September customarily sees the political parties holding their conferences; and the chattering classes get wildly exercised over the trading of insults and the peddling of policies. I on the other hand have a reason to look at the speeches through different eyes; and I thought I’d share some analysis with you. I had intended today to trawl through four leaders’ speeches – Farage, Clegg, Miliband and Cameron – but then realised how long that would make the newsletter. I have therefore taken pity on you, and will look this month only at Farage and Clegg, saving Miliband and Cameron for November.
In recent years leaders have taken to topping and tailing the conferences: delivering a businesslike keynote at the beginning and then a high-profile closing speech (the latter tending to be judged on the basis of the length of its standing ovation). You might think that fairness dictates that I should compare like with like, but I am not treating this as a competition: I just want to analyse the most technically interesting speech from each.
Taken chronologically, this was the first of the four. He chooses to buck the trend by making his opening keynote speech the main course, using the closing speech as a “go-out-and-tell-the-world” rallying cry lasting less than six minutes. Therefore I shall address the keynote.
Even this, at less than eighteen minutes, is an admirably concise offering. He declines to monkey around to soften up the audience as I have seen him do in previous years. Instead he goes straight for the jugular. He conforms to the first cardinal rule in The Face & Tripod, jumps into the driving seat, and certainly has something to say. The wealth of passion and energy that he pours into his pronouncements is what you’d usually expect from a grass-roots firebrand rather than a polished parliamentarian. Many might find this regrettable, hankering after the smooth manners and scrupulous courtesy that you find from, for instance, Daniel Hannan; and unquestionably Farage’s bull-in-a-china-shop manner is a gift to the mainstream media, from the BBC upwards, who seek to paint him as a loony extremist. But look closely and you realise that he is far from merely a bluster merchant.
On a technical level he has learnt the claptrap technique of marrying heavy-duty triads with corresponding hand gestures – and it works every time. Not one opportunity for a round of applause goes AWOL. He juggles all those esoteric rhetorical devices like epistrophe and anaphora and even paralipsis. He embodies my favourite quote from W.B.Yeats: “Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people”. This is one smart cookie!
One reservation: though he never begs laughs, he does have a tiresome habit of signalling his humour by making a weird face.
I search in vain for weasel words. What you see is what you get: look at the unequivocal policy statement at 08:25. Yes, I know that the lower your chances of getting elected the easier it is to be frank, but still…
The speech needs a Face, but in every other respect I come away from it admiring the skill of the speaker.
Nick Clegg – Liberal Democrat – 21/9/11
[This was originally posted on YouTube in three parts. Since then some copyright issue has caused Part 3 to be blocked in the UK. However the remaining two parts are quite long enough!}
Clegg’s closing speech from the Lib-Dem conference totals nearly three quarters of an hour. He starts with two or three long pauses – a tried and tested technique for setting a measured pace, slowing down your own pulse and getting on top of your nerves. Having done that he turns his attention immediately to getting his audience on his side by indulging in a schmaltzy tribute to them. It’s easy to be cynical about that; but he and his parliamentary colleagues have been under the cosh from their own side, and he is conforming to the second cardinal in The Face & Tripod: having analysed his audience he is stroking their egos. The stroking concludes with a simple “Thank you” followed by a nano-pause for applause which never comes, so he skilfully leaps straight back in to hide the silence. He has a more emphatic claptrap just around the corner, drives harder for it, brings in some rather more positive gestures – and gets the applause. [N.B. the word, “claptrap” has for centuries meant a rhetorical device for getting an audience to applaud whereas today it also tends to mean “rubbish”. I use it in the traditional sense.]
Applause is a powerful drug, and this dose seems to put fire in Clegg’s belly. At 03:05 he employs a clever use of political Left and Right, describing how the two wings view his party in their respective ways – the implication being that the Lib-Dems are slap in the middle. Just after the 4-minute mark he throws up a possible Face for the speech, “Not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing” and as the speech goes on he reinforces it. The whole thing seems to be going pretty well, but –
Weasel Words Alert! Suddenly he wheels out some words and phrases that sound good and noble till you look more closely.
- “People before Politics”. If there’s a conflict, what does that say about your politics?
- “Nation before Party”. Similarly, if you imply a conflict, what does that say about your party?
- “Populism.” This is a favoured buzzword in political circles. It is a stealth device to express contempt for the electorate, and get away with it.
(I have been asked about my attitude to weasel words as a rhetorical device. It can best be summarised by the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be found out.) He speaks of the party having to move from, “the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of government”. It seems mature of him to admit that there have previously been easy promises.
So much for the first of the three parts; and already I’ve used up a lot of space. But the second section can be quickly characterised as a catalogue (albeit sometimes passionately listed) of facts and figures. Notice how he keeps naming names through all of them, and look at my Chapter on Proper Nouns in The Face & Tripod.
The third section seems to take a leaf from Farage’s book. He gets worked up and passionate; and anyone who has done a course with me knows how I commend that as a device (so long as you keep it under control). The rhetoric gets rather hollow – a bit along the lines of declaring that everyone should be made happier, without really engaging with the tiresome detail of explaining how – but my brief is with the quality of the speech and not the validity of the message. This passion is centred on his explaining why he’s in politics, and as such it has the weakness of self-justification, of pleading. It would have been stronger had he invited his audience to reflect on why they were in politics, and then invited them to share in his vision.
I would have cut at least twenty minutes from that speech. I don’t care where: it just needed to be shorter. Aside from that, and subject to my comments above, I felt he did a pretty good job. He is saddled with an image of being young and effete: bright but immature: driven but naive. Given all of that, and given the position in which he finds himself, with his party’s support haemorrhaging since the formation of the coalition, he had a very difficult brief. In the main I felt he distinguished himself a lot better than some of the familiar faces in his audience would have done.