Rupert Cornwell: It's that same old promise again ...

Change, change, change. No election can take place without this buzzword
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The Independent Online

No matter which actual person finally makes it to the White House in this most thrilling of American elections, one word has already won the campaign hands down. Repeat after me 100 times: change, change, change.

Blame eight years of George W Bush, but never has a single word so encapsulated a political season. What "change" means, of course, is an open question, but there is no escape from it. Barack Obama got the ball rolling, his message now refined to "Change we can believe in". But politics is the most plagiaristic trade on earth, and after Change swept him to victory in the Iowa caucuses, his every rival jumped on the bandwagon.

Hillary Clinton is an "agent of change", husband Bill now insists at every stop, and to prove it, his wife uttered the word no fewer than 15 times in four minutes during a rally in New Hampshire last Sunday. In another speech that day, someone calculated, she was clocking up a "change" every 11 seconds. And not only did she out-Obama Obama in rhetorical terms. Her come-from-behind win in the primary showed that it worked.

Now the Republicans are joining in. The upstart Mike Huckabee promises change at every turn, as does Mitt Romney (who has proved it by changing his position on most issues at the rate of roughly once every 11 seconds). The beauty about "change" is that it is one of those through-the-looking-glass words, capable of signifying anything. As Humpty Dumpty put it to Alice, "When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean – neither more nor less."

In fact, the political scientists may have come up with an even better term this year than the "change" pushed by the candidates and their speechwriters. Their buzzword, to describe this potential importance of this election, is "transformational". Change sounds slow and gradual, but transformation is much more exciting, as if you could touch problem-ridden America with a magic wand and turn it into paradise. Alas, "transformation" is too long for a political slogan. So change it must be.

But not everyone raves about change like Americans. I've covered many elections in many countries, but only in one of them did the word really reverberate. That was in Greece in 1981, a campaign culminating in a gigantic election-eve rally by the opposition Pasok party in Syntagma Square in central Athens. The very buildings rocked to the chant of "Al-la-ghi, Al-la-ghi", the Greek version of change. And, truly, momentous change was in the offing: the virtually certain return of a left-wing government for the first time since the military coup of 1967.

Others, however, are more wary. Bitter experience has left them unconvinced that change is necessarily for the better. Indeed, leaving aside that electrifying night in Greece, "change" seems to work best as a slogan in the Anglo-Saxon countries, which have been spared history's hardest knocks, and thus cling to a belief that not only can the world be changed, but also can be changed for the better.

In fact Obama, Hillary and the others who press "change" so ardently are singing from a familiar hymn sheet – one used by none other than Bill Clinton in his victorious campaign of 1992. And his slogan of "It's time to change America" was repeated almost exactly by David Cameron's Tories at their party conference last October, conducted under the mantra "It's time for change".

The trend has crossed the Channel, but barely. I remember French elections in the late 1960s and early 1970 which the ruling Gaullist and centre-right parties fought and won on a platform of "Le changement dans la continuité" – in other words just enough change if you're really fed up with the status quo, but not so much as to destroy the comforting notion that things will go on pretty much as before. And if that brand of change wasn't to your liking, there was always the "Changement dans le calme" promised by a rival party. As a Humpty Dumpty-like demonstration of the magnificent emptiness of words, it could hardly be bettered.

However, French politicians at least raise the idea of change. In Germany, which in the 20th century suffered enough change to fill a millennium of anyone else's history, they tend to steer clear of the C-word entirely. Instead, the political parties employ cosy, reassuring terms like Sicherheit (security) and Vertrauen (trust). If they're feeling daring, you might see the word Zukunft, or future, on the odd billboard.

Other countries take far sterner measures to make sure the word is not heard. Like Germany, Russia has had its fair share of change in the past 100 years. Which may explain why the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who most certainly does want to change Russia's ways, was effectively barred by the Putin regime from even running in the forthcoming presidential election.

And then there are the Italians. The most unforgettable political slogan during my years there was coined not by a party, but by the conservative newspaper Il Giornale. In a front-page editorial, its editor Indro Montanelli implored his countrymen not to give power to the Communist Party (running with the slogan "Mani pulite" or "Clean hands" and then at the zenith of its popularity). Instead, they should stick with the corrupt Christian Democrats who had run the country since the Second World War. "Hold your nose and vote DC," urged Montanelli's clarion call against change. And the Italians did.

Since then, standards have not improved. Silvio Berlusconi, owner of AC Milan, became prime minister twice by turning a football slogan into a political movement (or was it the other way round?) with his Forza Italia – literally "Come on, Italy" party. And predictably, nothing changed.

But who's to blame Berlusconi? Every Italian knows in his bones that despite appearances, things never change. That, after all, was the message of the most successful novel ever written in the Italian language. "For everything to remain as it is, everything must change," the dashing young Tancredi warned his uncle the Prince, in Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, as the brave new world of the Risorgimento was about to arrive in 19th-century Sicily. A political slogan for the ages – but not one we'll be hearing from Obama, Clinton or anyone else on the US election trail, as they promise the birth of a brave new America.