The Best One Percent

In his brief remarks to the media, General John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump, momentarily made everybody else in Washington D.C. look small

Good speeches do not always have to be painstakingly crafted well in advance and written down or beamed onto a teleprompter. Neither do good speeches always require a grand event as their backdrop. Sometimes the most stirring speeches can be extemporaneous, or at least appear relatively spontaneous when delivered.

And into this latter category fall the remarks made yesterday by former Marine Corps general John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump. Kelly was seeking to defend his boss from accusations that the president had been dismissive bordering on callous when making a telephone call of commiserations to the wife of a fallen US soldier killed in an ambush in Niger, a call which was overheard by a Democratic congresswoman and reported to the media.

I make no comment about the individual circumstances of the case here, though many other media organisations have seen fit to voyeuristically pick over what should be an intensely private moment in order to extract political advantage from it. For those interested, the two opposing sides are effectively summarised here and here.

Far more inspirational than this tawdry back-and-forth, however, were the words of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who sought to end the unseemly debate by describing to the press corps in detail the process which takes place when a US service member is killed in action overseas. These remarks range from the very detailed and practical (describing exactly what happens to the body and where it is taken) to the profound, and are worth quoting at length.

Kelly begins:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat. So let me tell you what happens:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead. And then they’re flown to, usually, Europe where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t ever seen it, is “Taking Chance,” where this is done in a movie — HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it.

So that’s the process. While that’s happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door; typically a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places; if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that’s what happens.

This is made all the more poignant by the fact that John Kelly suffered the loss of his son – First Lieutenant Robert Kelly – in Afghanistan, and presumably experienced this same heart wrenching process, something invisible to most civilians in the age of an all-volunteer professional army.

The brief core of Kelly’s remarks then focus on the fine qualities of the men and women who serve in the US military, before defending the actions of his boss. First, the praise:

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

Goodness me, that’s powerful. Remember, this is a former Marine Corps general and the serving chief of staff to President Trump, and he is saying that the state of the country is such that America is no longer worthy of the sacrifice made by its men and women in uniform. Think on that for a moment.

And then comes the necessary defence of President Trump, in which Kelly references his own painful loss:

So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

Well, let me tell you what I told him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

This next section (which reminds one of Cicero’s exclamation O Tempora, O Mores!) is good too, because it is so obviously heartfelt coming from somebody from an older generation raised in a dignity culture:

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

Kelly ends with this scathing criticism of politicians such as the congresswoman who saw fit to leak details of President Trump’s telephone call to one of the families:

I’ll end with this: In October — April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty, and I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 — a guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old; Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, and now retired. So we go down — Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well.

There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were three or four years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there, and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.

And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.

So I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society — a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country — let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

As a speech, this has pretty much everything. It might not have been the most stirring or poetic, but John Kelly is a blunt, military man and to have spoken in the cadence of John F Kennedy or Barack Obama would have been totally false and out of character. The authenticity of Kelly’s remarks derive from the seriousness of the subject, the dignified way in which a story of personal loss was mentioned (compared to the overt emotionalism of many contemporary speakers) and the workmanlike delivery.

What John Kelly did more than anything else was shame the people who had sought to cynically use a story based on the death of American soldiers for their own purposes – be it Democratic politicians looking for more character flaws in Trump, Republican politicians who sought to defend Trump or the media who saw a potentially juicy mini-scandal which would generate pageviews and ad revenue.

He shamed a group of neophytes and cynics, people who by and large did not serve in uniform themselves, but saw fit to pontificate on the protocol governing military rituals as though they were discussing any old arcane political dispute. Kelly effectively contrasts the quiet, selfless duty of American soldiers with the self-aggrandising behaviour of American politicians. And there can be few among the Washington DC political class, who measure their popularity by the number of their Twitter followers and see themselves as the centre of the universe, who did not come out of that press conference feeling at least slightly chastened.

This can also only be good for the career and reputation of John Kelly himself, who has faced scepticism that he would be able to rein in the excesses of the Trump administration and criticism for those occasions when that superhuman feat eluded him. By briefly lamenting that women are no longer honoured in today’s America (putting aside the fact that such 1950s-style honour was a double-edged sword), Kelly not-so-subtly denounced his own boss, whose record of behaviour towards women is not good. Criticising the politicisation of gold star families during the Democratic National Convention served the same purpose. Thus, Kelly successfully burnished his image as a man serving out of duty to his country and respect for the office of president rather than admiration for the individual who currently holds that office.

I struggle to think of a contemporary British political speech of similar power and worth. Does anybody recall any of the speeches given this party conference season, besides the slow-motion self-destruction of Theresa May? Has there been a British political speech in the last decade which made the heart beat a little faster or brought a lump to the throat?This is made even more depressing when one remembers that John Kelly is not even a politician – he is a retired general pressed into service to steady a wobbling first-year Trump administration.

Kelly’s remarks are a fine example of an effective speech, composed and well delivered under difficult circumstances, with a hostile media audience ready to throw hard-to-defend accusations against his equally hard-to-defend boss. Yet by the time he was done, John Kelly walked out of that briefing room ten feet taller while everyone else visibly shrank in moral stature.

That’s impressive. I would like to import just a fraction of that ability to Westminster.

 

UPDATE: 21 October

This report from the Washington Post suggests that John Kelly’s account of Representative Frederica Wilson’s speech at the newly-opened FBI building was not accurate. This in no way detracts from the power of the speech or even necessarily mean that Gen. Kelly’s righteous indignation was altogether misplaced, but the record should be corrected.

 

UPDATE: 22 October

Having sat back rather pleased with myself, thinking I might have written something vaguely original, I discovered today that Jonah Goldberg was simultaneously coming to the same conclusion in his G-file newsletter.

Goldberg sees in Kelly’s speech the same thing that I see – a dignified admonishment to President Trump as much as to the media or the Left:

The trends Kelly alludes to are real and lamentable, and they predate Donald Trump’s arrival on the national political scene. But it strikes me as indisputable that Trump personifies these trends, and if Kelly were not trying to do his job, he would acknowledge that.

Perhaps Kelly was criticizing the Gold Star Khan family in his remarks about the convention. But he could just as plausibly have had the president in mind. We need not rehearse all of the ways in which Donald Trump — who has bragged of his adultery and sexual assaults and who has insulted women’s looks — has less than an exemplary record of honoring the sanctity of women.

I understand that many Christian groups have convinced themselves that Trump is an instrument of God, but let us not delude ourselves that he is also a man of God.

It is also worth pointing out the media’s evident latent, automatic animosity toward any member of the Trump administration, merited or not. When it was shown that John Kelly misreported the content of Rep. Wilson’s speech at the opening of the FBI Academy, nearly all the media ran with a headline about Kelly being wrong, or even lying. They neglected to point out that the video evidence actually also underlined the truth of what Kelly was trying to say – that on the occasion of the dedication of a building to the memory of slain law enforcement officers, the politician present chose to make the occasion about herself.

 

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Conservatives Are Conceding The Battle Of Ideas Without A Fight

Jeremy Corbyn thumbs up

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is hard at work promoting their beguiling new left-wing vision for Britain while the Tories offer nothing but drudgery and incompetence

Every day now brings more ominous warning signs for the squabbling, directionless Tory government that the only people in Britain offering a clear, articulable vision for the country are those on the Corbynite hard-left wing of the Labour Party.

Four months after the general election, and all of the political energy and momentum is still on the Left. Jeremy Corbyn is more wily than he was in 2015, less prone to gaffes or accidentally handing his enemies the initiative. His centrist rivals have fallen into line, discredited and with no strong candidate to unite behind. Moreover, while most conservatives spent the summer licking their wounds far from the ideological field of battle, Momentum continued to organise and prepare for what they believe is one final push required topple the Tories and seize power.

And this newfound confidence is starting to creep into the rhetoric used by Labour politicians. Jon Trickett, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, writes this week in LabourList:

There was a time after the second world war when government saw its central role as creating a socially just Britain where full employment, adequate housing for all and free education was the right of the many.

In that time, there was always more to achieve but the national sense of purpose was clear.

It was a time when jobs were secure and for the long term. Policy was designed to make communities feel secure, when the past was a bad place of mass unemployment, slum housing and no hope. But the future was full of promise, where strangers were welcomed into communities because no one felt their jobs were under threat.

And in the time, it was not acceptable that the growing wealth of the country was only distributed to the wealthiest.

A coherent set of progressive values aimed at building a social contract in which we had a sense of duty to the community, and the country agreed to stand behind those who could not care for themselves.

Note what Trickett is doing here. He is building a narrative, talking about the kind of country we once were and citing the great endeavours from our past in order to build a link with the present and generate enthusiasm for future Labour policies.

President Lyndon B. Johnson did something very similar (albeit at a much more sophisticated level) when introducing the Great Society initiative in 1964, not merely proposing a raft of random new socialist programmes but making them collectively seem almost inevitable by deliberately linking them with the American founding, history and national destiny:

The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

In fact, this is a simple device which even mediocre politicians and rhetoricians were once capable of using before technocratic centrism sucked the soul and energy out of politics. It is the exact opposite of anything written or spoken by a Conservative minister in Theresa May’s administration, because great political rhetoric can only exist when there are great ideas to be expressed or arguments to be won.

Trickett goes on to give a perfunctory but devastating indictment of the state of Britain under the Conservatives:

But now you would struggle to discover a shared sense of national purpose. You could describe a sense of anomie in Britain where a sense of common values, duty to others and co-operation for shared ends are, to one extent or another, lacking.

Too often: post-industrial communities have been abandoned; young people have less hope than ever before of acquiring a home at reasonable cost; education has become a commodity rather than a public good; where that which was common is frequently private or suffering from severe spending cuts; and, where the wealth of the most privileged is growing exponentially at the expense of the rest.

How do we explain this shift in the national culture?  Or rather, how do we account its disintegration and fracturing? Is this a uniquely British problem? And can we begin to rebuild a renewed socialist project based on 21st century.

At this point a five-alarm fire warning should be sounding in CCHQ and inside the head of every single Tory or small-C conservative in Britain, because Jon Trickett has just eloquently and concisely diagnosed the ailments of modern Britain – the fact that we are effectively drifting as a nation with no core unifying purpose or attachment to one another and a diminishing sense of obligation to our fellow citizens. In other words, Trickett has created an itch, a burning discomfort with the status quo, and now stands ready to offer voters the calamine lotion of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies.

One does not have to agree that building “a renewed socialist project” is the answer. The point is that Trickett has clearly defined a problem and proposed a solution, all in the space of three short paragraphs. The Tories, meanwhile, are stuck defending a mediocre record with the huge distraction of Brexit, and seem to be loudly insisting that everything is great despite mounting evidence to the contrary (see Universal Credit). They have chosen to be cheerleaders for the status quo rather than agitators for change, even though the Conservative leadership election-that-wasn’t last year presented the perfect opportunity for unflinching self-assessment followed by an ideological reset.

That opportunity was squandered. And it has really come to something quite appalling when a Labour politician is responding to the priorities of this blog before the Tories pay proper attention. Jon Trickett is hardly known as Labour’s greatest thinker, but at least he understands that mandate-bestowing electoral victories are won on the back of selling the electorate an inspiring vision for the future.

Having a narrative is important. Good leaders and successful political movements understand this. The Attlee government alluded to by Jon Trickett certainly had a clear vision of the New Jerusalem they wanted to build out of the rubble of war. Margaret Thatcher had her urgent mission to save Britain from a failing post-war consensus and terminal national decline. Even David Cameron had his “Big Society”, an idea which might have been genuinely transformative if only it was bolstered with more thought and political courage.

In America, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his “New Deal”. LBJ championed the “Great Society”. Ronald Reagan beguiled the nation with his promise of “Morning in America” after years of perceived stagnation under presidents Ford and Carter. And while President Obama’s soaring rhetoric often exceeded his relatively pedestrian governing agenda, his 2008 message of “hope and change” also strongly resonated with many Americans (including millions who deserted the Democrats to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 after no positive change appeared in their lives).

British politics has been stuck in such a dismal slump because for two decades an incredibly narrow, self-serving consensus was allowed to crowd out all other perspectives. And while this consensus served many people fairly well, its policy outcomes focused almost exclusively on funnelling material benefits (either wealth and career opportunities or literal welfare benefits) to certain specified groups of people rather than calling all of us together as a society united by a common bond, culture and purpose.

That approach has been found wanting. When the bipartisan political consensus (favouring EU membership, social liberalisation, globalism and corporatism) goes unchallenged it feels no need to respond to the concerns of those who do not benefit from existing policy. That is why for all the material progress seen in Britain we are still blighted by low productivity, family breakdown, divisions over immigration and a lack of any meaningful government response to the negative side-effects of automation, outsourcing and globalisation.

By electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, some within the Labour Party recognised that continuing to stand up for a failing political consensus was no way to address these problems or win a decisive mandate for left-wing government. As incumbents, the Tories were left as the only major party championing the status quo, and rather than develop a radical, inspirational right-wing message of their own they continued to double down on bland, uninspiring centrism under Theresa May.

What makes it especially galling that the Left rather than the Right have recognised the need for a positive, bold new narrative is that it is the Left who are most in thrall to the Cult of Identity Politics which does so much to atomise society and make people see themselves as members of persecuted identity groups first and foremost rather than fellow citizens of a united country. Somehow, despite this increasingly prevalent mindset within their ranks, some on the Left still managed to recognise the need for a coherent, inspiring national message, a message with the potential to unite a broad swathe of society behind it (though whether it succeeds is another matter).

As John Prescott boasted earlier this year:

Finally, we’re talking about ideas and policies – not splits and personalities. Twenty years ago next month, Labour won an ­election landslide because we were united, trusted and had policies people could understand. When we lost in 2010, I felt we lost our way. We didn’t want to defend our record in government and by 2015 we accepted Tory austerity.

At least Labour is now ­developing clear red water between us and May. Not with soundbites and brickbats, but with popular policies.

Ideas and policies over splits and personalities.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories offer? False promises of being “strong and stable”, a moronic slogan which described an unattainable state of being rather than a clear direction for the country. More dull, technocratic drudgery in which eliminating the budget deficit (painstakingly slowly) is considered an aspiration worth putting in neon lights and making the focus of their government. Division and incompetence on Brexit, with the only optimistic Tory voices now belonging to free trade fantasists who want Britain to unilaterally lower barriers to trade and who think that crashing out of the EU and defaulting to WTO trade terms is a smart decision. Barely concealed leadership rivalries between a cast of identikit Cabinet ministers who seem to be competing with one another based on personality rather than different visions for the country.

Yet even now, the Conservative Party has no idea of the terminal danger it is in. Despite a few plucky efforts to re-inject some proper thinking and ideas into the party, the prime minister and her Cabinet offer no real ideological leadership whatsoever. Consumed by Brexit (and doing a pretty poor job at that) they seem to have abdicated any responsibility for using government to lead the country to a better place. Everything they do is reactive and cynical, like Theresa May’s university tuition fee freeze and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s age-based tax proposals, transparently cynical attempts to court the youth vote which are laughable in their inadequacy.

A couple of days ago I mused about whether the Conservatives can renew themselves ideologically and spiritually while still in office. This already slim prospect looks less and less likely by the day, both because senior people within the Tory Party seem to be too busy lurching from crisis to crisis to see the bigger picture and because all of the ideological energy and political momentum is on the Left right now.

And where there is new conservative thinking, it tends to counsel more, not less, accommodation with the Left. Some MPs, like Sam Gyimah, talk the right language of purpose and ambition but then disappointingly default to predictable, Left-leaning “compassionate conservative” solutions. And even these efforts at conservative renewal tend to focus more on what the government could and should do for us rather than what we collectively might accomplish together as a people. Time and again, the present Conservative Party capitulates to the Left and apologises for its own principles.

This is frustrating because conservatives should be able to come up with a far more inspirational, compelling message than the one they have been peddling. The Left’s entire focus is fixed firmly on inequality. Yet even die-hard Social Justice warriors would surely admit that equality is a hygiene factor, the absolute baseline for which society should aim (though they might then go on to disagree about whether equality or opportunity or outcome should be the goal).

Therefore, as eloquent as Jon Trickett’s words are – and as much as they should scare conservatives who are yet to join the ideological battle – equality remains insufficient as an organising principle for society or a shared national ambition. We need more concrete goals toward which we can all strive and move together, while in the background we are working hard to achieve a just society (however we choose to define it).

And luckily for conservatives, this is what the Left still does not get. Though they have woken up to the need to talk in terms of vision and ambition while the Tories are still lost at sea, the Left still sees achieving equality as the ultimate goal. One gets the distinct impression that many on the hard Left would not much care if we never really accomplished anything great as a country and even regressed somewhat in terms of material comfort and economic development, so long as society was flattened and the gap between rich and poor reduced. To listen to many a Labour speech, one almost pictures a country with a state-of-the-art NHS hospital on every street corner but a population so busy marvelling at their wonderful state of equality that they forget to go out and change the world.

So there remains an opportunity for conservatives to sneak in with an improved narrative and national ambition, one which aspires to something more than mere equality. Something which actually seeks to organise and harness the best of our energies and skills as we strive to make our country and the world better, not just more equal. Such a vision, carefully crafted and persuasively argued, would beat the Left’s narrow-minded focus on equality any day of the week.

So who will step up to the challenge and help develop a worthy conservative response to the re-energised Left? Because right now they are the ones fizzing with energy and ideas, while conservatism seems content to trudge wearily to its grave, quite possibly dragging the country along with it.

 

UPDATE – 17 October

Evgeny Pudovkin makes some good points over at Comment Central, specifically around how the Tories can potentially keep Theresa May in place as a “bad bank” repository for public dissatisfaction with the status quo while developing new ideas and new talent in parallel:

Some argue for replacing May with a fresh candidate who could offer the Tories a new vision. Yet May is still at Number 10 due to the very reason of her being a fulfiller and not a prophet. Her main role entails overseeing already introduced reforms – Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, the house building programme and, indeed, Brexit. That doesn’t leave much time for blue-sky thinking, at least not until future relations with the EU are at least broadly defined. Just what exactly will toppling May achieve, apart from spawning new rivalries?

Any vision for post-Brexit Britain must be cultivated in parallel with May’s premiership. First of all, prospective candidates should establish a stronger presence on social media. The time when David Cameron could simply dismiss digital communication with his “Britain is not Twitter” jibe is over. As historian Niall Ferguson explained (here and here), the successes of both Donald Trump and the Leave campaign can be explained at least partially by their presence on social media. Secondly, the next leadership candidate might want to spend more time with the grassroots. Finally, a prospective challenger could create a new platform for developing policy. The Centre for Policy Studies served an important vehicle for Thatcher’s revolution, while Policy Exchange helped to inject a more coherent vision into Cameron’s project.

The dichotomy between May’s stable rule and the need to reinvigorate the Tory party is false. You can do both at the same time.

I agree in principle. Of course, this approach depends entirely on the public retaining patience with the Tories long enough for them to come through the other side of Brexit with an attractive new philosophy of government ready to go and an equally attractive leadership candidate to pick up the torch.

Right now, I struggle to see where the seeds of a new 21st century conservatism are germinating. Certainly the think tanks are nothing like the humming centres of creative energy that they were back when they propelled Margaret Thatcher to power with a copy of the Stepping Stones report in her pocket.

On paper, what Evgeny Pudovkin proposes makes perfect sense. In practice, I don’t see where the new ideas or the leadership talent are going to come from. I sincerely hope that this is due to my political myopia rather than a genuine dearth of new ideas within the British conservative movement, but I do not think it likely.

 

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Claudius Goes To Manchester

Theresa May conservative party conference speech - building a country that works for everyone - set malfunction - 2

God help us

Expectations and appearances matter in politics. That’s why the campaign teams of mediocre politicians try to lower expectations before any major upcoming event while exaggerating the strength and prospects of the opposition. This creates the illusion of forward momentum when their candidate triumphantly clears the very low bar set for them.

Perhaps the most extreme example of expectation-fiddling in recent history occurred in 2004 when George W. Bush’s strategist Michael Dowd tried to tamp down expectations for W’s performance in an upcoming presidential debate by declaring that his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, was “the best debater since Cicero“. Of course, anybody who had ever met John Kerry or heard him speak knew full well that the former Massachusetts senator is more Claudius than Cicero. The overblown comparison insulted people’s intelligence.

Well intentionally or not, Theresa May and the Conservative Party could hardly have set expectations for their own side any lower before they assembled in Manchester this week. The prime minister’s speech was deliberately trailed as a platform for her to tell her own restive cabinet members to stop undermining her and bickering with one another, hardly the sign of a confident, outward-looking party. Yet somehow the Tories still managed to underperform spectacularly. Claudius, not Cicero, turned up in Manchester.

In the end, George Osborne never got the chance to have Theresa May chopped up in bags in his freezer. The prime minister fell to bits – ideologically, physically and in terms of her dwindling authority – right on stage in front of everybody at the Manchester Central convention centre this afternoon.

One cannot be too uncharitable about a politician suffering a coughing fit, a set malfunction and a stage intruder (heads need to roll in the PM’s security detail), all in the same speech. But neither will a number of Conservatives be in any mood to make excuses for Theresa May after she declared war on the small government libertarian wing at last year’s conference, led the party to glorious failure in this year’s general election and then showed up in Manchester with a ragtag bag of Ed Miliband’s rejected policies as her master plan for fending off Jeremy Corbyn.

Some hopeful souls believe that the prime minister’s on-stage meltdown will somehow redound to the benefit of the Tories – either because Theresa May’s coughing fit conveniently masks the gaping lack of conservative vision and principle at the heart of the speech (her speechwriters actually plagiarised a line from The West Wing in a desperate attempt to add profundity), or because the British love of the plucky underdog will evoke feelings of pity. Because embarrassment and pity are just the emotions you want to send the party faithful away with and broadcast to the nation after conference.

James Kirkup takes this view:

What are the politics of the torment of Theresa May?  There are two outcomes, very different, and this is why, for once, a conference speech really could be decisive.

One is that people will look at their Prime Minister struggling and spluttering and see a woman soldiering on in the face of adversity, in spite of her own limitations and in the face of numerous obstacles in her path.  As I suggested a long time ago, back in June, there is a British fondness for the story of the frail and faulty hero who keeps fighting even when things are bleak.

The problem is that only the British have this strange affection for the plucky underdog, and Theresa May has to play the part of British prime minister to the whole world, not just to a pitying domestic audience. We may feel a pang of sympathy every time she literally falls to pieces in front of our eyes. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel will not. They will eat her alive. And by extension our international rivals and enemies will eat all of us alive too, because a weak and nervous prime minister puts more than their own political career in jeopardy.

This is not – repeat, not – about a coughing fit, as some dutiful conservative commentators are now suggesting as they rush to the prime minister’s defence:

And to be fair to her, Theresa May dealt with what must have been a mortifying situation with quick wits, grace and humour. I would not wish that rolling series of calamities on anyone.

No, this is about every nervous television interview where Theresa May looks like a deer caught in the headlights. It’s about her cowardly failure to participate in a televised debate with Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders in this year’s general election. It’s about her abysmal judgment in calling a general election in which she frittered away the Tory majority. It’s about her lack of leadership following the Grenfell Tower fire and recent terror attacks.

But more than all of this, it is about the yawning void where a positive, ambitious and genuinely conservative vision for Britain should sit. Margaret Thatcher also once suffered a coughing fit during a speech, but it didn’t threaten to end her premiership because unlike the present incumbent, Thatcher was a good prime minister with abundant vision, courage and clearly defined principles. By contrast, the emptiness of Theresa May’s conference speech matched the aimlessness of her premiership, and the farce of its delivery painfully reflected her administration’s “limitless capacity” for self-inflicted political wounds.

So what was actually in the speech from hell? Well, first came the contrition:

But we did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short. It was too scripted. Too presidential. And it allowed the Labour Party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change. I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.

Job done. And then, like several failed politicians have also tried to do before her, Theresa May attempted to make the phrase “the British Dream” a thing:

A little over forty years ago in a small village in Oxfordshire, I signed up to be a member of the Conservative Party. I did it because it was the party that had the ideas to build a better Britain.  It understood the hard work and discipline necessary to see them through.

And it had at its heart a simple promise that spoke to me, my values and my aspirations: that each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future. That each generation should live the British Dream. And that dream is what I believe in.

But what the General Election earlier this year showed is that, forty years later, for too many people in our country that dream feels distant, our party’s ability to deliver it is in question, and the British Dream that has inspired generations of Britons feels increasingly out of reach.

This doesn’t work. The American Dream is deeply routed in American culture and history, and it has a resonance which people living thousands of miles away understand. The British Dream sounds derivative, because it is. At best, it invites a second-class comparison with the United States and at worst it just sounds vague and woolly. The idea that each new generation should be more prosperous than the last is perfectly fine, but there is no need to coin an awkward phrase in order to capture something so self-evident.

Then the open boasts about stealing Labour policy begin:

And a National Living Wage – giving a pay rise to the lowest earners – introduced not by the Labour Party, but by us, the Conservative Party. So let us never allow the Left to pretend they have a monopoly on compassion. This is the good a Conservative Government can do – and we should never let anyone forget it.

The way to demonstrate that the Left does not have a monopoly on compassion is not to start stealing their policies. If anything, this only accentuates the link between leftism and compassion.

Soon it begins to veer toward the ridiculous:

Because at its core, it’s about sweeping away injustice – the barriers that mean for some the British Dream is increasingly out of reach. About saying what matters is not where you are from or who your parents are. The colour of your skin. Whether you’re a man or a woman, rich or poor. From the inner city or an affluent suburb. How far you go in life should depend on you and your hard work.

That is why I have always taken on vested interests when they are working against the interests of the people. Called out those who abuse their positions of power and given a voice to those who have been ignored or silenced for too long.     

And when people ask me why I put myself through it – the long hours, the pressure, the criticism and insults that inevitably go with the job – I tell them this: I do it to root out injustice and to give everyone in our country a voice. That’s why when I reflect on my time in politics, the things that make me proud are not the positions I have held, the world leaders I have met, the great global gatherings to which I have been, but knowing that I made a difference. That I helped those who couldn’t be heard.

Does this position come with tights and a cape? Rooting out injustice is all well and good (though again, this is one of those areas where Theresa May talks a big talk but walks a very small walk in terms of policy, which only invites more criticism from the Left) but a Conservative prime minister should be talking about aspiration and opportunity for all, not flirting with identity politics.

Then there were the downright statist aspirations, as we saw when Theresa May’s disjointed speech veered into a section about organ donation:

But our ability to help people who need transplants is limited by the number of organ donors that come forward. That is why last year 500 people died because a suitable organ was not available. And there are 6,500 on the transplant list today. So to address this challenge that affects all communities in our country, we will change that system. Shifting the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation. Working on behalf of the most vulnerable.

I desperately want to see more people join the organ donor register, and would be in favour of a significant and costly campaign to raise awareness and make taking action as easy as humanly possible. But switching from opt-in to opt-out is a dangerous symbolic concession to leftist statism, effectively declaring (as it does) that our bodies are ultimately the property of the state, to be disposed of following our deaths as it sees fit. Being able to “opt out” of this is not a safeguard – by even acknowledging the legitimacy of such a scheme we concede the state’s power over us, a huge concession which no Conservative prime minister should be making.

Then there were those sections which totally missed the point, as when Theresa May spoke about Grenfell Tower:

It’s why after seeing the unimaginable tragedy unfold at Grenfell Tower, I was determined that we should get to the truth. Because Grenfell should never have happened – and should never be allowed to happen again. So we must learn the lessons: understanding not just what went wrong but why the voice of the people of Grenfell had been ignored over so many years. That’s what the public inquiry will do. And where any individual or organisation is found to have acted negligently, justice must be done. That’s what I’m in this for.

And because in this – as in other disasters before it – bereaved and grieving families do not get the support they need, we will introduce an independent public advocate for major disasters. An advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families to support them at public inquests and inquiries. The strong independent voice that victims need. That’s what I’m in this for.

A public advocate to aid with emotional catharsis is all well and good, but the real failures exposed by Grenfell were those of building safety and particularly those of disaster response, where a medium-sized disaster in Britain’s capital city saw chaos for several days as central government, local government, emergency services, charities and volunteers struggled to work together under any kind of unified command.

The disaster response to Grenfell Tower should worry anybody with responsibility for civil contingencies, particularly knowing the kind of attacks which Islamist extremists would love to inflict upon us given half an opportunity. This is what the prime minister should have focused on, and how she should have demonstrated strong leadership.

Then there was the contradictory. A long-overdue defence of free markets which nobody believed given Theresa May’s past pronouncements and actions:

That idea of free and open markets, operating under the right rules and regulations, is precious to us. It’s the means by which we generate our prosperity as a nation, and improve the living standards of all our people. It has helped to cement Britain’s influence as a force for good in the world.

It has underpinned the rules-based international system that helped rebuild post-war Europe and the world beyond. It has ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of communism, and the dark days of the Iron Curtain; securing the advance of freedom across Europe and across the world. It has inspired 70 years of prosperity, raising living standards for hundreds of millions of people right across the globe.

So don’t try and tell me that free markets are no longer fit for purpose. That somehow they’re holding people back. Don’t try and tell me that the innovations they have encouraged – the advances they have brought – the mobile phone, the internet, pioneering medical treatments, the ability to travel freely across the world – are worth nothing.

The free market – and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law that lie at its heart – remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created. So let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might.  Because there has rarely been a time when the choice of futures for Britain is so stark. The difference between the parties so clear.

And indeed, a few paragraphs later Theresa May could be found eagerly plotting her next intervention in the energy market:

We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back. And one of the greatest examples in Britain today is the broken energy market.

Because the energy market punishes loyalty with higher prices. And the most loyal customers are often those with lower incomes: the elderly, people with lower qualifications and people who rent their homes. Those who for whatever reason, are unable to find the time to shop around. That’s why next week, this Government will publish a Draft Bill to put a price cap on energy bills. Meeting our manifesto promise.  And bringing an end to rip-off energy prices once and for all. 

The irony was not lost on everyone:

Fixing broken markets is absolutely the responsibility of a conservative government. For people to have faith in free markets they must operate fairly and transparently. But implementing Ed Miliband’s energy bill price cap is not fixing the market or coming up with an inventive solution to issues around monopolies and cartels, it is merely applying a leftist sticking plaster to a festering problem.

But what of education? A shallow and doomed attempt to pander to young voters by halting a planned rise in university tuition fees, and some vague waffle about vocational skills. After a bold declaration about re-tooling the British workforce for a more globalised, automated economy there were precisely two short, throwaway references to education in the entire speech (free schools and vocational training), neither of which deserve to be called policy ideas and neither of which were equal to the challenges we face. This is like promising to end world hunger and then failing to mention agriculture.

But the biggest letdown was on housing. Tory cowardice and lack of ambition on housing is killing conservatives with young voters who increasingly see little merit in capitalism when a deliberate policy of housing scarcity denies them the opportunity to build a stake in the system through the accumulation of their own capital.

If ever there was an area crying out for a bold new policy idea, it was housing. And as always, Theresa May did a fantastic job of describing the problem only to completely bottle it when it came to proposing a solution:

We’ve listened and we’ve learned. So this week, the Chancellor announced that we will help over 130,000 more families with the deposit they need to buy their own home by investing a further £10 billion in Help to Buy.

Oh goody, increasing demand even more while doing nothing concrete about supply. What could possibly go wrong?

More:

And today, I can announce that we will invest an additional £2 billion in affordable housing – taking the Government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9 billion.

 We will encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money and provide certainty over future rent levels. And in those parts of the country where the need is greatest, allow homes to be built for social rent, well below market level. Getting government back into the business of building houses. A new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market. So whether you’re trying to buy your own home, renting privately and looking for more security, or have been waiting for years on a council list, help is on the way.

So Theresa May wants to build thousands, millions more council houses. But what about the squeezed middle who don’t want or qualify for the state to be their landlord? What the hell good are new council houses for young people in nominally good professional jobs who find themselves priced out by relentless price increases and unreasonable deposit sums?

What about private housebuilding? What about actually relaxing planning regulations rather than just talking about it, and demanding that developers build upward not outward in our cities? In other words, what about doing something to address the supply of private housing stock rather than tinkering around the edges to further boost demand?

Theresa May’s motivation is very transparent here. The Tories clearly think that by focusing on building council and housing association properties there will be less negative impact on the older, homeowning Tory core vote. They calculated that so long as the availability of cheap homes for ownership does not dramatically increase – and they will ensure that it does not – they could avoid angering their base. But unfortunately, the net effect is to signal that this government only really cares about you if you are young and poor or old and rich. If you have the temerity to fall down the gap in the middle, Theresa May is effectively telling you to take a hike.

And more young people in this position are doing exactly that. My own social circle of young professional Londoners on decent salaries are now almost exclusively left-wing – not necessarily Corbynite, but certainly no friend of conservatism. Older acquaintances too. And who can be surprised? If you consistently screw people over throughout their formative years and early adulthood, you can’t expect them to suddenly start voting Tory when they get their first grey hair. This is the single biggest electoral issue facing the Tories, and they went into conference without a policy to match the scale of the challenge.

When Theresa May said in last year’s dubious conference speech that she wants to “set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics” we should have taken her at her word. Because thanks to being the only major party leader with any discernible principles, Jeremy Corbyn has successfully dragged the centre ground of British politics significantly to the left, and May is now eager to go scampering after him.

But if one takes the view that little else matters right now besides Brexit (a quite persuasive argument) then Pete North sums it up best:

So, Maybot’s speech. Would love to dive in like all the other political geeks but, seriously, none of it matters. Not a syllable. The only thing that matters is not screwing Brexit up. If she can’t get that right then everything folds – and however hard she may have tried to move closer to the centre, so long as Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Baker, Fox and chums are steering Brexit then the Tory party is defined by them; ignorant, crass, arrogant, jingoistic morons without a clue to share between them.

Ultimately, the speech was not the problem. The real problem is the leadership vacuum at the heart of 10 Downing Street, and a prime minister who either sees no reason to stand up to the Brexit Ultras in her own cabinet or is simply too weak to do so.

Theresa May’s off-brand, Lidl version of New Labour’s philosophy – her lame Ed Miliband tribute act – is ultimately survivable, and remains politically preferable to a Jeremy Corbyn government. But mess up Brexit and it wouldn’t much matter if Theresa May was an Ayn Rand-toting libertarian for all the good it would do when half the country is stockpiling food as global supply chains break down.

First, the Tories need to start getting Brexit right. Then they can formulate the kind of unapologetic conservative governing agenda which might actually make people want to vote Tory without holding their noses or keeping it a secret. And if there is time left after this, maybe then they can work on the old communication and leadership skills which are so lacking in this administration.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The general election result. The haemorrhaging of the youth vote to Labour, with the middle-aged vote following close behind. The capture of the government by hard Brexit purists who would risk the entire endeavour in pursuit of their chimerical free trade fantasy. All of these things were preventable if only the Tories had shown some degree of backbone in government rather than apologising for their conservatism and making concession after concession to the Left.

In the words of Cicero, non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est – disgrace lies not in imperfect knowledge but in foolish and obstinate continuance in a state of imperfect knowledge.

Theresa May and the Tories had another brush with political death today. They have been shown repeatedly what happens when you stand before the electorate apologising for your principles, watering down your policies and letting the opposition dictate the political agenda. The Conservative peril has nothing to do with coughing fits or stage invaders, but rather with the rotten product they are trying to sell.

And if this latest calamity fails to shock the Tories out of their obstinate state of deliberately imperfect knowledge then I fear they will only learn their lesson via another long stint on the Opposition benches.

 

The wording on a slogan is changed after letters fell away from the backdrop immediately after Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May concluded her address to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester

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Carnage In Las Vegas, And Presidential Words Which Fail To Heal

Donald Trump delivered a poignant address to the nation following the Las Vegas shootings, diminished only by the knowledge that the words and sentiments spoken were so clearly not those of the president

Our thoughts and prayers must be most strongly this evening with the souls of the 59 people killed in cold blood by a gunman as they enjoyed a country music festival in Las Vegas, as well as the five hundred-plus who were injured and their relatives, the police officers who ran towards the gunfire and those medical staff now working hard to save lives still in peril. Even by American standards, the Mandalay Bay Casino shooting is an unspeakably shocking atrocity.

At times like these, we have often looked to elected officials, particularly the president, to explain the inexplicable, to make sense of that which has no reason, and to offer some words of consolation to a shocked nation. Towards the end of his presidency, after Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston and many more such senseless massacres, Barack Obama looked visibly jaded, attempting to come up with new words of comfort as each killer dispatched his quota of innocent men, women and children to the mortuary.

President Donald Trump’s initial response to the Las Vegas attack – on Twitter, naturally – was characteristically slightly off-tone, giving his “warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families” affected by the carnage:

“Warmest condolences” is an odd turn of phrase, the first word almost congratulatory before coming crashing back down to earth with the second. Fair or not, it adds to the sense of a man who knows the social conventions and behaviours expected of him but struggles to perform to specification because it doesn’t quite come naturally.

The televised presidential statement, on the other hand, was much better, almost poetic in places. Some of the words spoken were among the most humane that Trump has ever uttered in public:

Hundreds of our fellow citizens are now mourning the sudden loss of a loved one — a parent, a child, a brother or sister. We cannot fathom their pain. We cannot imagine their loss. To the families of the victims: We are praying for you and we are here for you, and we ask God to help see you through this very dark period.

There was also an effort to seek consolation in scripture and through the faith and religiosity which rightly remains important to many Americans:

Scripture teaches us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve. To the wounded who are now recovering in hospitals, we are praying for your full and speedy recovery, and pledge to you our support from this day forward.

The conclusion was particularly moving in its simplicity:

Our unity cannot be shattered by evil. Our bonds cannot be broken by violence. And though we feel such great anger at the senseless murder of our fellow citizens, it is our love that defines us today — and always will, forever.

In times such as these, I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness. The answers do not come easy. But we can take solace knowing that even the darkest space can be brightened by a single light, and even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.

Melania and I are praying for every American who has been hurt, wounded, or lost the ones they love so dearly in this terrible, terrible attack. We pray for the entire nation to find unity and peace. And we pray for the day when evil is banished, and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear.

May God bless the souls of the lives that are lost. May God give us the grace of healing. And may God provide the grieving families with strength to carry on.

I have no desire to be churlish about the presidential statement, which in many ways ranked among the best remarks that Donald Trump has delivered since taking office. The president certainly expressed all of the right sentiments.

Yet the gulf between Trump au naturel and Trump on teleprompter is so vast as to be disconcerting. To witness Donald Trump extemporise and then to watch him perform at an important set-piece event is like watching two completely different people inhabiting the same body.

I assume that Stephen Miller was responsible for writing Donald Trump’s effective words today. He did well. It was not on the level of presidential statements such as Ronald Reagan’s in the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster but it was effective in its poignant brevity, though my perception may be slightly skewed given that so many of Trump’s previous public pronouncements have been so dire.

But while poignant and affecting, the words recited with all due solemnity into the television camera were clearly not the inner thoughts of the president who delivered them. Donald Trump’s mouth moved and said the right things, but never has it been more painfully apparent that when it matters most (whether it be setting out foreign policy or responding to a domestic crisis) he is the ventriloquist dummy president.

A good speechwriter can literally channel their boss, “talk” in their voice. My speechwriting hero Ted Sorensen (who worked closely with John F. Kennedy from his Senatorial career right through his presidency and is responsible for crafting some of Kennedy’s most famous speeches) is a prime example, as is former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. They can conjure magic, but their magic bears the unmistakable stamp of their principal’s own rhetorical style. They elevate the person for whom they write, they do not seek to recreate him or her from scratch or mould him in their own image.

As Ted Sorensen wrote in his book “Counsellor”, a memoir of his time serving in the Kennedy administration:

Whatever success I achieved as a speechwriter for Kennedy arose from knowing the man so well – from the years we spent working, traveling, and talking together, as close friends and collaborators who communicated constantly at a time when I regarded his election and stature as my principal professional goals. That success could not later be replicated with someone else with whom I did not have that same relationship.

It stretches credulity to imagine that Stephen Miller, for all his rhetorical talents, is best buddies with Donald J Trump or that they enjoy that closeness of working or social relationships to effectively be of one mind in the way that Kennedy and Sorensen worked so well.

A truly memorable speech captures something of the essence of the speaker, and therefore the speechwriter must know them well, at least in terms of their public and civic life. But this requires the speaker to have coherent values and policy aspirations which can serve as a lodestar to their thoughts for the speechwriter to follow, and Donald Trump has shown no signs of holding any such firm principles. He has no political Northern Star. This would suggest, as if we did not already know, that it was Miller talking, not Trump, when the president stood at the podium today.

The speechwriting ideal is that it should be impossible to tell where the politician’s own voice ends and where the speechwriter’s begins. Richard Nixon once said in an interview that a good speechwriter must be “an intellectual who can completely sublimate his style to another individual”. But we would have heard a very different speech today had Stephen Miller been rash enough to sublimate himself to Donald Trump.

“There’s a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Trump with the thoughts of the man himself” remarked a jaded but perceptive Australian journalist during the G20 meeting in July this year. The same point is equally applicable today, when there is such a painful disconnect between the words we hear and the face we see. It is painful because the poignant words of comfort are diminished, knowing as we do that the man who spoke them did not and could never have written them himself.

Perhaps we no longer value good speechwriting or want our leaders to have an aptitude for rhetoric. Maybe great oratory is passé. But I don’t think so. People still want inspiration and will grant a hearing to anybody who looks like they might provide it, whether it be Donald Trump’s shallow pledge to Make America Great Again or Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of a social democratic New Jerusalem in Britain.

People still want to tear down this wall. They want to be exhorted to fight evil on the beaches, in the fields and in the streets, and never surrender. They want to choose to go to the moon, and to touch the face of God. They want to believe that we shall overcome. We are human beings, and we want to be inspired.

Today, the West is led by people who preach fear and pessimism, largely because our leaders are fearful and pessimistic themselves. “Make America Great Again” sounds superficially positive, but is a cold and bleak credo at heart. The same goes for Theresa May’s ideologically lost Conservative government’s overworn pledge to deliver “a country that works for everyone” in Britain.

There is no real ambition any more because confidence in our values has not been nurtured, and slowly ebbed away. And this retrenchment, the fearful, introspective defensive crouch in which we find ourselves is echoed in our present political rhetoric. Kennedy’s exhortation has been reversed, and now we petulantly ask what the country will do for me rather than what we can do for the country (and our fellow citizens).

It will be tremendously hard to improve our politics without better political rhetoric to inspire people and call them to action, but better speechwriting and political rhetoric can only come about when there are policies and values which inspire and uplift. And on those increasingly rare occasions where we still encounter poetry in our civic life, it feels fake because it is so disconnected from the leaders delivering the speeches.

Donald Trump said all the right things today in his response to the heinous mass shooting in Las Vegas. Yet his address did not and could not achieve its full effect, because the words the president spoke and the mind which conjured them were so clearly someone else’s.

 

Microphones stand at the podium after U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta addressed supporters at the election night rally in New York

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Like, Why Can’t British Politicians Talk Fancy No More?

Great political speeches are only possible when there are great ideas to be expressed, and great leaders to express them

After watching the semi-famous video of former Labour minister Peter Shore arguing passionately against Britain’s membership of the EEC during a 1970s Oxford Union debate, Mark Wallace of Conservative Home has realised that the quality of contemporary British political oratory is perhaps not what it once was.

Wallace observes:

What’s striking is to try to list the modern speeches by Parliamentarians which have achieved the same quality. I’ve wracked my brains and, frankly, I can’t think of any. To be quite honest, while there are many excellent MPs in today’s House of Commons, I can’t think of a single one who speaks so well. Probably the most famous good speech of recent years was delivered by Hilary Benn, in the Syria debate – but watch it back, and you’ll see that while it was effective, it was done with notes and is still seen as exceptional rather than normal.

Depressingly, most of our Parliamentarians do not seem to prize public speaking. Indeed it’s a fairly regular occurrence to see some of them apparently struggling to convincingly read out loud from a bit of paper. Many are perfectly serviceable speakers, but compare modern performances to those from 40 or 50 years ago and it seems that today’s greats are not as great, the average is somewhat worse than it was, and the worst are now really quite dire.

Indeed. In actual fact, Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria wasn’t particularly good at all – it is memorable mostly because of the dramatic circumstances of its delivery during a period of unrest over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not the rhetorical exhortations of a man with all the charisma of a Quentin Blake illustration.

People also frequently praise the speeches of leftist politicians such as Mhairi Black (whose maiden speech in the House of Commons went drearily viral all over social media), but these speeches are also not particularly well-constructed or persuasive – they are simply very emotive, which makes them seem good in an age when feelings trump reason and reality TV has diminished our collective capacity to think.

Wallace continues:

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to value oratorical skill in our politicians. Perhaps it was the decline of the public meeting and the rise of soundbite-dominated TV campaigning that did it. Or maybe the decision not to teach school pupils how to debate left millions unduly intimidated by the idea of even trying to speak in front of an audience. There’s also a suspicion in some quarters that public speaking is somehow inherently elitist – a fallacy, given the many great orators who once arose, largely self-taught, from the union movement in particular, but a self-fulfilling belief, in that if you tell the majority of kids that only the rich and posh do speeches then you run the risk that they will believe you.

This is a clear loss to the character and effectiveness of our politics. How often do we hear people lament that politics is boring, that its main characters are bland, or that they don’t understand what it’s all about? It cannot have helped to have reduced the art and feeling in how we communicate about politics, and abandoned a means to compellingly communicate often complex concepts to mass audiences.

I am very glad that Mark Wallace and Conservative Home have woken up to the crisis in British political rhetoric. This blog has been lamenting the abysmal quality of British political speechwriting (and delivery) for years, not least here, here, here, here, here and here. Hopefully with the “bigger guns” of ConHome now trained on the problem we might force the discussion into the mainstream.

But good political rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. Contra Mark Wallace and Peggy Noonan, the internet and social media are not a guaranteed friend of good political speechwriting, heralding a coming renaissance in speechifying. While it is true that some political YouTubers are able to gather massive numbers of followers with their witty or acerbic rants, I can’t think of any high profile social media activists who communicate in a genuinely persuasive way.

Case in point: if one looks at the likes of Owen Jones on the hard left or Paul Joseph Watson on the conspiratorial/alt-right (nobody outside the extremes has much of a following), these people are good only at preaching to the converted in order to generate clicks and likes. They will hardly ever cause somebody to reconsider their own deeply held convictions unless a process of personal political transition is already underway. This also applies to the likes of The Young Turks, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and other voices in American politics, some of whom are good, but who tend not to do bipartisan outreach.

No, the art of British political speechwriting can only be revived if there is a simultaneous renaissance in British political thinking. And there are precious few signs of such a revival taking place any time soon. Right now both main parties are pretty much intellectually dead. The Labour centrists, utterly exhausted and discredited after the Blair/Brown years, are finished – and in their place is a holdover from the 1970s in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, the soft and non-threatening quasi-conservatism of Cameron/Osborne gave way to the statist paternalism of Theresa May, another throwback to the 1970s which can hardly be considered progress.

Nowhere was this dearth of visionary thinking mirrored by equally uninspired rhetoric reflected more clearly than in the EU referendum campaign. This was a highly consequential, even existential political decision for the people of Britain, and yet rather than bold speeches and compelling narratives on either side we were offered little more than glib soundbites and canned catchphrases.

As I wrote at the time:

When the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

We will not see a revival in political speechmaking in this country until British politicians actually start having ideas and advocating policies worthy of grander rhetoric. So long as there remains in place a technocratic, managerialist consensus between centre-left and centre-right (which very much remains the case and has only been partially broken by Brexit), there will be no bold new ideas in British politics, and in turn there will be no speeches worth listening to.

When even the prime minister of our country sees her role as more of a glorified Comptroller of Public Services than a world leader representing a great and consequential nation, why would we expect her speeches to be any more memorable than the platform announcements at Waterloo station? And if the prime minister’s words are so utterly uninspiring and inconsequential then why bother listening to the words of those who are not even at her level, but merely vying to replace her in that diminished role?

Our current political debates are often petty and parochial, and so are the words we use to fight them. And those issues which might potentially generate bold ideas matched by bold words tend to be furiously ignored by political leaders – look at their refusal to properly confront the Islamist threat, or the staggeringly superficial debate about Brexit.

Great political rhetoric only occurs when there are great issues at stake and great minds willing and able to tackle them. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself“, delivered as the American economy buckled under the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University, setting the United States the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches“, given after Britain’s deliverance at Dunkirk. Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall“, made at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (and ironically helping to usher in the post-Cold War world which for all its wonders also sucked much of the vitality from Western politics, together with our raison d’être).

And maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world. Perhaps this is why American political oratory has undergone a similar decline in the post-Reagan era, now that Pax Americana is drawing to an end and the uncertain new multipolar world emerges.

But one thing is certain: without conviction politics, there can be no speeches of great conviction. At best, a centrist or technocratic politician might be able to mimic the grandeur and cadences of famous speeches – as President Obama did so effectively, talking loftily of hope and change while a very different reality played out on the ground – but they will never truly achieve that perfect synergy of subject, argument and tone that is the hallmark of a great speech.

Why are there no great contemporary British political speeches? Well, try picturing one in your head, given the kind of issues we typically argue about and the politicians who represent us.

Imagine future historians studying the impact of rousing speeches about lowering corporation tax by a few percentage points or abolishing the so-called “bedroom tax”.

Imagine schoolchildren memorising the words to that famous speech opposing HS2 or supporting the renationalisation of Southern Rail.

Picture a crowd of thousands of people brought to its feet in genuine excitement by a pledge to reduce NHS waiting times by 15 percent in the next parliament, hire a few hundred more nurses or increase the minimum wage to an astronomic £8 an hour by the year 2020.

And there’s your answer.

Winston Churchill speech to Canadian Parliament - 1941

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