As we approach the end of the party conference season in UK politics, I am the only one left feeling that the age of the great political orator in this country has sadly passed?
I mean, yes, okay--the content arising at these conferences has probably been the most interesting for many years. Let me stress, at this juncture, whether or not I agree with any of it is a whole other story, and not the point of this article!
Speakers from both main parties have harnessed some true substance and, perhaps a reflection of my cynical nature, I find this to be rare in the world of politics. Over the years, I have frequently been impressed by the ability of various political speakers to enthral their audiences, despite providing very little commentary of value about real situations.
With the above in mind, our current politicians in the UK do seem, at least, to be talking about real stuff that matters, from the polarisation of politics to the potential ramifications of Brexit.
They have not, however, stood out as particularly inspirational individuals. While their content has attracted the attention of commentators and newsfolk, delivery has been seriously lacklustre. It is one thing to feel let down by influential figures providing style over substance--the latter is vital--but it seems that UK politicians have forgotten that, if you want to engage the thoughts of your audience, you need to win their hearts.
In this regard, I cannot help but look enviously at the performance of politicians in other parts of the world. I look at global figures such as Angela Merkel or Yanis Varoufakis, with their ability to captivate from behind the lectern. I look at the USA and, particularly, Barack Obama, a true master of speech-giving. I even look at Trump, with his ability to stir a crowd, and the interest generated amongst speakers at the US party conventions as they, too, strive to own their moment on the stage.
Then I turn back to Blighty and ask myself, where have the brilliant political orators of Britain gone? What has happened to those individuals who were revered for their ability to rally others with their rhetoric; who were even secretly respected by the other side for their connection with the British people? Love them or hate them--the likes of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair are beacons when it comes to delivering on the platform compared to more recent British politicians. I suppose you could say that the rise of Boris Johnson was solely due to his ability to deliver on a stage, but he is one small light in an otherwise sparse field.
Let's focus our attention, for a moment, on Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.
I understand the viewpoint that the Labour leader has legions of dedicated 'Corbynistas', but it seems to me that they are following his strong political beliefs in their own right, not because of his skill in oratory. His own MPs critiqued him for his delivery in the lead-up to the EU referendum, and his socialist inclinations have struggled to be heard in his half-hearted battle with moderate party members.
As for May, if she came to power as a sign of solidarity and familiarity, her presence on the podium does not captivate by any stretch of the imagination. Despite her attempt to use Brexit as a personal decree for change, the subtlety of her rhetoric has not restored confidence in the masses about what is ahead. Keeping sentiments understated may be temporary tactic while plans are finalised, but time will tell if she is able to build a persona that will inspire the British people.
I would even understand if there were skilful speakers standing alongside these leaders to compensate. Throughout the ages, even if the person in the top spot was not necessarily the most gifted speech-maker, there would usually be other personalities on the political scene who could magnetise the masses, beckoning them one way or another. Today, however, the British populace is floundering as they look for a charismatic centre to orbit.
Is it not slightly ironic that, as the country enters a period of unprecedented uncertainty, our political leaders can barely ensure that people glance up from their mobile devices? The need for inspirational figures who can engage the British public has reached a critical level. Recent events have clearly shown that, without a strong delivery, content alone isn't enough because key messages are getting lost.
Getting the balance right is a talent, and one that is currently overlooked in the UK. Whatever their politics may be, we need appreciate those who have honed the skill of straddling the line between style and substance--they are bringing to the podium what is, in my opinion, the art of the great political speaker.
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