NEW POLL: who is the best living Lib Dem orator?

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):

Paddy Ashdown
Evan Harris
Simon Hughes
Lembit Opik
John Pardoe
Cyril Smith
Jeremy Thorpe
Shirley Williams

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.

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19 comments

Roger Roberts (Lord Roberts of Conwy) must be top of the list.

Judging by his performances in the HoC, David Heath is a challenger.

by Frank H Little on April 6, 2009 at 11:21 pm. Reply #

Where is Ming? OK, I know I didn’t rate him as leader, but as orator on foreign affairs he was and is second to none. Frankly I wish he was still there in that role. One of my dearest friends is a Labour MP – he has always remarked on the hush that descends on the house when Ming speaks. He has that rare combination of gravitas, integrity and authority over his subject that means on foreign affairs I can think of no one, Lib Dem, Labour or Tory, who is his equal.

by Linda Jack on April 6, 2009 at 11:46 pm. Reply #

Surely Tony Greaves could claim a place he is certainly one of the best at conference whether you agree or not.

by Simon on April 6, 2009 at 11:47 pm. Reply #

“or to cite exempla orators ineligible for this poll owing to their deceasedness”

Well, in that case I suppose Lloyd George should get a mention!

by Anonymous1 on April 7, 2009 at 12:13 am. Reply #

Another vote for Tony Greaves here. Lembit is also a good conference performer.

by Frank H Little on April 7, 2009 at 8:34 am. Reply #

I think you would have to go a long way to find anyone who could beat Malcolm Bruce at his best.

by Caron on April 7, 2009 at 9:59 am. Reply #

Jo Grimond was our best post-war orator.

by TimberWolf on April 7, 2009 at 10:04 am. Reply #

Agree with Caron that Malcolm Bruce is a contender here. Simon Hughes used to make fantastic speeches – but has changed his approach more recently.

David Laws´speech on education from last September was one of the best conference speeches I have heard – and he is consistently a top performer at fringe meetings.

And Clegg is very good too.

by Peter Welch on April 7, 2009 at 10:10 am. Reply #

I am slightly handicapped by never having heard John Pardoe or Jeremy Thorpe speak and I’ve only seen Cyril Smith speak one to one.

None of the options strike me as the obvious choice. I think Simon can be inspiring but I am not sure it is classed as great oratory, it is more because he has an ability to say the right thing in the right way.

My vote though goes to Shirley. She is nearly always articulate, passionate and powerful. Despite saying that though, my favourite conference moment is when Jo Swinson argued against Shirley in the gender balance debate.

I also agree with Frank that Roger Roberts is very good, but he is Lord Roberts of Llandudno. Lord Roberts of Conwy is the former Tory MP he never quite managed to beat.

by Anders on April 7, 2009 at 10:30 am. Reply #

Mr Tall.

I sent you a couple of emails. Just letting you know in case they were put into your spam folder.

by Voter on April 7, 2009 at 10:39 am. Reply #

When it comes to oratory I’d have thought Clegg would be a more obvious choice than some of those suggested who offer more pointed arguments than grand narratives.

Unfortunately no longer with us, the best Lib Dem orator I’ve heard was probably Lord Russell Johnson.

by Peter Bancroft on April 7, 2009 at 10:41 am. Reply #

Roger Roberts should be on the list surely. Gwynoro Jones was a good orator too though not sure what party he is in nowadays and Mike Hancock’s speech at the Portsmouth SDP conference was immense. From the list above though, my vote would go to Shirley.

by Simon Wilson on April 7, 2009 at 10:43 am. Reply #

Pleased to see the support for Roger Roberts. Does he get bonus points as (presumably) most people on here will only have heard him speak in his second language?

by crewegwyn on April 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm. Reply #

I’d also vote for both Russell Johnston and Ming Campbell. Russell’s speeches were excellent – even after he’d stepped down as Scottish Liberal Party leader, he was still one of the very few MPs who could clear the bars at the Scottish Conference when he was on the podium.

Ming, too, is a good speaker, but I think he’s better at “off the cuff” speeches than the big set pieces. I remember being amazed during the 1992 general election that he could speak for half an hour using only an A5-sized sheet of notes – and then take questions from the floor.

I actually think politicians have simply got lazy in the last 10 years or so. It’s much easier to provide a 10 second soundbite for TV or radio, or a number of sentences for the local paper, than it is to speak for half an hour to a group of people. But then, if people really wanted to hear political oratory, they’d turn out for the hustings.

by KL on April 7, 2009 at 12:51 pm. Reply #

It is invidious to compile a definitive list of great Liberal orators ,with so many great and gifted Liberal and Liberal Democrats Leaders, to choose from,over the post war period.

I would say that Jo Grimond was a great spokesman for Liberalism before the television age.

I rate Nick Clegg very highly, when he speaks out for the `Silent Majority’.He has done so,in many great speeches on great Issues like Iraq,Child Poverty,Fuel Poverty,Mental Illness,The Gurkhas,`The Democratic Deficit’ and many others.

Vince Cable and Charles Kennedy have been the most articulate and conviction British politicians on single issues, namely the `Credit Crunch’ and Iraq.

Vince Cable is the nation`s sage on the the `Economic Crisis’ and speaks with greatest clarity,sincerity and experience.

Lord Roger Roberts represents the great lyrical oratory tradition of the Valleys, now being emulated by Kirsty Williams, the new leader of the Welsh L/D`s.

Shirley Williams,Simon Hughes,Lord Roberts and Alan Beth, all have a strong liberal commitment predicated on moral and liberal values in unison.

Simon Hughes shows greatest humanity in all of his illustrious political career on behalf of the underdog and the oppressed,especially in Southwark and Bermondsey.

Simon has articulated concern and compassion for people, better than any of his generation,in my view.

The great Liberal orators, especially Paddy Ashdown, have all resonated with their great vision, for an inclusive Liberal family.

Paddy Ashdown told us that all citizens had individual rights and should be free to live from the fetters of constricting Government.

Ming Campbell is a great orator on Foreign Affairs and is peerless on International Relations.

by Cllr Patrick Smith on April 7, 2009 at 12:55 pm. Reply #

I agree with Linda and Caron that Ming and Malcolm’s ommissions is sad from the above list.

Remember being at one fringe event once where Evan could have persuaded me to renounce God for Simon to come back and persuade me otherwise. Having heard Paddy just the other week in person he is still on form and Shirley has always been great.

by Stephen Glenn on April 7, 2009 at 2:59 pm. Reply #

Charles Kennedy is a fantastic speaker.

by Niall Rowantree on April 8, 2009 at 1:40 pm. Reply #

Why no Charles Kennedy is this poll?

by Letterman on April 8, 2009 at 9:09 pm. Reply #

As already clear from the thread, choice is subjective! Charles Kennedy was almost included – but I agreed with others’ conclusion that he was more of a conversationalist than an orator.

by Stephen Tall on April 9, 2009 at 5:27 pm. Reply #

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