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From Transcendence To Trash: What's Rubbish About Political Language Today

17/08/2017 11:49 BST | Updated 17/08/2017 11:49 BST

The French President Emmanuel Macron commented before his landslide victory earlier this year that he felt that 'what's missing in politics today is a bit of the transcendence that literature and philosophy bring.' I couldn't agree more. And so, I've decided to devote myself to an investigation of if, how, when and why literature and philosophy became exiled from politics, only to be substituted with the bland banality of focus-group speak - a bland banality that scarcely makes us any safer as citizens of the world, as we are discovering at the moment.

The past 12 months or so have been rich (or irksomely poor) pickings. I've been listening attentively to speeches, to rhetorical soundbites and to political communications in the broadest sense. And I am depressed. I can't even bring myself to get agitated over the supposedly imminent threat of intercontinental nuclear war. Why? Because I am deeply frustrated by the lack of imagination, ingenuity and élan in the manner in which matters of international politics and diplomacy are generally expressed and performed.

Judd Legum, the founder and editor-in-chief of the American political news blog ThinkProgress, has considered the influence of Donald Trump's former life in WWE on the billionaire's political strategy. Legum conducted a by turns quietly hilarious and disquieting reading of Trump's behaviour for ThinkProgress in 2015 with reference to French philosopher Roland Barthes' essay on professional wrestling. The trouble is, two years on, we're still in the realm of broken English and trash talk. Whatever the conservative commentator Ann Coulter might have said to Krishnan Guru-Murthy recently in a Channel 4 News interview about the effectiveness of smack-down language when it comes to dealing with North Korea, I (and, I would hope, many an expert nuclear analyst) struggle to believe that the bad alliteration of Hollywood B-movie phrases such as 'fire and fury' and 'locked and loaded' is what any of us need right now. This is not, after all, White House Down. This is real life.

I never thought I'd find myself feeling nostalgic for Margaret Thatcher's premiership. But here we are. Certainly, when she was delivering speeches in the 1970s and 1980s, literature and philosophy were still at the heart of her orations. Thatcher was surrounded by a motley crew of polymaths who contributed to her scripts, including the former Communist and co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies Alfred Sherman and the actor, dramatist and classicist Ronald Millar. Millar wrote in his autobiography A View From the Wings that the only rule in speechwriting is that there are no rules. But in writing for Thatcher, he learnt from her Foreign Affairs Adviser, Charles Powell, to keep certain 'useful techniques' in mind:

1. Never put anything worthwhile in the first draft, it will be rejected;

2. Keep the structure for the second draft, the first will inevitably be condemned for not having one;

3. Don't even try to draft a peroration until you are right up against the time-limit, because they are always revised right down to the line;

4. Be ready to stay up till six in the morning on the day of delivery if necessary; and

5. Have the collected works of Rudyard Kipling to hand.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, I was comforted during lunch with a colleague who told me that he had started university in the year of President Reagan's first victory. 'That was it, we all thought, nuclear holocaust,' he said. 'But here I am, sitting at the same table a quarter-century on.' The Reagan-Thatcher alliance was formidable last time the world seriously entertained the threat of nuclear war. And when it came to addressing matters of warfare, Thatcher's speechwriting team came up with a special blend of literature and philosophy.

The Iron Lady was among the first recipients of a Churchill Award, an honour bestowed by the Winston Churchill Foundation upon individuals recognised as exemplifying Churchill's attributes and ideals. It is fitting that Thatcher's acceptance speech, given in September 1983 little more than a year after the end of the Falklands War, should feature numerous references to the wartime writings and reflections of her political hero Churchill - not only those made publicly during the Second World War, but also to letters composed during earlier conflicts, and statements made in the first decade of the Cold War when the new threat of nuclear annihilation loomed over the world. But it is not only echoes of Churchill that are audible in that speech. Though references to Rudyard Kipling are not explicit, you can certainly appreciate the influence of the likes of Sherman and Millar in allusions to Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's so-called manifesto of the Renaissance, On the Dignity of Man, to Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, to George Bernard Shaw's Man of Destiny, and to an anonymous Hungarian poet.

Perhaps this kind of thing, rather than Trump's trash, is more along the lines of what Macron has in mind?