Speech! Speech! Oratory Helped Secure the Presidency for Barack Obama and Saved Gordon Brown's Premiership. Alan Watkins Explains the Art of Wooing the Party Faithful While Ten Distinguished Commentators Choose Their Personal Favourites

By Watkins, Alan | New Statesman (1996), December 15, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Speech! Speech! Oratory Helped Secure the Presidency for Barack Obama and Saved Gordon Brown's Premiership. Alan Watkins Explains the Art of Wooing the Party Faithful While Ten Distinguished Commentators Choose Their Personal Favourites


Watkins, Alan, New Statesman (1996)


People say that they remember conference speeches. What really happens later on, often long after the event, is that they remember isolated sentences, even phrases. David Steel said in September 1981: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government." It was not at the Liberal conference proper but at an evening rally to celebrate the inauguration of the Liberal-SDP Alliance. This is now taken as a demonstration of foolish Liberal optimism. But at the time the new Conservative government was discovered. According to the opinion polls, the Alliance looked like being the largest party.

His predecessor Jo Grimond said at Brighton in the 1963 assembly (as it was called in those days) that he intended to march his troops towards the sound of gunfire. They were a notably pacific lot but were much encouraged, although the party ended up with only nine MPs in the following year's general election.

Harold Wilson dominated domestic politics for over a decade. His speech on science and socialism at Scarborough in 1963 turned Labour into the optimistic party that was certain to win the election. The "white heat of the technological revolution" is inexact: the phrases were "the scientific revolution" and "the white heat of this revolution".

The then deputy political correspondent of the Daily Express, later editor of the Times, Charles Douglas-Home, sitting in the gallery, rose from his seat and applauded loudly. His senior colleague sitting beside him pulled him down by his coat-tails and told him, as gently as he could, that this was no way for a political journalist to behave.

Wilson has fallen out of fashion. For a whole succession of conferences, he carried the audience enthusiastically with him. He was required-or chose-to make two speeches. One was supposed to be a reply to the "parliamentary report." the other was the leader's oration. Edward Heath in opposition introduced the two-speech practice in his own party, but it was not so successful as it was with Wilson.

The leader is now restricted to one big speech, and quite right, too. Even so, with Labour the speech comes halfway through the proceedings. The delegates prefer to devote the rest of the week to their hangovers; the Tory representatives are able to get their drinking done first. It is anticlimatic but Hugh Gaitskell, after all, made his "fight, fight and fight again" speech at the beginning of the conference at Scarborough in 1960.

Everyone now says that Gaitskell was defending the position of the independent nuclear deterrent. In spirit, he was. But party policy at the time, on which he had fought the 1959 election, was to embrace the non-nuclear club. His opposition to the Common Market (as it then was) at Brighton in 1962 was, if anything, clearer. It was "the end of a thousand years of history". Most people have forgotten that.

The other speaker who is now overlooked is Iain Macleod, though he was not disregarded then. His oratorical function, a revived Labour in opposition, was to bring comfort to the troops: "Lift up your hearts ... the Liberals may dream thier dreams. The socialists"-this pronounced with particular venom-"may scheme their schemes. We have work to do." And in 1964, the Tories nearly won.

Peregrine Worsthorne

Stanley Baldwin during the Westminster by-election campaign, March 1931

Beaverbrook and Rothermere had been attacking Baldwin in a vicious campaign to remove him as leader of the Conservative Party. Baldwin's speech attempted to persuade people that we shouldn't allow tabloid newspaper owners-who are, after all, unelected officials-to determine the course of the political debate, claiming that they were seeking "power without responsibility-the prerogative of the harlot through the ages".

Baldwin's words represented an absolutely deadly attack on the press barons. The speech stripped them completely naked for everyone to see and it was all the more effective because it was couched in personal terms: not as an abstraction but as a personal attack on two well-known figures.

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Speech! Speech! Oratory Helped Secure the Presidency for Barack Obama and Saved Gordon Brown's Premiership. Alan Watkins Explains the Art of Wooing the Party Faithful While Ten Distinguished Commentators Choose Their Personal Favourites
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