Whether we meet triumph or disaster in our national endeavours, our politicians – and their words – are no longer up to the job of inspiring us to move forward
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”
– Theodore Roosevelt, 1899
Thirty years ago today, the NASA space shuttle Challenger exploded in flight shortly after takeoff, killing the crew of seven.
Responding to the tragedy, which was witnessed by millions of people on live television – including many schoolchildren, for one of the astronauts was to be the first teacher in space – US president Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. He said:
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
[..] There’s a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Two decades earlier, and another tragedy. On April 4 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was been shot and killed by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee.
On hearing the news, Robert Kennedy, then junior senator from New York, addressed a crowd of people in the open air in Indianapolis, saying:
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
My favorite poem, my – my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
[..] And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Now think about the last great British political speech you remember.
And don’t mention Hillary Benn huffing about Britain doing “our bit” to defeat ISIS in Syria, because competent and well delivered though it was, if that now passes for a great political speech for the ages then we are all ruined.
Need some more time to think?
There is no poetry in our politics any more. There is barely even decent prose, judging by the inauthentic passion of Ed Miliband or the randomised utterances of someone like Sarah Palin in America. In place of poetry – the kind of language which is only possible when we focus on ideas, goals or aspirations bigger than ourselves – we have dull, technocratic language about the performance of our precious public services, and overwrought emotional language either detailing how something makes us feel, or demonising the other side (the Evil Tories).
Imagine if David Cameron responded to some future aviation or exploration disaster by talking about slipping the surly bonds of Earth and touching the face of God. Just picture it. He would be laughed out of office – or at least mercilessly pilloried in the press – for speaking in what we would now consider to be such a pompous way. At best you might tease from him a few careless, cookie-cutter lines about the families of the victims being in our “thoughtsnprayers” (or just thoughts now, more commonly). But nothing big picture. Nothing that encourages us to look beyond ourselves for one second.
That’s because in our society today, there is nothing bigger than the Self. We are the gods of our own lives – or at least we often think so. And politicians, painfully aware of this fact, talk down to us as though we were children, always seeking to catch our eye with flashy pledges of “what’s in it for us” rather than what is necessarily good for the country, or for human liberty and progress.
Vote Labour and your NHS waiting times will go down. But don’t worry, we’ll get them to pay for it through higher taxes. Vote Conservative and your taxes will go down, and if that means fewer public services for them, so be it.
Now I’m certainly not suggesting that taxes and public spending are not important issues. But when even the Conservative Party can fight the 2015 general election on an offensively paternalistic manifesto promising “a plan for every stage of your life“, can we really deny that we have become a nation of consumers rather than citizens, more interested in who will deliver the most goodies for ourselves and the people we like than who will best steer the ship of state through challenging times?
That’s what we now expect from our prime ministers today – not a world leader, but a lowly Comptroller of Public Services. No call to arms in service of a great national goal. Nothing remotely inspirational at all. Just a checklist of things promised to us in return for our vote. I’m not assigning blame for this depressing chicken-or-egg state of affairs. But this is how our politics now works, more than ever. Less asking “what you can do for your country”, and much more emphasis on “what your country can do for you”.
Even the coming EU referendum – when the British people have a vanishingly rare opportunity to reconsider the very way that we are governed, the way we face the world and deal with the challenges and opportunities of globalisation – is being treated by the main campaign groups on either side as a parsimonious matter of saving or incurring relatively trivial sums of money, with rival (and equally ludicrous) numbers being batted back and forth by the rival camps.
Vote Leave asks us to imagine freedom from the EU in dismal terms of saving enough money to build a new NHS hospital every week, as though that trumps the democratic right of the British people to live in a sovereign country, while Britain Stronger in Europe attempt to bribe us with a gimmicky calculator purporting to show how much our shopping bill will go up unless we remain part of a European political union.
It’s all so tediously depressing and uninspiring. Is it any wonder then that political apathy is on the rise, and that those of us who remain engaged increasingly opt for virulently anti-establishment parties like UKIP or the SNP? Or that with the decline of moderate religion and our failure to confidently express and transmit British values through our culture, some disaffected young Muslims, rootless and yearning to feel part of something bigger, are stealing away to Syria to fight for ISIS?
I’m a political blogger, and for my sins I sit and listen to far too many political speeches by cabinet ministers, shadow ministers and other establishment types. And to begin with, I thought that I would judge a speech according to whether it felt in any way inspirational, transcendent or like a genuine attempt to rally people toward a goal beyond their own personal enrichment and the state-sanctioned smiting of the hated “other”. A speech which, regardless of its political leaning, might set the pulse racing a little with possibility.
Well, four years later and my pulse continues to flatline. I haven’t heard a genuinely good speech yet – as in one that you might actually remember six months later or recite a key passage from – at least not one hailing from the three main parties. If anybody believes that they have heard one, please send me a link or transcript and I will be forever in your debt.
Maybe I’m just romanticising the past. Maybe in thirty years’ time when Ed Miliband’s kid is running for the leadership of the Labour Party, we will all look back on Ed’s fifteenth personal relaunch speech or David Cameron’s 2015 general election stump speech and hail them as bold, visionary masterpieces. Maybe.
But I strongly suspect that in the year 2046, anybody wanting to listen to listen to a great British political speech – with the exception of those made by firebrands like Margaret Thatcher – will have to look back in time almost a century, and certainly past the haunted late years of the 2010s.
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