Should Politics Be About More Than Delivering Flawless Speeches?
The Tories have left themselves open to ridicule once again. This time Jonathan Van-Tam, the expert wheeled out during their daily Downing Street briefings, claimed that they’d announced quarantines for people returning from Wuhan back on February 30th. That’s the thirtieth. Of February.
Hilarious, right? And further evidence of Tory incompetency to add to the pile stacked so high by the likes of Priti Patel. For many of us on the left, this is the conclusion it’s so tempting to draw. After all, Diane Abbott’s numerical mishap is still held as proof that Labour are too incompetent to deal with financial decisions — so with this in mind, it was the Tories who cast the first stone, right?
Much of the abuse Abbott has faced has been nothing short of racism. But the sustained nature of it was a deliberate attempt to discredit the left. If Labour had actually underfunded a policy by a factor of a thousand, of course, it would have been a disaster. But she misspoke. And at least what she did say was actually a number — but Patel’s recent blunder hasn’t received anywhere near the same level of media attention, and was never likely to.
It seems the only qualification the Conservatives want in their spokespeople is the ability to put style over substance, revealing as little as possible while maintaining the façade of someone with a grasp of what they’re talking about. And Patel failed to reach even this low bar. If our media has decided that ridiculing politicians is warranted, then surely she’s earned the required three hundred thousand and thirty four, nine hundred and seventy four thousand points to sit at the front of the queue. But that would serve no interests.
If that were how things worked, the Prime minister would never have been allowed to fashion a reputation as a superior intellect, owing apparently to his elite education.
Sometimes it seems as though ‘Style Over Substance’ is his only talent, though for me it isn’t much of one. A few months back there was a video doing the rounds, touting his genius as it showed him reciting the Iliad in the original Greek. There were claims on social media from those who’ve studied it, and from native Greek speakers, that it was simply parroted with poor pronunciation, and even that parts of it weren’t even from the Iliad.
Given his education, this was a feat akin to Tom Jones’ rendition of the Welsh National Anthem — impressive to an outsider, perhaps, but a categorical failure compared to anyone with a remotely similar background. Yet nevertheless it impressed, convincing many of his suitability for leadership.
His emphasis on delivery over content is evident every time he speaks. I confess that I avoid listening to his voice whenever possible, but I’ve heard his shocking February Greenwich speech more than once, and his ‘style’ is simply bizarre. He puts a weird stress on the final word or syllable of each line, even for the word coronavirus (as if to differentiate from corona beer?). Aside from the obvious glee he takes in comparing himself to Superman, nothing about it suggests comprehension of the words he’s reading.
Many, I’m sure, will disagree. But that’s irrelevant. What’s important is the content, in which he admits to wanting to put the economy over the wellbeing of the citizens of the UK. But that isn’t what our culture values in our political leaders, and recitations in ancient Greek will always gain more traction.
So while it’s sorely tempting to mock when Tories slip up, in doing so we give legitimacy to the racist bullying of Abbott, while diverting attentions away from the implications of what’s actually being said.
Honestly, I don’t care how badly our politicians stumble over their words. It’s true, an ability to convey their ideas clearly and precisely is a desirable trait in a leader (as opposed to giving that impression, while deliberately muddying the waters, as the last three PMs have done so well). What matters most is the actual substance of their ideas, their policies, their intent.
Gordon Brown was heavily criticised for his perceived lack of charisma, and it undoubtedly contributed to his downfall. But should it have mattered? Compared to many, he wasn’t a great public speaker. But would it have affected his ability as a leader if he’d suffered with a condition that affects his ability to speak? What if he’d had motoneuron disease?
Had Stephen Hawking wanted to go into politics, would a lack of ‘stage presence’ meant he wasn’t up to the job? I think that in the current crisis most people would agree that his commitment to the NHS alone would have elevated him above all Prime ministers in the last decade, at least. But more importantly, a man often touted as the leading intellect on the planet would have been more than competent.
That isn’t to say we should necessarily trust the politics of scientists. Hawking was considered a genius because he devoted his life to his field, but a politician needs to be more of a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’. No politician’s knowledge could have such depth across the broad range of issues over which they are responsible.
So what exactly should we expect from them?
They are our representatives, so a commitment to serve in the best interests of all of their constituents should be a given. But, in contrast to the likes of Michael Gove, they should be more willing to listen to the voices of experts than lobbyists or media moguls. While we can’t expect them to be experts in everything, we should be able to expect them to recognise the value of opinions offered by those devoted to a particular subject.
For issues like epidemiology, we shouldn’t be choosing advisers based on their political allegiances or their ability to spin data so it appears to conform to preferred ideologies. This type of politics is how the Whitehouse ended up with a man thinking it’s okay to suggest injecting bleach.
But they need to have some expertise, of course. Many of them are former professionals, and clearly a parliament benefits from giving former teachers, nurses or trade unionists relevant jobs. But they should all have at least some sort of passion for politics.
So blunders like Labour MP Chris Bryant’s recent tweet — comparing the socialists of Wales who seek political independence from Westminster with Nazis — was a big one. In all likelihood it was a disingenuous take, and if that’s true then such an attempt to deliberately misdirect the public he serves should render him unfit for office.
But the alternative is such a poor understanding of political history for someone in a supposedly socialist party. Does he not understand the difference between the nationalisms of Gandhi and Hitler? Does he honestly not recognise his own commitment to British nationalism?
Is he, in fact, a socialist at all? The MP of a safe Labour seat was once a member of the Tory party, after all. But if he is a socialist who thinks Nazis were socialists, we are looking at political comprehension so unbelievably shallow, it amounts to a level of incompetency far more serious than Abbott or Patel’s stumble over numbers.
He made the comparison when Mark Drakeford, the Welsh Labour leader and Prif Weinidog of Wales, insisted that nationalism and socialism are incompatible. Drakeford came to this conclusion, he tells us, when he was fourteen.
He has managed to hold on to his childhood dismissal of nationalism his whole life, while seemingly never questioning the socialist credentials of his own party. He has set up a panel to assist with post-COVID economic recovery planning, and Gordon Brown will be on it. A man whose charisma should never have counted against him, but whose commitment to neoliberalism certainly should have. This appointment makes a mockery of Drakeford’s supposed commitment to socialism, but such details are never explored.
Both men also appear unaware of their own British nationalism. But then that’s always been easy in the UK. When Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acted in contrast to Westminster, and in the interest of the Scottish people, she listened to actual experts. The BBC framed her as ‘enjoying’ the excuse to follow a different path to England.
Whenever she is praised, on a UK level, it tends to be for her delivery. She is certainly a more competent speaker than most of her Westminster counterparts. But the insistence on ranking leaders by their ability to charm us leaves the important details as an afterthought.
Abbott was talking about reversing Tory cuts, and that’s what was important. Patel was making excuses for the UK government’s appalling record on coronavirus testing. Johnson, in Greenwich, admitted the real priority of his government. When Drakeford announced Wales was to stick with the ‘Stay at Home’ message, he was nowhere near as eloquent as Sturgeon. But Wales, like Scotland, remains in lockdown — and protected from Westminster’s recklessness — all the same.
It’s the detail that matters.