Monday, 20 August 2012

King Knuts of rhetoric

A minor theme of political commentary has been the decline of political rhetoric, with Obama being positioned as some kind of revivalist act. You can always tell a decline of a cultural form is happening when some re-double their efforts to keep it going, whilst wiser heads just abandon it and look for something else. And so in the 90s British politics saw a series of bizarre speeches, mainly at party conferences. The biggest offenders were the nearly men of the Tory right (although Blair's 'education, education, eductaion' and Mandelson's 'I'm a fighter not a quitter' deserve inclusion.) Totally consumed by their Thatcher worship, but knowing they were going down on a sinking ship, they lashed out with bombastic, grandstanding addresses. Widely trailed in the media, they were all fatally undermined by the reality of government administration and the indifference of the public.

John Major, mocked at the time for his mild-mannered suburban approach, now looks the most clued up of them all. The Peter Lilley speech is particularly appalling as he actually believes his combination of social cliche and golf club humour is a genuine policy position. The Portillo 'Who Dares Wins' seems even more barking as the years go by. Even before his liberal conversion to TV nice guy he can't actually have believed he would reverse post-imperial decline with a motto? This points to another symptom of decline: the belief that the form itself has value rather than being a tool for something else. Obama is the logical conclusion of this trend.