The Politics of Speechmaking at the Festival of Ideas

Modern politicians are too stuck in a 24/7 media bubble to make the kind of grand speeches associated with past leaders, a debate on political rhetoric at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas heard last week.

The incentive to be dull is very serious.

Phil Collins

Phil Collins, Tony Blair's speechwriter until 2007, said because the media picked up on any dissent, politicians have to be wary of how their words might be interpreted.

“The incentive to be dull is very serious,” said Collins.

He added that great speeches were rare nowadays. This was partly because the writing was poor and drew on a lot of jargon, particularly from business.

The pace of political life was much faster too, which meant modern politicians gave far more speeches than ever before, most of which were instantly forgettable.

Collins added that mass education had had an impact with politicians now aiming speeches at a mass audience rather than an elite. This meant they couldn't make literary references and that their language was narrower.

There were also fewer great injustices to rectify due to medical and other advances and those that there were were complex, such as the financial crisis. There was also more focus on pragmatic issues rather than big ideologies, like capitalism and socialism, which were more worthy of grand styles of speech.

He denied that the focus on soundbites was a factor. In fact, having a good argument was central and this could be encapsulated in a soundbite. He urged speechwriters to start from the soundbite which was really a summary of their argument. “If you don't know from a sentence what you are trying to say you don't know at all,” he said.

Speechmakers also needed to fit their language to the occasion and the audience. Churchill's speeches were not as successful early on his career because he was talking about things “that did not warrant that degree of poetry”. “You have to get the language in the right register,” said Collins.

Author Piers Brendon, a former Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre, told the packed audience at Churchill College's Wolfson Theatre that Churchill was an old-fashioned speaker who worked hard on his words and had studied and learnt by heart the great speeches of the past. Indeed his most famous 1940 speech – “Never in the field of human conflict...” - had been gestating since 1899 and he had tried out phrases from it five times beforehand.

He said the cadence of his words were like that of blank verse. “His speeches were old-fashioned, ornate, musical performances full of outdated terms,” he said. They were also, he added, pieces of cunningly fashioned propaganda, but he said propaganda was only effective if it reflected what people thought. Churchill was “booted out” after the War because he was out of time with a post-war world. “Speechifying is not good if it is not in tune with the times,” he said.

David Runciman, reader in political thought at the University of Cambridge, said politicians nowadays were anxious to come across as “real people” due to the growing distrust of politicians and spin, but often their attempts to come across as real seemed clumsy and didn't work.

He highlighted three successful recent speeches which were game changers and which did have a ring of authenticity. First was Obama's 2004 speech to the Democratic Convention in which he used his personal narrative to make wider points about the story of the US and harked back to the great presidential speeches of the past.

Another successful speech was David Cameron's 2005 speech to the Conservative Party conference which overnight turned him into the frontrunner for leader of the Party. Unlike Obama's speech, it was not full of historical resonance and is mainly remembered because he spoke without notes. However, he looked “comfortable in his skin”, unlike his competitor David Davis. This made him seem more authentic, even though Davis had a more interesting personal story.

The last speech he highlighted was George Osborne's 2007 speech to the Conservative Party conference on inheritance tax. It was a “boring speech”, said Runciman, but it was the audience's response which was key.

They gave a “bark of enthusiasm and approval” which surprised even Osborne. “It put the fear of God into Gordon Brown,” said Runciman.

Michael White, the Guardian's assistant editor, has sat through many a political speech. He reeled off his impressions of the best.

Thatcher was “not eloquent”, he said, but was “a force of nature” and “beat you into submission”. Blair was good at talking both to the two audiences at party conferences – the people in the hall and the people at home. Clinton was good on empathy. As an actor delivering lines written by a good writer, Reagan did well. Both Bushes were “awful”. Kinnock was good in the right circumstances, but a bit verbose.

Jesse Jackson was the most memorable speaker he had heard. Obama was good at high politics, but not so good at “the arm-twisting, fixing low politics”. He highlighted too David Cameron's recent speech to the Conservative Party conference, saying it was “an attempt at Churchillian optimism”, trying to rally the country to face the economic troubles ahead. “He deserves praise for that,” said White.

The event was chaired by Allen Packwood, current Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre, which put on an exhibition of past political speeches to accompany the debate.

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