contains a single phrase, or soundbite, which is considered new.

Hence the failure by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband to form an emotional connection with the British electorate.  In politics, as in private life, you cannot generally get very close to people if you refuse to talk to them. A series of soundbites which supposedly tell the voters what they want to hear, and which are conveyed via intermediaries, will not do. There is no substitute for the attempt at prolonged and direct communication. Anything less soon comes to seem like an insult and estrangement follows. If politicians do not bother with people, why should people bother with politicians?   

In his essay “Politics and the English Language”, published in Horizon in 1946, George Orwell identified many of the faults that had already appeared in political writing: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Orwell noted that following a party line produces especially dismal language: “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.”

For Orwell, the flight into stale abstraction was explained mainly by the attempt to defend the indefensible: “Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

In our own day, I would attribute a higher proportion of the vagueness to mental vacuity: to the inability of the speaker to think of anything worth saying. Let us leave on one side the narrow bounds that democracy sets to what can be said by anyone who wishes to avoid being written off as mad. My concern here is with the alarmingly undemocratic manner in which our politicians now practise their trade. They never have to address public mass meetings and in most cases would have no idea how to do so. The party conferences are shrunken affairs, stuffed with journalists and lobbyists, and contain very few rank-and-file members, for whom attendance has become too expensive and unrewarding. The hierarchies much prefer small, lifeless audiences to large ones which might get out of hand: in 2005 Walter Wolfgang, an 82-year-old peace activist, was thrown out of the Labour Party conference for shouting “That’s a lie, and you know it,” during an account by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, of why we had invaded Iraq. The audience which career politicians most often have in mind is either their own party leadership, which they are anxious not to offend; or else the parliamentary lobby: a splendid body of trained newshounds, but one which has a doctrine of the “gaffe”, understood as any slightly unusual statement; or else the broadcasters, who don’t want more than a few words.

Let me illustrate what I mean. On September 2, 2012 an article appeared under the Prime Minister’s byline in the Mail on Sunday.  It began: “This week, politics starts again for the autumn and I profoundly believe we can face Britain’s challenges with confidence.” The word “challenges” is used by politicians to refer to problems which they have no idea how to tackle, or none which they are willing to share with a wider audience. The article also made profligate use of such terms as “vision”, “truth” and “progress”. It was characterised not just by intolerable banality but by a vacuous and self-regarding strain of moral uplift. Here is the ending:

At every turn we are taking the hard road over the easy path and we are doing so because we have a clear destination in mind: a truly great Britain; equal to the challenges of the 21st Century; a country we are proud to call home not just for this golden month of the Olympics and Paralympics but in every month, all the time.

I’m confident we’re making progress. And I’m more ready than ever for the challenge ahead.

Fair-minded readers will say Mr Cameron should not be judged by an article which he certainly did not have time to write himself. I agree, but do not regard this as a full defence. For the article was the Prime Minister’s opportunity to speak directly to readers of the Mail on Sunday, and he insulted them by showing not the slightest interest in doing so.

From the point of view of the No 10 machine, it was fine to submit a string of unreadable platitudes, because no normal person was expected to get through this stuff. The piece was aimed at correspondents who devote their lives to extracting stories from unpromising material. Simon Walters, the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, duly produced a front-page piece under the headline, “Cameron roars back: I’m no mouse”.

The word “mouse” was not in the article. It had been supplied by Tim Yeo, a Tory backbencher, who had written some days earlier in an article in the Daily Telegraph that on the question of a third runway for Heathrow, Mr Cameron “must ask himself whether he is man or mouse”. But the Prime Minister’s assertion, somewhere in the depths of his piece, that it was time to “cut through the dither” (itself an abstract statement of questionable value) had provided sufficient evidence for Mr Walters to write his story, and for the rest of the media to get the message too.

The sad thing about Mr Cameron is that he can do better than this. The Conservatives voted for him in October 2005 because he gave a better conference speech than David Davis, who had been expected to win the leadership election. Here are a few paragraphs from the winning speech:

I joined this party because I love my country. I love our character. I love our people, our history, our role in the world. This is the only party that understands, and is proud of, what we have been and who we are.

I joined this party because I believe in freedom. We are the only party believing that if you give people freedom and responsibility, they will grow stronger and society will grow stronger.

I joined this party because I believe in aspiration. This party, the Conservative party, is the only party that wants everybody to be a somebody — a doer, not — a done for.

That’s the spirit we have to recapture. I want people to feel good about being a Conservative again.

The speech worked, not because its words are great literature, but because the speaker was so obviously intent on forming an emotional connection with his listeners. He knew that if he was going to persuade his party to accept, as he put it,  “fundamental change” rather than some “slick rebranding exercise”, he had to start by showing that he is a traditional Conservative, filled with love of our country and its history. If only Mr Cameron had dared since then to be more unashamedly traditional, more true to his Tory roots, I think people would now find him more genuine.

As it was, we witnessed the paradox of a self-proclaimed moderniser winning an election by using what many people regard as an obsolete form: the platform speech. His oratory gave him the edge over his rivals. But although Mr Cameron has maintained, in the seven years since his victory, the self-possession which he displayed in Blackpool, he has not managed to give many memorable speeches. His response to the Bloody Sunday inquiry was one, and his “big, open and comprehensive offer to the Liberal Democrats” on the morning after the 2010 general election was another, though some will say the latter was too brief to count as a speech. We have also had a vast number of addresses which were designed simply to colonise various parts of the political landscape by saying unobjectionable things about them.

Mr Cameron has enjoyed victories as a parliamentary debater, notably when he said of Tony Blair that “he was the future once”. But the Prime Minister has failed to build a deeper relationship with the British people by giving substantial speeches in which he seems to take us directly into his confidence. There is something impervious about his good manners. The speeches in which he attempted to explain the Big Society were a flop, and he has found nothing else to fill the gap, or nothing that rises above the blandness of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.    

Not that it would be fair to blame Mr Cameron for giving mediocre speeches when almost everyone else is worse. Among his rivals, only Boris Johnson has the merit of knowing how to delight and connect with the public: an ability that might one day give him a decisive advantage. Here, by contrast, is the end of a speech delivered by Ed Miliband at the Stock Exchange on September 6, 2012:

A responsible capitalism is a resilient capitalism.
I recognise that this agenda is about long-term change in the economy and it will take time.
But I believe the British people know in their heart of hearts that our economy needs big change.
Not business as usual, let alone politics as usual.
They recognise the scale of the challenge. And they demand that we rise to it.
We’re not going to wait for this Government to fail.
That’s why I say the new agenda is so important.
It is essential, if we are to pay our way in the world, pay down the deficit, and build an economy that works for working people.
The task for my party, and for you, is to develop this new thinking that will allow us to build the new economy.
That is the shared challenge we face today.
I look forward to working with you on it in the months and years ahead.

For whom is this speech intended? Once again, there is an over-reliance on abstract words — “agenda”, “change”, “challenge” — and no sign that Mr Miliband wishes to speak directly to the general public. Our political class seems to have forgotten that this might, in a democracy, be a desirable accomplishment. Our 18th-century oligarchy produced oratory of such high calibre that the press clamoured to be allowed in to record it. Our 21st-century oligarchy produces oratory of such low quality that no one can be bothered to listen.

Between these two periods occurred the rise and fall of the public meeting: an occasion when a speaker might be subjected to brutal heckling or worse. When Alec Dunglass — as Alec Douglas-Home, Prime Minister from 1963-64 — stood as a National Unionist in Lanark in 1931, he had to be removed for his own safety through a window from a meeting in the mining village of Stonehouse.

But from the first Midlothian campaign in late 1879, during which Gladstone estimated that he spoke to 86,000 people in a fortnight, the public meeting could become a triumphant encounter between a statesman with star appeal and his enraptured fans. Lord Rosebery, who organised Gladstone’s campaign, was inspired to do so in part by a visit he had made to the Democratic Convention in New York in 1873. Rosebery’s own premiership in 1894-95 was unhappy, but he was such a brilliant platform orator that ticket touts operated outside the venues where he was to speak. His biographer, Leo McKinstry, quotes a description of his speaking manner published in the Sunday Sun in 1901:

Lord Rosebery steps up to the platform, places his hands upon the table or rail in front of him, and surveys the audience before he commences to speak. It is during that survey that his audience receives the impression of his superiority. It is as if he said, “I am master here. You must listen to every word I have to say!” And they listen and accept his mastery. He is a lord and he acts in a lordly manner. He knows that it is one of the peculiarities of a crowd, no matter how democratic it may be, to delight in being mastered and he masters it!

Rosebery has faded from public memory, but Winston Churchill will always be remembered as an orator, thanks to his immortal performances in 1940. Yet, as David Cannadine reminds us in his introduction to a collection of Churchill’s speeches, this mastery was only attained as a result of very hard work: “He studied — and often memorised — the greatest orations of Cromwell, Chatham, Burke, Pitt, Macaulay, Bright, Disraeli and Gladstone . . . He laboured heroically to overcome his lisp and his stammer . . . Above all, he was obliged to lavish hours on the detailed construction of the speeches themselves.”

It would be astonishing to find a politician today who devotes so much energy to writing speeches. Few understand what a valuable use of time this would be. To write a good speech is to be forced to clarify what you think about something. You have to decide how you are going to justify your opinions, and also how you are going to hold a particular audience. You end by discovering how to be yourself.

To deliver a bad speech — one which is more obscure or banal or dull than it would be if you had taken trouble over it — is an insult to your audience. To her credit, Margaret Thatcher took a great deal of trouble with her speeches. Even her enemies could not deny her seriousness of purpose. She conveyed a determination to be straight with people which is seldom found in her successors. Ferdinand Mount has given, in his memoir Cold Cream, a very funny account of the horrors of writing speeches for her: “Her ear was unfailingly tinny and, though she could be devastating and inspiring in unscripted harangues, the sight of a written text would make her freeze.”

In 1983-84, during brief service in the Conservative Research Department, I found myself recruited as the junior member of a team preparing a speech for the Prime Minister to deliver about foreign policy. It was Oliver Letwin’s idea to write this speech, and he sat typing it at an early word processor which he alone knew how to use. I stood behind him making suggestions, alongside Alistair Cooke, a historian who served for many years as the research department’s deputy director and as the marvellously eloquent and exacting editor of its publications. He has recently been ennobled as Lord Lexden.

We began by announcing that there were three fundamental principles of British foreign policy. After a while we thought of another principle, so changed this to four fundamental principles. I was delighted when my colleagues agreed to include in the peroration the well-known but perhaps slightly unexpected quotation by Oliver Cromwell about “a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows”.

The speech was put in to Mrs Thatcher, who was said to approve of it. We waited to see if she would deliver it. It was reported that she kept our speech in her handbag, and would produce it during difficult speech-writing sessions with the words: “I think there might be something here that can help us.”

And so there was. According to Lord Lexden, a paragraph or two was used at the conference of the Welsh Conservatives. And I still remember the incredulous joy with which I learned that the peroration, including the quotation by Oliver Cromwell, had been inflicted on the Conservative Women’s Conference.

We must look to America for a living tradition of platform oratory. The great public meetings at which the presidential contenders perform can make a poor impression when all one sees of them is a short clip on the television news. The candidate generally appears to be surrounded by a group of grown men and women who are screaming like over-excited five-year-olds.

But during the 2008 presidential campaign I was lucky enough to go to about a dozen of these meetings. The delightful thing about them was that although the candidate was surrounded by the faithful, on the edge of a meeting you would find Americans who had just come along to see how the candidate looked and sounded. The direct link with the public had not been broken. Amid all the money and the razzmatazz, the best speaker came through.

One cannot pretend that great orators — Lord Rosebery, Barack Obama, George Galloway — necessarily make great statesmen. But anyone who aspires to lead a democracy ought to be able to explain to the demos what he or she is about. A prime minister or president is an advocate not only in his or her own cause, but in the nation’s cause. The quality of his or her advocacy matters.

As I write this paragraph, I am listening to Bill Clinton’s speech to this year’s Democratic Convention. It is 50 minutes long, and according to the Washington Post was watched on television by more people than saw the National Football League’s season kick-off game between the Giants and the Cowboys. I am listening it to it on YouTube, a few days after it was delivered. Clinton has never been my cup of tea, but his speech was said to have gone down extraordinarily well and I wanted to hear it for myself. There is no memorable soundbite in the speech: to gain a satisfactory impression of how lucid, powerful and uncondescending it was, you need to listen to the whole thing. And that is the point: we want to hear these people for ourselves, and in full, rather than rely on second-hand accounts punctuated by snippets and soundbites. The technology exists for us to do so. British politicians have not yet realised this, but the future belongs to orators.

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