Where are the bon mots of yesteryear?

By - Thursday 11th June, 2015

Politicians of all stripes used to be able to move a crowd, whether or not the audience agreed with them. Is that the case in Croydon and the UK’s politics today?

Roy Jenkins, Iain Macleod, and Tony Benn.
All photos public domain.

I think it was around 1970 when I realised the power of words. It was definitely somewhere around the time that my generation invented sex.

Several friends belonged to the likes of the Socialist Workers Party or the Workers Revolutionary Party. They had meetings, some of which were open to anyone, others where you had to be somehow approved before you could attend. I never made it into that inner sanctum.

What I did get to hear was a speaker who had such facility with language that I was convinced that the world was about to change radically. His name was Paul Foot. His uncle, Michael, later became leader of the Labour Party. Paul wrote for Private Eye and had recently published a book on the politics of Harold Wilson, the then prime minister.

Who speaks now so that people listen?

I do not remember the subject for the talk, but it consisted of Paul Foot talking animatedly about the need for revolution and how it might happen. I was convinced. It all made sense.

It did however make my ambitions seem rather pointless. Get a job, buy a house, maybe get married if I could ever figure out what made women tick. All of this now seemed trivial if revolution was just round the corner. Somehow inspired and deflated at the same time I trudged home.

After Paul Foot, I heard several other speakers who could both inspire and turn confusion into order. Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Iain McLeod, sadly all are no longer with us. But where are their successors? Who speaks now so that people listen? Politicians who speak not just to political insiders but to people on the street?

Do modern politicians simply fail to inspire – or have I just got old?

Looking down the parliamentary benches I do not see many. Alex Salmond comes to mind if you live in Scotland. Walking round Croydon with Boris Johnson I was aware of why he is so popular. Nigel Farage is a candidate, although I have never heard him in person. What is it about modern politicians that fails to inspire? Or could it be that I have just got old?

It was reading through rather dull documents on the Croydon Council web site as background to a planned Croydon Citizen article on housing that a thought occurred – much of current political language is designed not to illuminate, but to obscure. Politicians speak in code and use exaggerated words for every issue. When you try to grapple with these issues you find you are wrestling with smoke.

For example, my research on housing in Croydon took in various council and government documents. These ranged from dry statistics from the Office for National Statistics through to policy documents like our council’s ‘Ambitious for Croydon’ and the manifestos of both major parties.

Politics is now full of code words

What I found were grandiose statements that were hard to disagree with but meant little. The prime example was the stone tablet unveiled by Ed Miliband during the election campaign. Go back and read it.

Some words are just flattering exaggerations but two in particular are code words – ‘affordable’ and ‘decent’. You may think that affordable housing means housing that you can afford, and by implication might be able to access. You might also think that a house that was not decent would be unacceptable to any sane person unless forced.

But these are code words in the housing context. ‘Decent’ is defined in the English Housing Survey as dwellings meeting certain criteria. ‘Affordable’ is defined in government documents as “social rented, affordable rented and intermediate housing, provided to eligible households whose needs are not met by the market”. Essentially subsidised housing for those who are judged to be unable to compete in the market.

We must play our part to encourage the reappearance of inspirational and clear-thinking politicians

You may be proud of your house, but under this definition it may not be decent. I don’t think mine qualifies. Housing that is Affordable is not housing that you may have hope of accessing, indeed the more money you earn so the more you could afford, the less likely you are to be eligible for Affordable housing. Confused? That’s the whole point.

Public engagement needs to improve but we must play our part to encourage the reappearance of inspirational and clear-thinking politicians. We need to be more forgiving of mistakes, slips of the tongue, or poor burger-eating skills. But politicians need to play their part by stopping exaggeration, vagueness and the use of code words.

What hasn’t changed forty-five years on is the Socialist Workers Party still carries banners with the same slogans. And my revolutionary friends? I would like to say they are Tory MPs to make for a good story, but as far as I know none are. Last one I heard from was a social worker somewhere in the north-west of England. I hope he’s happy and not too disappointed that the revolution didn’t happen.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • http://idioplatform.com/ Jonny Rose

    I don’t think it’s an age thing: today’s politicians are, by and large, utterly uninspiring and hugely deficient when it comes to basic oration skills.

    But whilst your piece suggests that the ideologies remain the same (and therefore it’s the words that are at fault), I think the decline is largely linked to a death of compelling ‘ideas’, as argued here: http://thecroydoncitizen.com/politics-society/cogito-ergo-sum-croydon-death-big-idea/. You can’t speak movingly or convincingly if the idea is a non-starter from the outset.

    • moguloilman

      My point is that words are being used to obscure rather than illuminate. That certainly isn’t a good place to be if you are forging new ideas and new directions, or even if you are just trying to reinvigorate old ideas.

      The root cause seems to be a consensus that one shouldn’t offend. Playing it safe is the order of the day (the 35% strategy for example). Winning the argument is seen as successfully pilfering a few believers from the other camp by whatever means, tactics and sweeteners rather than big ideas.

      Boldness is therefore seen as a strategy for losing. Clarity is to be avoided because of the risk of alienating potential supporters or being quoted out of context.

    • Stephen Giles

      Have you not seen Chris Philp’s amazing maiden speech yet? I’d wager that both Chris and Gavin Barwell are hugely efficient when it comes to “basic oration skills”!!

      • Anne Giles

        There may be some people who are not clever enough to understand them though.