Photo from @i-Images
Clare Foges is now the Prime Minister's speechwriter and is profiled in today's Daily Mail. She was a Conservative researcher and activist when this article lamenting the death of
passionate political oratory was first published on this site in 2007.
Friends, Readers, Conservatives: oratory is dying.
Rhetoric is always in decline; the Romans feared it had died with
Cicero. But it is undeniable that in recent history we have witnessed
a slow sterilisation of public debate which is impoverishing politics
and perhaps endangering democracy itself.
Nearly thirty years ago Margaret Thatcher boldly launched her
premiership with a quote from St Francis of Assisi: ‘Where there is
discord, may we bring harmony; where there is error, may we bring
truth; where there is doubt, may we bring faith; and where there is
despair, may we bring hope.’ It was an elevated allusion for an
important occasion, grand words to portend great change. Our new Prime
Minister’s first speech was rather more prosaic; a dull catalogue of
platitudes delivered with auto-pilot gravity. Likewise, at the despatch
box he seems to be channelling his father at the Presbyterian pulpit
rather than galvanising his government for the ‘great change’ he keeps
This is no reflection on his personal charm or
oratorical ability. Many have reported that Brown is a regular raconteur
in ‘real life’ – a friend who met him recently testified to his wit and
magnetism. But he, like every other high-profile politician, must toe
an invisible line when speaking in public. They are bound by the
unwritten rules of what I’ll call ‘antiseptic oratory’: political speech
cleansed of anything remotely contentious, anything colourful, anything
impulsive, anything that might be deemed offensive to anyone.
Antiseptic oratory has a number of causes. First, it is a natural
successor to spin. Since the concept of spin was absorbed by the
national consciousness, politicians have been wary of using language
that might smack of sophistry. They worry that high rhetoric and grand,
literary allusions can be confused with chicanery and so avoid them,
which is a great shame. (After all, New Labour spin never clothes itself
in elegant or elevated language; they simply use weasel words and
The second cause is what famed speechwriter Peggy Noonan calls ‘the
modern egalitarian impulse’, which ‘has made politicians leery of
flaunting high rhetoric; attempts to reach, to find the right if
esoteric quote or allusion seem pretentious.’ So, though no less
educated than Gladstone or Churchill, they appeal to the lowest common
denominator. Like private school kids shedding their blazer at the bus
stop to look cool, they shed the heavy mantle of their education to
emulate – and hopefully appeal to – an imaginary ‘everyman’.
The third and most powerful cause of antiseptic oratory is the
scrutiny of the media (especially the more reactive elements of the
special interest media), whose hair-trigger offence mechanisms make
politicians terrified of broaching difficult subjects head-on, or of
using any language that might be deemed politically incorrect.
In an attempt to circumvent the difficult subjects and appeal to
everyone, the political class has devised its own language with a proxy
vocabulary that means little to anyone outside Westminster. People are
called ‘disadvantaged’ instead of poor and ‘vulnerable’ instead of old
or disabled; communities are in need of ‘cohesion’; departments must be
‘fit for purpose’; government must be ‘joined-up’.
Vague euphemisms are strung loosely together in series of simple
sentences, devoid of eloquence or allusion, or any other linguistic
mechanism that might elevate the oratory of those who run our country.
Though such speech has the appearance of simplicity and transparency it
is opaque – it gives no true idea of how our public figures genuinely
feel about the issues in hand and no concrete terms of what they will do
Ironically, the more attention politicians and their speechwriters
pay to a speech, the more it is refined, the less attention the public
will pay to it. This has serious implications for a sustainable, true
democracy. When a politician’s rhetorical range is limited to a narrow,
muted vocabulary and uniform understatement, their listeners hear
‘blah’ – antiseptic oratory breeds apathy.
Part of a politician’s job is to excite people, to engage them in the
issues and encourage them to vote. There will always be a need for
adversarial debate, strongly-worded speeches and passionate discourse
framed in language that can, as Peggy Noonan puts it so beautifully,
‘make dance the dullest bean-bag of a heart’ and fuel democracy with an
One need only look across the channel for evidence of an appetite for
old-fashioned oratory. Sarkozy’s victory in the French election is
enormously significant because of everything that made it unlikely. He
won despite the fact that he was campaigning on a platform of reform in a
stubbornly retrogressive country and despite his doctrine of hard work
in the land of the 35-hour week. He didn’t win on the issues, he won
because he gave them what they did want: genuine passion.
In the last speech of his campaign he broke all the rules of
antiseptic oratory. Buoyed up by a sea of waving tricolores, he dripped
with sweat as he boldly promised to be France’s protector. He was
negative, even angry as he roared ‘I hate this fashion for repentance!’
He was impulsive, almost maniacal, as he started chanting ‘Authority!
Authority! Authority!’ (not, traditionally, a popular word with voters).
But the crowd went crazy, cheering, waving, stamping their feet. That
night in Marseilles they were witness to the powerful alchemy that
occurs when a passionate speaker meets an adulating audience. The next
day there was a near-record turn-out at the polling booths, the highest
for fifty years. The two are not unconnected.
The appetite for old-fashioned oratory presents a great opportunity
for David Cameron. He will only convince the electorate that the
Conservatives are the natural party of government if he rouses the
sleeping ‘whole-souled, sentimental equipment’ that is the heart of
British Conservatism, and to do this he must scorn antiseptic oratory
for a style that is both more grand and more genuine.
Just as George Bush is famous for employing the great American
abstractions – liberty, justice, equality, independence – to his
advantage, so Cameron should be bold enough to use our own great British
abstractions – duty, honour, fairness, steadfastness – to communicate
the essence of Conservatism and why Britain needs it now.
It was a speech that won David Cameron the leadership. It will be
speech that wins him – us – the next election. He must be bold enough to
challenge the orthodoxy of antiseptic oratory; to stand in the public
arena unclothed by political cliché; to trust in the imagination and
intelligence of the British people. He must be brave enough to speak
with the safety catch off.
Cue cheers, whoops, weeping…