Whatever Happened to the Art of Oratory?
September 29, 2012
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…