Since Barack Obama’s “A more perfect union” speech I have thought a great deal about the question of political sincerity. Shortly after his retirement the well-liked John Cole, BBC political correspondent, said that most politicians were decent people with honourable objectives. And yet in our modern political age, dominated by spin and focus groups, any politician attempting to speak from the heart, to speak with conviction, to speak inspirationally, is greeted with cynicism and disbelief.
Tony “Im a pretty straight sort of guy” Blair has much for which to answer. I cannot listen to a word he says without thinking of calculating hypocrisy. I reached the stage with Patricia Hewitt that I had to turn the sound of when she appeared on television. Barack Obama’s speech was different. A speech born of necessity, certainly, but a speech that was both intelligent and inspirational. And, God knows, we need an inspirational American President.
I have been discussing this with Iain Dale. Is it possible for a modern politician to make a sincere and genuinely inspirational speech? I issued a challenge. Give me an example of such a speech made by a British or American politician since 1950, the start of the television age. The commonest suggestion has been...
... Martin Luther King’s, “I had a dream...”, but he was not a politician seeking office. Kennedy’s “Ask not what...” was moving but too redolent of the speech writer’s craft. And then, at the other extreme, there is Richard Nixon keeping a “little dog called Checkers” and not “whitewashing the White House”. Or Tony Blair, avoiding soundbites (sic) as he “felt the hand of history...”
I believe, strangely perhaps as he is so often but unfairly derided as the Welsh windbag, that Neil Kinnock’s speech to the 1985 Labour Conference was inspirational and saved the Labour Party from the Social Democrats.
“And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I'm telling you now: No matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos - I'll tell you and you'll listen - I'm telling you, I'm telling you - you can't play politics with people's jobs and people's services."
Hugh Gaitskell at the 1960 Labour Conference was similarly effective:
"There are some of us who will fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love. We will fight and fight and fight again to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity, so that our party - with its great past - may retain its glory and its greatness.
Compared to Kinnock and Gaitskell, Tony Blair, speaking to the Conference on Clause IV, was merely a technician re-arranging deck chairs. If Tony Blair had a political heart, he was not able to speak from it.
With the exception of Barack Obama’s “A more perfect union” speech, I struggle to find modern examples of genuinely sincere political oratory and, in particular, I struggle to find examples from Conservative politicians. Perhaps it is we, the chatterati, who have brought this upon ourselves. We get the politicians we deserve. We are too cynical for our own good.