Is the power of rhetoric over-rated?

Polly Toynbee wrote the other day about the absence of great speeches and speakers in the modern political age. And to a degree, she’s right. There are very few politicians of any stripe who impress in the “formidable man/woman” category (I’m not referring to people who I agree with, just politicians who have the potential to really galvanise those around them without being rabble-rousing demagogues).

There are no great public speakers any more. No one with the charisma to really inspire people and get them thinking about ideas and politics. Instead we have automatons and utter mediocrities. I suppose the closest we have to a formidable rhetorician in British politics is George Galloway and he is fast becoming a deeply unpleasant joke. The flatness of the surrounding landscape also explains the other otherwise inexplicable popularity of Machiavelli’s Machiavelli, Boris Johnson.

I suppose when so few of our politicians are exposed to the rough and tumble of real debate as part of their political development, something that they would have had to tackle had they been active just a few decades ago, and when there were significant intellectual differences to be found even amongst the “mainstream” parties, it is unsurprising.

Witness Jack Straw’s reaction to Walter Wolfgang at the Labour conference a few years ago. Previous labour leaders would have treated him with equal contempt of course, but they wouldn’t have needed security to drag Wolfgang out for fear of having to actually argue their point. Harold Wilson, for example, would have just given him some back.

Toynbee’s problem however is that she sees soaring rhetoric within a certain context. She wants the undoubted political anger that exists in the country to find expression in mainstream (specifically Labour) politics. I would love that to be the case too, but from a rather different starting point. She is consistently dismissive of action and pressure from below in her columns and interviews. To her, the answer is always a Labour government (tellingly, it used to be the thoroughly top-down and not very radical SDP that she supported) and all political activism should be focussed on that goal. When that’s achieved and ‘our’ lot are in power, the problems are largely solved.

Now you’d have thought that years of deeply uninspiring Labour governments would have killed that notion stone dead in even the most naïve, but apparently not.

I think there is a wider issue here too. We look to politicians to be great orators, but does that mean anything in practise? Isn’t being effective and actually changing things more important than flowery language and great intonation? Isn’t the need for inspiration from on high and political heroes an indication of what our individualistic culture is doing to us?

Of course it is, and there is also danger of the orator using their gift as a distraction. Barack Obama is a fantastic public speaker, a master of capturing the public mood and saying the right thing at the right time. But his presidency has been enormously disappointing even for those of us who have low expectations of Democratic politicians. He generated huge enthusiasm in 2008, especially amongst the young, but it could quite conceivably be the case that it is only the staggering ineptitude and terrifying worldview of the Republicans that gifts him a second term.

The much-maligned Ed Miliband might win a few more votes with Obama-like soaring rhetoric and Blair-like smoothness. But the important issue is policy, as we have been pointing out here for the last year or so. That, in the final analysis, is what determines genuine, tangible political success or failure.

I picked up a link to this piece just after Toynbee’s piece appeared. It’s very long, as the essays in the New Yorker tend to be, and I don’t go along with quite a few of the assumptions and conclusions, but it makes the important point that particularly in American politics being a masterful orator if you are president means little or nothing after you have actually won the election. Obama’s ability to deliver thrilling oratory has had no positive or discernible impact in successfully getting his legislative programme implemented.

Of course this is always a tricky issue for the left. We rightly despise the notion of the superman.

On the one hand the lack of weighty, inspiring figures on the left is not terribly helpful when the media discourse in capitalist societies revolves around the individual and the soundbite.

On the other all the vaguely charismatic gurus the British left has produced of late have in the main turned out to be tossers with a serious and very debilitating god complex. Galloway and Tommy Sheridan, for example.

So it’s a puzzler. Ideally we need a mob of inspiring, intelligent, tactically adept, charismatic, personable, grounded, refreshingly ego-free and humble lefties to emerge and build the movement from the ground up.

That would be nice wouldn’t it. Is it even possible though?

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Robert
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 08:54:55

    How do you inspire people to vote for you or your party, if you do not inspire them, watching Cameron when he loses control his temper his shouting bullying in some cases, although it’s his style it’s not working.

    Miliband is a bloke who believes he has to win the next election otherwise he’ll be sacked moved on his career will be over, so for him what is important is not his speaking style but he thinks band wagons are important.

    He had a pop at welfare at conference made a total ass of him self when questioned, then moved the question to the rear by saying we will speak later.
    He does not have a great rhetoric but he does think what matters is what he believes what people want to hear, sadly he’s what we would have called a wet.

    Clegg likes to have people think he is great, sadly he’s another of those who has little style, he’s another of the new style career politicians.

    I think since Thatcher who had a bit of style, Blair had it with buckets sadly it was his problem with lies that caused him problems, Harold Wilson had his pipe it was like a gun if that pointed at you look out and he could stand up to any one.

    Nye Bevan who I heard as a child had a way and a voice, it’s all gone now.


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