Substance vs. style

In the UK’s recent election there was a lot of talk of substance vs. style. Gordon Brown’s supporters used his awkwardness and lack of emotional intelligence almost as proof of his substance, while Nick Clegg and David Cameron were accused of lacking it precisely because of their polished presentation and sheen (Cameron came to resemble a particularly expensive artisan sausage). What everyone could agree on was that no-one was delivering both. As the playwright David Hare wrote in one of his excellent campaign dispatches:

In this election you already hear everyone complaining about the dullness of the rhetoric. In polls, 4% of those questioned say they believe that politicians are telling us the truth about cuts. Probably, if asked, even less than 4% would say they’ve heard a good speech.

And then, in the last week of the campaign, Gordon Brown made an unusual speech. It was unusual in that it was directed at the people in the room, not the audience on television; it was unusual in its emotional intensity; and it was unusual for Brown in that people actually wanted to listen to it: more than 140,000 hits in its first day on YouTube.

It was, of course, too late to turn the tide of the election, and it received very little play in the mass media. It didn’t even make that evening’s news. But it was Brown discovering his voice, with a passion and conviction that we hadn’t seen from any of the leaders up to that point. So why did it work? It worked because it was authentic. It worked because it was heartfelt. And it worked because it was not about the finer points of policy, but the broad sweep of ideas.

Ideas didn’t get much airplay in this campaign. They have been replaced, in day to day politics, by “initiatives” and “brands”. We are constantly reminded that this is a managerial age; that we don’t want conviction politicians; that it’s all about what’s “fit for purpose” and “what works”. But I wonder if that’s what we’re really looking for. Yes, we want efficient public services, and the trains to run on time. But efficiency is not enough to meet the challenges of a world in rapid change. Efficiency can help us choose our doctor, but it can’t help us choose how we should live. It can help us feed our stomachs but it cannot feed our dreams.

Throughout the election, polls showed that voters felt that politicians weren’t addressing the big issues, that they were fiddling while Athens burned. And perhaps that’s why most of the speeches failed to ignite. As Hare says:

The mistake about great oratory is to imagine that it is word-cleverness. It isn’t. It emerges from what’s being thought … In this election, the words are dull because the thoughts are small. If someone tried imagining what the Chinese century is going to feel like or telling us why the west must rethink Afghanistan, then – what a coincidence! – they might also put it memorably.

The next British government will be a smorgasbord: an anthology of principles and policies, edited not authored, compromised from birth. But just like Frankenstein’s monster, this strange, assembled body must quickly find its heart and voice. The lesson from this curious campaign, in which so much was said but so little heard, is that eloquence comes only from conviction, and by confronting all our challenges head-on.

Units of the public language

Three quite separate things happened in the past week that together seem to add up to a whole. First, I read that Gordon Brown is looking for a new speechwriter. Second, I went to a debate at the RSA about the crisis in democracy. Why, the panel wondered, do voters feel alienated from politics, and disinclined to participate? And third, I came across this passage in Michael Frayn’s 1966 novel The Russian Interpreter, in which the narrator, based in Moscow, attends a cultural event with an English acquaintance:

On the slightest pretext, at even quite small receptions, Proctor-Gould would make a speech. The phrases which came rolling so steadily and emphatically out on these occasions — ‘the cultural treasure-house we share’, ‘setting our barren suspicions and fears behind us’, ‘practical steps to increase our mutual confidence’ — were not exactly cliches. They were units of the public language.

Forty years on, replace Proctor-Gould’s words with “hard-working families”, “the broken society” or “sharing the proceeds of growth”, then wonder why voters might feel disconnected …