Rhetoric used to be taught in schools and universities. In those days it was a rather chilling discipline, teaching you how to use Ciceronian subjunctives and construct a beginning, a middle and an end. But in this century, influenced by forces as different as Fascism and television, rhetoric has become pre-classical again. It aims at the emotions. Set- piece rhetoric - the speech at the mass rally, with the cameras rolling - is still dressed up as rational argument. But in reality it is an invocation to the ancestral spirits.
Tony Blair was invoking them too. But before asking which spirits were summoned, it's important to say that I am not denouncing the speech's content. It contained more proof, if any were needed, that the election at which the Tories are replaced by Labour or a Labour-led alliance will be the most important for 100 years. Tuesday's speech contained familiar promises of sensible, fair policies. But it also repeated that Labour intends to scrap and rebuild the very arena in which politics happen - the British constitutional system.
Perhaps even Mr Blair does not understand quite what a tidal wave of pent-up change that may release. Never mind! Tony Blair is the little Dutch boy who is going to pull his thumb out of the dike. So I want him to win. To deconstruct his rhetoric and nit-pick at his imagery does not change that.
The text of the speech, as it reached this office, looks like notes for some kind of religious ceremony. There are bits of prose, with quite long sentences explaining what a Labour government would do. But at moments the text breaks into psalm: short lines, one above the other, like this:
"I love my party.
I just hate it being in opposition.
I love my country.
And I hate what the Tories have done to it ..."
One can imagine this being chanted in antiphon across some English cathedral choir. But there is Wagner or Beowulf here as well as the C of E. Listen to the oath-taking paean as the hero, amid blasts on boar-headed carnyx trumpets, places his hand on the sacred stone and pledges himself to the tribe:
"Nothing more, nothing
less, that is my word.
We deliver what we promise.
We don't promise what we can't deliver."
There are passages of sub-Orwellian slogans (" Knowledge is power. Information is opportunity"). There are a few faith-healer bits, with a sniff of snake- oil: "Feel new Britain come alive. Feel the vitality that can course through this country's veins and make it young again." And at times there are bursts of abstract nouns, thus:- "Discipline. Courage. Determination. Honesty", or "Unity. Solidarity. Partnership. One Britain".
This sort of thing is as old as "Liberty. Equality. Fraternity". The trick is to make the last thing sound like the predicate of the first ones: you get drunk on liberty and then wake to find that you have signed up to fraternity too. Tony Blair and his rhetoricians are not entirely above that dodge. I may think that unity is nice, and solidarity a fine virtue ("not enough of it around"), and partnership is okay with the right partner ... but, hang on, did I really go on to say "One Britain"? And what am I supposed to mean by it?
The central architecture of the speech is this invocation of a "new, young Britain". This Britain is to be strong again, and united. It is that image which caused the Daily Mirror to proclaim "Red, White and Blair" on its front page the next morning, against the background of a Union Jack.
It is not hard to see what is being attempted - and it's something very English. The aim of social justice, which must surely be radical and disruptive to the existing order, is being dressed up in the red uniform of Ancient British patriotism. To make this a more equal society is to make Britain "stronger" in traditional terms. Sometimes to be "strong" means inner cohesion and security: "a young country that wants to be a strong country cannot be morally neutral about the family..." Sometimes this "strength" is external, as when Blair argues that "a young country proud of its identity and its place in the world" should not surrender influence in the European Union, as Tory rhetoric proposes, but "should be leading in Europe".
Using old bottles for new wine like this is a tricky business. It is defensive, as if the Labour Party were still nervous of seeming to be "unpatriotic". It can also lead to misunderstandings. There are parts of this speech which are wonderfully candid and intelligent: his post- war generation, said Tony Blair, is "the generation with more freedom than any other, but less certainty in how to exercise it responsibly ... we live in a new age, but in an old country". But there are other parts where this sort of critical self-awareness ("history hangs heavy on us") is suspended. Most of this is to do with his use of the phrase "young country " for the Britain he wants. The Daily Mirror, with admiration, recorded that he used it 10 times. The temptation to use youth imagery when talking about national renewal is obvious enough. But I think he should have resisted it. "I want us to be a young country again ..." "A young country that wants to be a strong country ..." "Our challenge to be a young country is not just economic ..."
What does this mean?
Some of the problems with this term are obvious. The average age of the population is rising so massively and steadily that it constitutes the central problem of state welfare provision. The relative political and economic power of the young in Britain is declining, and there is little to be done about it.
Secondly, Britain as a state - as a set of institutions and practices - is very old. This is why Blair wants to reform it. But even if he does change its structures, Britain - or England in particular - will remain an old country, even if its government functions in a more modern and enlightened way. The Blair rhetoric, however, speaks not so much of change as of revival. "I want us to be a young country again." When was Young Britain? After the 1707 Union, or in the time of King Arthur?
These "strong" and "young" metaphors are designed to sound like Union- Jack nationalism, reassuring the wavering jingo or xenophobe. But if you read the speech you see that they are really describing fairness, equality, and modernisation. These are achievements which are supposed to make a nation "strong", in the sense that its subjects will be inclined to go on obeying the law and disinclined to become revolutionaries. Soft-hearted kings used that argument for benevolence centuries ago. But why a European nation in 1995 has to use it, instead of saying that social justice is morally right in itself, is an English mystery.
"Young" the British state will never be again, however much vitality Blair sends "coursing through its veins". But the truth is that heis not really in the grisly business of selling Britannia the snake-oil of youth. He is offering treatment that will either make Britannia's old age a lot more comfortable or kill her off.
I can see that this is a less sugary mixture than "Young Country". But the Blair prescription is a good one, and deserves a better label on its bottle.Reuse content