Cloudy with a hint of fog

Politicians’ speech is often more a strategic exercise than an act of civic transparency, which can make it a turn-off, says John Corner

January 31, 2013

Source: Miles Cole

Nick Clegg’s “I’m sorry” speech, the party political broadcast in which he apologised for the raising of university tuition fees after having pledged not to, must surely be among the most notable bits of official political talk of the past year. With music added and imaginatively remixed, it became a viral hit and entered the charts.

What was also interesting about it was the way in which it combined elements of a very rare mode indeed - the unqualified political apology - with elements of the insincerity and predictability only too familiar from the world of political speaking. A central section illustrates this nicely: “There’s no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn’t stick to it - and for that I am sorry. When you’ve made a mistake you should apologise. But more importantly - most important of all - you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. And that’s what we will do.”

This passage certainly starts with an engaging briskness, even if the risk of the speaker’s seeming just a little too impressed by the drama of his own confession is also clear. However, the next two sentences introduce features of political speech that have contributed (alongside others) to a widespread cynicism - the stating of the obvious as if listeners were idiots, together with a sense of righteousness that has more than a whiff of the pulpit about it. These, plus a delivery so intent on conveying “sincerity” that it begins to hint at precisely the opposite, helped to make the send-up version so thoroughly deserved and so widely enjoyed.

In considering why official political speech is considered such a turn- off, we must remember that it is often a densely strategic exercise rather than an act of civic transparency. It is positioned in relation to conflicting groups and expectations, to short- and long-term goals and to a media agenda of what is newsworthy - calculated inauthenticity is therefore a core ingredient. Citizens are allowed to “overhear” an exchange that is really taking place between significant political actors and between politicians and media representatives. Rather than being addressed, ordinary people are ritually invoked as the abstractions in whose name policy is formulated (“people understand the need for…”; “people are rightly alarmed by…”).

Among the speech roles assumed by politicians are what we might call the “serial evader” and the “human pamphlet”, both sometimes combined in interviews. The serial evader is committed to seeing how little information they can impart in a given exchange while still (just) appearing to be in dialogue; the human pamphlet is focused on the volume of incomprehensible statistics and clotted excerpts from policy documents that can be relayed in the time available. Enjoying the occasional collapse of these strategies in the face of determined interviewing or drastic underpreparation has become a regular media pleasure, although the conversion of political exchange into entertainment is not without its risks for a society seeking to increase levels of political involvement.

Politicians make more public comments now than they did in the past - every day brings a wave of fresh announcements and interviews across the vast range of media outlets, in addition to formal speeches. This can be seen as a welcome growth in political accountability, but it is not surprising if it also brings with it extensive repetition, the saying of things when there is really nothing to say and (in line with Voltaire’s observations) the paradoxical use of talk as a means of concealment.

How could things get better? Here, the media, as well as contributing to the problem, have also offered at least a few ways of interrupting and disturbing the confident flow downwards. Phone-ins and “ambush” encounters have featured alongside the more formal opportunities for dialogue. The web, an invaluable resource for the exchange of facts and critical ideas, is not yet able to offer much in this area, although its use for the popular circulation of remixes and spoofs is a big gain.

The way politicians speak reflects and also helps to sustain aspects of political structure. The real problem may not be far from the one identified in deft phrasing by the late Adrian Mitchell. He was talking (perhaps a little unfairly) about poetry, but word substitution is suggestive - perhaps most people ignore most of what politicians say because most of what politicians say ignores most people.

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