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Monday, July 18, 2005


Come back Gladstone, all is forgiven

Political oratory has gone out of fashion. Most observers attribute this change to the replacement of the public meeting with television. However, playwright David Hare in Saturday's Guardian suggests the culprit is the fashion for the panel discussion.

In Britain, we have long lived with the conventions of adversarial politics. The prevailing wisdom is that enlightenment may best be reached through argy-bargy. And yet in practice how infrequent it is, on television or radio, that the Socratic equivalent of men's tennis - massive slams hit back and forth from the baseline - actually illuminates anything at all. Panels are even worse. Taking part frustrates me as much as listening. What's the point? Why attend a forum in which as soon as anyone says anything interesting, somebody else has at once to be encouraged to interrupt, supposedly to generate conflict, but more often to dispel the energy of the previous speaker? Have you ever been present at a panel on which one person's perceptions built on another's? All too often, a panel degenerates into a marketplace for opportunistic grandstanding, with members rushing to take up positions, however irrational, which they hope are going to seem teenage-sulkier, wilder or more ingratiating than those of their fellow panel-members. If you were asked to conceive of the formula least likely to inspire enthusiasm for the arts - non-practitioners would be invited to sit around on sofas speaking for 30 seconds and competitively show off about how superior they are to the artwork under discussion - then you would come up with The Late Review. If you wanted to make sure an hour would pass in which no serious thing could be said about politics, then you would invent Question Time

Underlying this patronising conviction that no one person should be given the floor lies the idea that group discussion is more "democratic" than an individual being licensed to hold forth. My experience is the opposite. The memorable parliamentary occasions have never involved the Leader of the Opposition biting hunks out of the Prime Minister's leg. They have happened when a politician with both insight and strong feeling - Robin Cook, say, or Barbara Castle - has been listened to by an audience, both in the chamber and outside, ready to interpret and weigh the exact impact and value both of what is being said and the manner of its delivery. When one person speaks and is encouraged to develop his or her ideas, then it is we, the audience, who provide the challenge. We provide the democracy. In each of our hearts and minds, we absorb, judge and come to our own conclusions. The dialectic is, thankfully, not between a group of equally ignorant people thrashing out a series of arbitrary subjects about which they know little and care less. It is between an informed individual who, we hope, has thought long and hard about their own area of specialisation, and an audience which is ready honestly to assess what the speaker has to say. Democracy, like everything else, thrives on preparation.
To help revitalise British politics, perhaps we should start a 'Campaign for Real Speeches'. When the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party has its 'awayday' later today, I wonder if anyone will have the wit to suggest that there might be some democratic mileage in emulating the oratory of our Gladstonian forebears?

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