Beware the Easy Spells of Oratory; Prime Ministers and Army Officers May Seek to Inspire and Persuade, but Today We Are Far More Suspicious of Rhetoric

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), March 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Beware the Easy Spells of Oratory; Prime Ministers and Army Officers May Seek to Inspire and Persuade, but Today We Are Far More Suspicious of Rhetoric


Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

IT is in the theatre that the human voice and what it has to say should engage our emotions, rouse our passions for such virtuous abstractions as honour, heroism, patriotism and noble sacrifice, and free us from the dull restraint of reason. The theatre is now the only place in which we should gather to hear rhetoric and oratory, to be reminded of the heart and stomach of the Great Eliza - not now by the Thames at Tilbury, and certainly not now in that den of vipers, the House of Commons. The only exception must be on the battlefield, and then the oratory of, not a politician, but a fellow soldier prepared to share its mortal hazards with his men.

The Commons has witnessed too many fine words and exhortations in its time - but the time was then, and then was when we still believed in King and Country, in that Country right or wrong, in our God-given capacity to knock wog and nig-nog heads together, police the world, lay down our laws and impose our peculiar religion.

Our once educated politicians were rather good at it, as though oratory were the necessary accomplishment of the gentleman; they could conjure, even quote in their ancient languages, Cicero and Seneca, Antiphon and Demosthenes, and all in the House would ra-ra in recognition of one orator's employment of another's words, and then vote to usurp another dominion or start another war.

There has, however, been little evidence of oratory this past half-century, perhaps because we heard enough of it between the two world wars and saw what it could do, how words ranted by Mussolini and Hitler could drive their civilised nations into the lunacies of inhumanity beyond imagination.

We ourselves had an orator of sorts in Chamberlain, whose "Peace in our time" became the mantra of 1938 - and what a cheat that proved to be within a year.

If we remember Churchill as an orator, it is not as we heard Hitler at his Wagnerian rallies, but as the gruff voice growling out of the wirelesses at home and reports of speeches in the Commons that promised nothing but "blood toil, tears and sweat", and guerrilla warfare among the Bens of Sutherland as our defeated armies retreated from the beaches to the distant hills.

If that was oratory, then it was also plain speaking at low pitch; if it was exhortation, then it was also steadying truth. Last week, our present Prime Minister tried his hand at both the grand manner in the Commons and the fireside chat on television for the rest of us. In the first he succeeded in convincing the press that he is of Churchillian ilk - "Blair plays not to the gallery but to the heart," roared the headline of a paper not much known as his supporter. But it was only to the hearts of his wavering legions in the Labour Party on the benches just behind him that he made his plea.

TO the sceptic, this was a skin-saving entreaty, the desperate repetition of thin arguments that have not convinced the nation that we should, at this stage, go to war. Forget the performance - the anxious sincerity now threadbare, though the emotional appeal still makes women MPs weep - and instead examine the weary cliches, the familiar assertions, the absence of convincing proof - was there anything in this tedious rehearsal that should convince the reasonable man that Blair should lead us into war? …

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