Wave goodbye to the showboaters and mavericks. The age of serious politics has finally begun

During conference season our leaders presented arguments, defended positions and engaged in debate. Are we finally ready to have a real conversation?

Share
Related Topics

When François Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy to take the French presidency last May, different glosses were placed on his victory. There was the liability of incumbency in harsh economic times; a sense that the “Sarko show” had debased the office, and the bigger-picture view that Europe’s romance with the right was waning, as the whole industrialised world tacked to the left.

But there was another interpretation, too, not incompatible with these, which was perhaps neglected at the time. This was the idea that serious times demanded serious politics, and that a grey manner and argument-laden speeches appealed to voters in a way they had not done for many years. Was Hollande’s most persuasive selling point perhaps not that he was to the right or the left, but how he presented himself and his policies to the voters – as more policy-wonk than personality?

Fast forward to this autumn – the past three weeks of British party conferences and the first US presidential debates. For all the attention lavished on the “blond mop” Mayor of London in Birmingham this week, the pervasive mood at all three conferences was realistic, even sombre. And nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in the leaders’ speeches. When their hour came, all three put in competent performances. None indulged in verbal fireworks to entertain. They presented arguments, defended positions, engaged in debate.

The leader who surprised most was Ed Miliband, if only because expectations had been so low. But the surprise was not only that the Labour leader showed himself capable of commanding an audience, but that he made no apologies for taking a rather high-brow, even intellectual, approach. He offered a coherent world view, which his audience could like or not, but could not dismiss as insubstantial, and he took on his detractors directly. Criticism focused on his failure to set out specific policies. But, more than two years from an election, why should he set out a stall to be looted or smashed? His attempt to snatch the One Nation banner hit David Cameron where it hurt.

That the Conservative leader chose to engage with Miliband, even to the limited extent he did, suggested that a real political argument could be had, beyond the verbal cut and thrust of Prime Minister’s Questions – an argument in a different, more serious and longer-term register; an argument in which content would be as keenly judged as tone. “We don’t preach about One Nation but practise class war,” he said, in a direct riposte to Miliband. “We just get behind people who want to get on in life.... While the intellectuals of other parties sneer at people who want to get on in life, we here salute you.”

Cameron was drawing a contrast between Labour and Conservative approaches, and by “intellectuals”, he presumably meant Miliband, the professor’s son. But the intended taunt could rebound if voters are looking to politicians who present arguments, level with them about difficulties, and do not shy away from ideas. In fact, a similar criticism could have been turned against Cameron, who defended his policies, point by point, in a way that he has rarely seemed inclined to do.

Something similar can be observed across the Atlantic. When Barack Obama swept to the White House four years ago, his so-called professorial manner was thought a drawback. He was fortunate that he could also switch on the campaign oratory and look the part of America’s first black President. Once he was in the Oval Office, though, his intellectual manner was seized upon by critics who accused him of dithering and asked whether he was not too “cerebral” for the job. They remained unconvinced, even after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Those same critics had a field day after the first presidential debate last week, when Obama was – by common acknowledgement – trounced by the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Most notable about this televised duel, however, was not that Obama came across as disengaged, or that Romney looked human for once, but the exceptional quality of the actual debate.

Over 90 minutes, both candidates displayed a truly impressive mastery of argument and detail, sustaining a pace that never let up. In so doing, they presented American voters with a real choice. Whether the next debates live up to this standard remains to be seen, but there was little crowd-pleasing; no condescension and a refreshing absence of dogma. This was how the world looked to them, they seemed to say; it was now for the voters to choose.

If what we are seeing is the rebirth of serious politics, why the shift? One reason may be the gloom that prevails across the Western world. Politicians inevitably match their manner to the mood. But the fickle showmanship, ideological flexibility and verbal dexterity (also known as “spin”) that have so blighted politics in recent years surely played their part, too.

In France, Sarkozy’s hobnobbing with the wealthy and stars was not unrelated to the whiff of corruption that swirled around his predecessor when mayor of Paris. In the US, that supreme non-intellectual George W. Bush was so detached from the detail of government that he linked the war on Iraq with 9/11, and thought it sufficient to survey inundated New Orleans from the air. Here we had the Blairs, Tony and Cherie, where “spin” increasingly met “bling”, and MPs maximised their expenses. Italy had three terms of Silvio Berlusconi; enough said. For voters almost everywhere except Greece, Germany’s stolid Chancellor became the ideal.

We will learn in a year’s time whether Germans feel the same and reward Angela Merkel with a third term. But recent evidence, not least here in Britain, suggests the tide of politics is turning. It is too soon to conclude that a new breed of politician is treating voters as rational beings capable of exercising a responsible choice, or that voters are ready to drop their cynicism and return the compliment. But Berlusconi announced yesterday that he would not be standing for prime minister in Italy’s next election, and could support the technocrat, Mario Monti. If that is not a sign of changed times, it is hard to know what is.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Personal Finance Editor: Cutting out the middle man could spell disaster for employees and consumers alike

Simon Read
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch  

Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes tell you what to think. Don't let them

Memphis Barker
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week