Message to Party Leaders: We’re not as Thick as you think

When Benjamin Disraeli made his One Nation speech in Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1872 he spoke for three-and-a-quarter hours, fortified by two bottles of brandy.

Neither the brandy, nor the duration appeared to dim his rhetoric. Some of the lines still have currency, including his comparison of the Gladstone-led Government to a “marine landscape not very unusual on the coasts of South America.”

“You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes—not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest, but the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and, ever and anon, the dark rumbling of the sea,” the Tory said.

His rival was equally capable of thundering speeches, attracting audiences in large numbers for addresses also of several hours in length.

Abraham Lincoln’s oratory was even more remarkable. His first inaugural address may have been infused with his reading of the Bible and Shakespeare but was a master class in simplicity as the final lines show:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

One hundred and fifty years later and we find the leader of the opposition delivering the following words: “Am I tough enough? Hell yes, I’m tough enough.” It would be unfair to single out Ed Miliband. You could pick any speech or utterance from David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne or Ed Balls from last five years and find an equally vacuous phrase.

a weary electorate has been alienated by clunky attempts at mass appeal

It would also be futile to compare the soaring language of our 19th Century politicians delivered in a pre-television era with the demands of politicians operating in the age of social media.

Yet it is troubling that Disraeli, Gladstone and Lincoln were unwilling to debase themselves or belittle their audiences even though they lived at a time when literacy rates and university attendance were so much lower.

There are exceptions of course. Barack Obama campaigned on the triteness of “Yes we can” but he never feared from delivering intellectual and artfully-composed speeches.

Angela Merkel too has shown a willingness to treat her audiences intelligently, not least her defence of the European Union in her speech to both houses of the UK Parliament in February last year.

Both Merkel and Obama understood, as one historian wrote of Gladstone, that to “disparage eloquence is to depreciate mankind” and the best antidote to anti-politics is grown-up politics.

British politicians seeking an answer to democratic deficit and the rise of anti-politics sentiment have responded not by trying to raise the level of debate but competing to be the most populist (as opposed to popular).

The already despised political class has reaped no reward from trying to ingratiate itself with faux photo-ops and cheap point scoring. Indeed, a weary electorate has been further alienated by these clunky attempts at mass appeal.

If politicians were to treat voters with intelligence then perhaps they would be rewarded with more respect

This infantile approach, witnessed weekly at Prime Minister’s questions, is all the more dispiriting when you consider the last Commons was perhaps the most academically educated in history, counting among its MPs the historians, to name a few, Gregg McClymont, Tristram Hunt, Ben Gummer, Kwasi Kwarteng and Chris Skidmore.

One of the consequences has not just been the diminishment of politics but of Parliament too. The best talent at the moment can be found in the nations and regions whether it is Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson and Jim Murphy in Scotland, Boris Johnson in London or the Lib Dem Kirsty Williams in Wales.

This is not to say these politicians are less susceptible to doling out soundbites and platitudes, it does suggest an increasing marginalisation of Westminster. The UK Parliament, from its architecture to its arcane rituals, comes across as a gramophone in the age of the download.

If our politicians were willing to treat voters with the same intelligence as Lincoln treated Americans in the 1860s, using language that appeals as much to the readers of my paper, the Mirror, as those of the Times, then perhaps they would be rewarded with more respect.

And in the process they would put into perspective the pound-shop rantings of characters such as Nigel Farage.

If nothing else, we may move from calling their words sound bites and start calling them quotations again.

Jason Beattie is Political Editor of the Daily Mirror.

More about the author

About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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