It’s just seven weeks tomorrow to the General Election – and I’m already fed-up with the political rhetoric. Or should I say, the lack of it.
I really do feel that there is a distinct dearth of speech-making charisma among UK politicians these days. Prime Minister David Cameron, the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Chancellor of the Exchequeur George Osbourne and his Labour opposite number, Ed Balls, to name but five, do not inspire me whatsoever. Where have all today’s great political speech-makers gone?
One of the problems in the coming election I face is that I do not – cannot, even – support the perspectives and policies espoused by the one or two politicians who are, in the scheme of things, quite effective speakers. Who, you might ask? Well, Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond for instance. I actually find them quite obnoxious individuals, but acknowledge they are effective speakers.
Like them or loathe them, former Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were excellent speakers – of conviction. Gordon Brown certainly came alive towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. He was speaking from the heart and you could tell that he felt and meant every word.
Unfortunately that’s not the case with most political speech making today. No wonder many if not most Westminster parliamentarians lack credibility. They trot out trite slogans and expect us to believe them. I’m almost at the point of throwing something at the TV screen if I ever hear a Tory politician mention, for the umpteenth time, that the Party has ‘a long-term economic plan’ (sometimes shortened to ‘long-term plan’) in response to almost any question. And of course they are attempting to emphasize their difference from their Labour opponents who apparently do NOT have ‘a long-term economic plan’.
Well, it was in the context of catching up with last Sunday’s The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, and his interview with George Osbourne, that the idea for this blog post formed in my mind. As soon as I heard the dreaded ‘ALTEP’ mentioned, I remembered an excellent piece I read recently in the BBC website by Cambridge University Professor of Classics Mary Beard. As a classicist, she makes the point that today’s politicians are too risk averse, not attempting to deliver convincing arguments, but instead just spouting a range of statements. Is there any attempt to convince us, or even to inspire us to believe what they are spelling out. And here is Professor Beard speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight program.
In all fairness to Ed Miliband, he was, I believe, a more effective speaker when he made a speech without reference to notes, or indeed never speaking from a lectern. It sounded as though he really believed what he was saying. But unfortunately he fell at the next fence, to use a horse-racing allegory. In his leader’s speech at the last Labour Party conference last autumn – the last conference before the General Election – Miliband omitted one important topic in his speech: the UK budget deficit and how Labour would tackle this. Since then, poor Ed has been tied to the lectern, has teleprompters either side, and carefully does not ‘ski off-piste’. In doing so he has become a run-of-the-mill political speech-maker and his credibility has declined accordingly.
Where would we have been in 1940 if David Cameron had been a war-time leader rather than Winston Churchill? Or Labour politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevin, Minister of Health in Clement Atlee’s post-war cabinet, responsible for the introduction of the National Health Service, that ‘jewel in the crown’ of UK institutions that all political parties are fighting over as we head towards the election?
Maybe it’s the presidential political system in the United States that throws up more charismatic leaders. Just watch this speech by President Obama at Selma a week or so ago, and ask yourself (if you live in the UK) when was the last time you were moved by a speech by a politician here.
President Bill Clinton was also a charismatic speaker – love him or loathe him. But in 2001 (when I was in the Philippines) I tuned into the BBC one evening and watched Clinton deliver the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture, on the topic The Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century. It was one of the most remarkable speeches I have ever listened to. Speaking for almost 50 minutes – without notes – and leaning against the lectern, Clinton engaged his audience, was erudite, thoughtful, and challenging in what he had to say. There are few politicians that can match that sort of delivery, oratory even (Obama it seems was cut from the same cloth). And he inspired.
As the General Election approaches, I need inspiring and persuading. Give me some robust arguments to mull over. The politicians who seek our support at the ballot box need more fire in their bellies.