Thomas Sutcliffe: Blair's bluntness says it best of all

Labour conference: Commentary
Click to follow
Indy Politics

It was a speech that aimed to replace a colour chart of greys with black and white – so it perhaps wasn't surprising that the rhetorical trick on which the Prime Minister leaned most heavily was stark antithesis. "We were with you at the first", he assured American listeners almost immediately, "We will stay with you till the last." That proved the prelude to a string of oppositions: "Out of the shadow of this evil should emerge lasting good", he declared, "Our victory, not theirs", "Defeat it or be defeated by it".

The see-saw rhythm, and the identification of a fulcrum which would allow no fixed intermediate position, sounded again and again. It seemed to work too, even for an audience wedded to the pleasures of never quite coming down on one side or another. "Whatever the dangers of the action we take", he warned at one point, "the dangers of inaction are far greater."

It was, we had been told, all Mr Blair's work – the first leader's conference speech since Winston Churchill to be penned by the man who actually made it. That fact – and the tone of unquestioning resolve – was the only Churchillian comparison possible. Mr Blair doesn't share his predecessor's command of rhetorical structure or memorable phrasing. He might have been announcing a new era – a fresh duty of enlightened colonialism – but he couldn't find a name for it. There was no "iron curtain" here, no "wind of change" – nothing for future editions of the Oxford Book of Quotations. And when he did venture into metaphor it was either with an old cliché or a freshly coined awkwardness.

He was on more solid ground when he was blunt. He actually used the word when he moved on to Europe – a verbal highlighter which identified what followed as significant. But he also deployed bluntness to good effect – making it clear that he was willing to name names.

Sometimes this was confessional (Rwanda was identified as a failure of resolve), sometimes it was admonitory (Mr Mugabe got a name check that will not please him), sometimes it was self-accusing: Africa should be given access to our markets "so that we practice the free trade we are so fond of preaching".

This wasn't rhetoric at all really but its opposite -- the absence of metaphor, of euphemism, of unspecific generalities, and in the end it was Mr Blair's most effective antithesis of all.