Wednesday, October 13, 2004
The Dear Leader
Part of the new line in Lib Dem souvenir knick-knacks
Not much on the telly last night, so I decided to look back through the keynote speeches at the Liberal Democrats' recent party conference in Bournemouth - or was it Pyongyang?
Some of the MPs delivered leadership tributes that would not have sounded out of place at the congress of the North Korean communist party. Most of these MPs ought to have known better. Amid the political cliches and tired jokes were these gems:
Ed Davey - "It was Jo Grimond who said he would march us, his Liberal troops, towards the sound of gunfire. Well, Charles Kennedy has led us much, much further."
Simon Hughes - "Under Charles's leadership, I shall work with my parliamentary colleagues, our MEPs, councillors, members and staff to continue to build a party organisation to be fit for government."
And, to cap it all, there was the title of the pre-election manifesto, 'Freedom, Fairness, Trust', also used as the conference slogan and the hook for many a dreary speech. As Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart put it, " 'Freedom, Fairness, Trust', as opposed, presumably, to Oppression, Inequality, Betrayal."
No doubt everyone's working hard to fulfil their quotas at the tractor factory. But such leadership tributes and empty slogans are simply an extreme example of a broader problem. The general language in which MPs' speeches are delivered belongs to another age and lacks human resonance.
It's hard to put one's finger on the precise problem, but you know it when you see it. It's a strange sort of massaged and meaningless language - a combination of partisan smugness, unreal optimism, empty platitudes, cliche-ridden exhortations, witless point-scoring and laboured 'jokes' - with the added ingredient of Blair-style sentences without verbs. Basically, it's a failure to speak from the heart.
None of these MPs talk like this in the pub (and I should know - I've been out drinking with many of them in my time). I realise that the oratorical demands of the conference podium are somewhat different from the social requirements of the conference hotel bar. But I can't help feeling that our MPs would have much more impact if they simply cut the crap.
A large part of the popular appeal of politicians such as Mo Mowlam and Ken Clarke is their ability to speak in plain, everyday language. You may not agree with them, but at least you feel that they look and sound like real human beings. Our MPs might be better advised to fire their 23-year old speech writers and have more faith in their instincts.
One of the few Liberal Democrat MPs to keep a level head in Bournemouth was Norman Baker. In his conference speech, he managed to steer clear of the stock salutations, although he did remind us of a Chinese proverb: “If we continue down the road which we appear to have chosen, the danger exists that we may end up exactly where we are heading.”
Quite. It starts harmlessly enough with yellow 'Kennedy' baseball caps but ends up like this.