Magazine article The Spectator

The Quality of a Political Speech Is a Symptom of Popularity Not a Cause

Magazine article The Spectator

The Quality of a Political Speech Is a Symptom of Popularity Not a Cause

Article excerpt

Epiphenomenalism is, as 16-letter words go, not an obvious hook with which, dear reader, to draw you to this column; but let me explain; because I think I may be an epiphenomenalist.

My dictionary defines this as the doctrine that consciousness is merely a by-product of physiological processes and has no power to affect them: that we do not weep because we're sad, but rather that we are sad because we're weeping.

The idea is not quite as crazy as it sounds.

Tony Blair did not sound passionately sincere because he was passionately sincere. He mastered the knack of delivering his lines with such passionate sincerity that he became spellbound by his own performance, and believed in it. And only last week in Blackpool the Times's political sketchwriter, Ann Treneman, said to me, 'I think an election may be approaching because I've started eating crisps.' In the same way, one cow might observe to another, 'I think it's going to rain because I'm lying down.' And I think the Conservative party may have won Britain over. The reason? David Cameron is making good speeches. The excellence of his speeches is not the cause of his new popularity. His new popularity is the cause of his good speeches. We rate them because we rate him: not the other way round.

Ever since I started attending party conferences 30 years ago I've been puzzled by the violence with which press and public opinion seem to swing for or against key platform performances by important politicians. One speech is declared a triumph, another a disaster; one interview is lauded as masterly, another a toecurling flop; a self-deprecating remark from one speaker is wit; from another an embarrassing gaffe. Yet for me such speeches, interviews or remarks have rarely seemed exceptional.

In Brighton this year at the Liberal Democrat conference, Sandi Toksvig bantered with Sir Menzies Campbell, who had told her that he was always nervous before any big performance. Sandi replied that she usually was too, but that Sir Menzies didn't make her nervous. 'Gosh, I'm a failure, ' he replied -- a light, quick-witted response, I thought. But GAFFE!

yelled the media, 'Ming admits he's a failure.' Imagine Tony Blair at the height of his popularity giving the same response. Would we have called it an embarrassing stumble? Not at all. In fact Mr Blair had a particularly winning way with jokey self-deprecation and everybody called it cool. Sir Menzies wasn't considered accident-prone because he dropped a clanger;

he was said to have dropped a clanger because he was considered accident-prone.

Then at Bournemouth the following week came Gordon Brown's big speech. You cannot expect me to swoon over a speech by the (in my view) hugely oversold Mr Brown; but I was there and tried to listen objectively; and the fact is that this was one of the best speeches he has ever made. It was not a very good speech -- I doubt Brown will ever make one -- but it was a tremendous improvement on his dreary, table-banging performances of the past. He spoke pleasantly, with an engaging tone and more light and shade than I've heard him command before. He was coherent and fluent and managed to smile. The speech had a statist flavour, but then that's Brown: he has always been a fidgeting improver of mankind.

We knew that -- didn't we?

I did not, immediately afterwards, hear anybody calling the speech a disaster, and many liked it. …

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