Michael Deacon, sketchwriter of the Daily Telegraph, is not very impressed by the standard of public speaking in Birmingham: “It’s all just sterile, torpid, faceless, mirthless, generic, committee-approved, insincere managerial blah.” He is right, but such lamentable rhetoric will in time produce a reaction.
David Cameron won the leadership because at the Blackpool conference in 2005 he gave a better speech than David Davis. Barack Obama was elected President because he is the greatest speaker of his time. Anyone who aspires to reach the top ought to conclude that it is worth devoting infinite pains to his or her oratory.
Winston Churchill did so, which meant he was able to give the roar in 1940. Margaret Thatcher was not a speaker in the highest class, but she was a tremendous performer, who was very seldom dull, and inflicted excruciating pain on her speech-writers as she prepared for her party conference speech. She knew this speech mattered, and that it would be an insult to the party faithful not to get it as good as she and her assistants could manage. Ferdinand Mount’s account, in “Cold Cream”, of taking part in these horrifically protracted sessions, with the speech getting worse and worse, and Jeffrey Archer sending a completely unusable joke round in his car, and then ringing up to check it has arrived, is one of the funniest things I have read about politics.
In order to defer contact with the oratory, it is worth visiting, on the far side of an enormous building site from the conference centre but only about seven minutes’ walk away, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The first painting on the right, in the great domed chamber which one enters after climbing the stairs and admiring the memorials to benefactors, is “The Travelling Companions”, painted in 1862 by Augustus Egg. Two richly dressed young women, one reading a book, the other asleep, sit on either side of a railway compartment. Between them, through the window, Egg offers a view of blue sea, mountains and a coastal town. There is something magical about this picture, and to leave Birmingham without seeing it would be a waste. One can then press on, through half a dozen more rooms, to find the wonderful collection of pictures by Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.
A preacher was addressing the queue waiting to get into the conference: “Will you carry on casting off Britain’s Christian inheritance? This nation cannot prosper if it turns against the one true Trinitarian God.” These strictures are surely unfair as far as Theresa May is concerned. There is no evidence that she wishes to cast off her Christian inheritance. Her father trained for the priesthood at the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, in Yorkshire, a great Anglo-Catholic institution with roots in 19th-century Christian socialism and strong involvement in the 20th century in the struggle against Apartheid.
When May tells the conference in her speech today that she wants to see a Britain “where every single person, regardless of their background or that of their parents, is given the chance to be all they want to be”, she is giving expression to her religious as well as her political views. But one of the advantages of the Church of England (though the preacher outside the conference would presumably not agree with this) is that it offers a way to be religious without sounding religious.
Why do so many expensive hotels think it is a good thing to make their windows unopenable? I suppose it stops their guests from hurling themselves to the ground, with all the distressing and time-consuming consequences which would ensue. But if one is used to a supply of fresh air at night, it makes getting back to sleep almost impossible when one wakes in the small hours of the morning from a wine-induced stupor.
Can’t we go back to Blackpool? I know this is a minority taste, at least among journalists, many of whom are ridiculously fussy about their food. But in Blackpool, there was often a gale blowing off the Irish Sea, which each morning had a reinvigorating effect. And the Winter Gardens are a wonderful venue compared to the soulless conference centres which blight the centre of so many other towns. And Blackpool is much cheaper than either Manchester or Birmingham, which means that party members of modest means are more likely to attend the conference. And although pretentious folk like to denigrate Blackpool, as far as I can remember, one could always open the window in one’s hotel or boarding house, and fill one’s lungs with good sea air.