Wednesday, 22 October 2008

An Imperishable Power to Move Us All - revisited

The art of political speaking has changed. I won't repeat what I said on a previous blog on this subject, quoting at length from George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. All of us are aware that political speeches have changed drastically. Here I present six examples over the past 75 years. The first four were made when speeches could actively make a difference.

On March 4, 1933, incoming US President Franklin D Roosevelt gave his inaugural address to the people of America at a time much like our own, a time of stock market collapses, a universal slump in trade, unemployment, uncertainty and a good deal of fear. I had never read this speech before, although I had heard its most often quoted phrase: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

You might like to know what immediately follows that. It's this: "- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Spot the cliche, the hand-me-down phrase. You cannot because there isn't one, not one in the whole speech. The nation waited for words of biblical import - as Americans tend to at times of crises - and the President reached down into his heart and soul and delivered them.

"The rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubborness and their own incompetence...Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men..."

Restoring the "temple of civilisation" depended on the application of "social values more noble than mere monetary profit"...confidence was languishing because it could only thrive on "honour, on the sacredness of obligations, a faithful protection and an unselfish performance..."

After outlining how the US Government was to be the agent of change, President Roosevelt went on to say that self-respect would lead to respect for others in the field of "world policy". Society must move as an army, as one, with discipline and a sense of obligation. He concluded by asking for God's help.

Those of you who know more than I do about the ramifications of the New Deal might take issue with the President's ideas; but no one can doubt the heart-felt seriousness of this speech. Gordon Brown referred to its "imperishable power to move us all."


On December 56, 1956, the House of Commons gathered to hear Aneurin Bevan respond to The Conservative Government's defence of its decision to send British forces to invade Egypt, following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt's President Nasser and the subsequent attack on Egypt by Israel, France and Britain.

I am not concerned here with the nuances of the whole debate, nor with the pros and cons of what became known as Suez. Mr Bevan's speech is the sole object of my attention. Again, I had never read it before.

In the course of his speech Mr Bevan gaily referred to "Freudian lapses" (by a Government Cabinet Minister), Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, "a long story of moral decline" and to "Marianne" - the female symbol of Paris. These references alone, delivered in everyday speech, without a conscious wish to show off, were indicative of the civility of the whole speech. This made the withering satire in it even more impressive. Mr Bevan flayed the Government without once losing his temper or resorting to the self-justifying wisdom of hindsight. His witty use of light irony on such a serious matter made Conservatives sit back and laugh.

He started off in a disarming fashion. "When a nation makes war upon another nation it should be quite clear why it does so. It should not keep changing the reasons as time goes on." He then enjoyed himself inspecting these reasons, one by one, doing so with an air of mounting incredulity, like a health inspector in an appalling kitchen.

The claim that Britain had gone in to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East earned the comparison with Madame Bovary.

What of the claim that Britain had invaded to ensure that Israel withdrew her forces from Egypt? "We went into Egyptian territory in order to establish our moral right to make the Israelis clear out. That is a remarkable war aim is it not? But unfortunately we had to bomb the Egyptians first."

Mr Bevan saved up his most devestating riposte for the Government's fifth reason: to allow the United Nations to intervene in the Canal Zone. It was as if "Mussolini and Hitler had made war on the world in order to call the United Nations into being...If it were possible for bacteria to argue with each other, they would be able to say that of course their justification was the advancement of medical science."

Who today would be able to employ that Kafkaesque image in the certain knowledge that it would be understood by the public at large?

"There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that we have attempted to use methods which were bound to destroy the objectives we had, and, of course, this is what we have discovered...The Government resorted to epic weapons for squalid trivial ends, and that is why, all through this unhappy period, ministers, all of them, have spoken and argued and debated well below their proper form - because they have been synthetic villains. They are not really villains. They have only set off on a villainous course, and they cannot even use the language of villainy."

Some said afterwards that Mr Bevan's was the greatest speech they had ever heard in the House of Commons. It changed behaviour, including the voting intentions of some senior Conservatives. Ah, but that was a time when Parliament was truly sovereign, not merely a cog in the wheel of a gigantic European unicycle .


There can hardly be a person of my generation (I was born in 1949) who cannot recall a single word or phrase of Dr Martin Luther King's mighty speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, on August 28, 1963. His final acclamation still gives me shivers and brings tears to my eyes: "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

The occasion demanded a memorable speech. A quarter of a million Americans, many of them Blacks from the South, had gathered to demonstrate peacably to the whole world the necessity of the Civil Rights campaign. It was also intended to send a message to the Government of President John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby, the US Attorney General.

What is immediately striking about Dr King's speech is his awareness of its purpose. "We've come here today to dramatise a shameful condition." And this is precisely what he shaped his speech to do, cleverly using the metaphor of wealth associated with the American Dream as a metaphor for justice - the "bank of justice".

Rhetorical devices are also employed for both structure and emphasis, for like the other two speeches this one was written in lively, literate paragraphs. "Now is the time," is used four times at the start to sound the note of urgency. "The swelling summer of discontent of the negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality..." Shakespeare's "winter of discontent" that opens Richard III has been given a twist.

"We can never be satisfied" is repeated four times. "...until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream". The "valley of despair" is contrasted to "going up to the mountain". Then Dr King begins his peroration with "I have a dream..." This is repeated no fewer than eight times with gathering force until he hits his final inspiring note, using the seminal image of the old fight against slavery: "Let freedom ring..." He says this six times.

The force of this speech was not aimed solely at changing national policy; its deeper purpose was to emotionalise sterility and release men and women from the bondage of their bigotry.


I saw Margaret Thatcher only once in real life; it was at the Conservative Party conference in 1979, at Blackpool I think it was, the year she won the first of her three General Elections. What struck me right away was how small she was, like Princess Margaret. Television cameras seemed to make the Prime Minister look more physically imposing than she really was.

By the time she came to make her speech to the party at the Brighton conference, on October 10, 1980, the mood in the country had changed sharply. Interest rates and inflation were rampant, unemployment had gone past two million, manufacturing had been decimated. The Government itself was divided between 'wets' and 'dries', the former believing that economic recovery should not be pursued at the expense of social disintegration. They wanted Mrs Thatcher to do a U-turn and soften her tough economic policy.

The Prime Minister's job was threefold: to rally the party faithful, to impose herself upon her MPs, especially those in the Cabinet, and to offer some assurance to the country at large that she was not going to bend with the winds of change. Her speech-writer Ronnie Miller gave her the perfect image for expressing her intent. "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

Admire it or deplore it, the one thing you cannot say about that turn of phrase is that it is not instantly memorable. "The lady's not for turning" itself is tongue-in-cheek, based, as I'm sure it is, on the title of some melodrama. Rather than spit fire and brimstone at her critics witthin the party, Mrs Thatcher rather wittily put them in their place.

This speech had to be sober and reflect the seriousness of the times. It does that. Again, this is a speech composed in literate paragraphs. "Prosperity comes not from grand conferences of accountants but by countless acts of personal self-confidence and self-reliance...The state drains society, not only of its wealth but of initiative, of energy, the will to improve and innovate as well as to preserve what is best..." She called for "wisdom and resolution".

While not uplifting like President Roosevelt's speech, nor scintillating like Mr Bevan's, nor soul-stirringly emotional like Dr King's, Mrs Thatcher's conference speech was without a single hackneyed phrase. It was cliche-free. And though written by another, it bore the stamp of Mrs Thatcher's personality as Prime Minister.


Recently, I looked over a speech by David Cameron, a long speech of some 4,500 words. The subject of the speech was largely two-fold: to remind the public that Gordon Brown was responsible for creating the conditions of the current economic crisis by permitting unsound policies during his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer; secondly, to set out what a Conservative Government would do to make sure that such a crisis does not happen again.

I was unable to read through the speech with concentration because its format did not invite concentration. It was an ensemble of paragraphs of two or three lines, often a single line. Unlike the liquid in the bottle in Alice in Wonderland, this speech did not invite me to devour it, let alone digest it. Had I done so I doubt if my stature would have altered appreciably, nor my standing.

The passages that I did read, on the theme of Britain in crisis, startled me somewhat gleefully, I must admit, by the inconsistency of the imagery employed to get the message across. The crisis was referred to as a boxing match - Mr Cameron did not intend to "pull his punches". OK, I looked for the KO blow.

Instead I was told that the banking crisis was a problem with "deep roots", presumably implying some history going back a long way. Hmmm. Then I was surprised to learn that the state of the economy had become like a "merry-go-round" out of control, I believe. Try to imagine President Roosevelt using such an image.

From there Mr Cameron told me that the economy was "a house on fire". Then he implied it was like a foundering ship because the time had come to "man the pumps" - unless he was suggesting that we all don plimsolls and get a spot of exercise to cut down on obesity and, at the same time, reduce our carbon footprint. At the point where he referred to the state of the affairs as a house of cards, ready to come "tumbling down", I must admit I gave up.

Had I written a poem about the state of the nation and used the same language in such a shoddy manner I would have been taken to task by friends who expect better of me. Why, then, should the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition - a serious-minded and sincere man he would have us believe - why should he be allowed to get away with bad prose in an important speech? His intention was to blame Gordon Brown for the mess we are in; but couldn't he have followed the example of Aneurin Bevan and done it with a little wit and panache, offering us at least the relief of laughter? You may also ask why he didn't deliver it during an emergency debate in the House of Commons - but that's another matter.

Clearly this speech had been assembled to be delivered to achieve a particular effect. Later, I watched Mr Cameron deliver part of it on television. He looked and sounded plausible; mind you, the extract I saw contained none of the mixed metaphors and cliches decribed above.

This was a hybrid bicycle of a speech, designed to sound good rather than achieve anything practicable. I could imagine Mr Cameron after he delivered it, pushing it squeakily home, with the odd piece falling off with a thunk!


This section was added the night after Barack Obama's acceptance speech as President-elect of the United States. The quotes from his speech are in keeping with the inspirational quality of the first four. Although high-flown, there are no mixed metaphors, no hand-me down cliches. Instead, the Senator has echoed words and phrases embedded in the collective cultural consciousness of America - from Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy and Sam Cooke.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer...

"And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president too.

"And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

"To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you...

"This is our time, to our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can."


peter m said...

Jim, you are comparing a dwarf to giants, it isn't fair.

jim greenhalf said...

Er, that wasn't my intention, but I take your point Peter.

The point I was trying to make was that a political speech does not have to be badly put together.

Neil Kinnock, by common consent more of a talker than a speech-maker, wasn't a political giant either; but at least in 1985 he too reached into his heart and soul and gave Militant Tendency what for.

That's not beyond David Cameron. All he has to ensure is that his words and phrases cohere and make sense.

He's not expected to allude to world literaure or biology.

I thiunk it's worth making a point about this because, as Orwell pointed out, when the language of politics becomes meaningless politics ceases to have meaning for the nation.