by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2009
Last night on BBC2, Alan Yentob (the BBC’s cultural ‘Whicker Man’) posed the question: has Barack Obama brought back the art of oratory to 21st-century politics for good? After all, if there were one factor (apart from his opposition to the Iraq war) which decisively swung the US election in President Obama’s favour it was his soaring, inspirational rhetoric – which was as successful in defusing criticism as it was in enthusing supporters.
For some time now, political oratory has been out of fashion in the UK. The packed public meetings of the early twentieth-century – which did so much to cement Lloyd George and Churchill’s popular reputations – have given way to the clipped media soundbite as the chief means of communication with the electorate.
The two most successful post-war prime ministers – Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher – were neither of them great orators (though Maggie improved thanks to the effort she put in). Meanwhile two of the least electorally successful post-war political leaders – Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock – were among the most brilliant speakers, in Parliament and on the platform respectively.
British politics today appears to prefer a more informal, conversational style – think Charles Kennedy and David Cameron – to impassioned set-pieces. Some might suggest this is evidence of the crisis of confidence among our political leaders: they fear appearing too certain, too definite. Or perhaps it’s the triumph of managerialism: appearing too obsessed with your words might imply that personal vanity is more important than the hard slog of ‘doing’.
But, as President Obama’s breathtaking rise has shown, oratory still has its place. And that, done well, it still has the power to make the political weather.
It’s in that spirit I pose to LDV’s readers this question: who do you consider to be the best living Liberal Democrat orator?
Informal soundings have provided the following list of candidates (in alphabetical order):
Over now to you, LDV’s readers, to vote for the person you believe to be the party’s best rhetorical weapon of mass destruction. Or to mount a write-in campaign in the comments thread below for the individual you feel we egregiously omitted, or to cite exempla orators ineligible for this poll owing to their deceasedness.