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 Soviet statistics).
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 about them.
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 engaged electorate.
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…