In the UK an important political art is no longer practised, even though the skill brings politics to life in an era of determined apathy. The demise is neither mourned nor noticed and yet the absence makes for duller politics – politics at a distance. We make do with a cabinet minister's parking ticket and the alleged redistribution of penalty points to make up for the lack of excitement.
This is the first generation of national politicians without a single orator, a single mesmerising speaker. There is not one who can cast a spell. Tony Blair was the last great speaker, an underestimated orator who never delivered a dull speech. Blair could make a lacklustre text and sometimes a silly one come to inspiring life. Even when making a complex argument, he was worth seeing live, transfixing an audience.
There are quite a few similarities between Blair and David Cameron in political style, but in this respect the current Prime Minister is not in the same league. Cameron's public performances can be surprisingly dull. Yet arguably he is still the most engaging public performer at the top of British politics.
The decline is sudden and marked. Not so long ago Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Michael Heseltine, and Neil Kinnock could fill halls around the country, and when they spoke in the Commons MPs would leave their offices to attend. Last week's brilliant BBC4 documentary on the rivalry between Harold Wilson and Ted Heath showed how important it was for both of them to find ways of engaging directly with voters. Neither were natural orators, and yet both, especially Wilson, became at least interesting public performers.
Wilson developed a mischievous wit that was fun to hear. The veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman once told me that Wilson "learnt" to have a sense of humour. The learning paid off to the point where the acquired wit became authentic, and a crucial part of his once substantial and too easily forgotten appeal.
Does it matter that such characters or characteristics no longer play a part in British politics? It is easy to construct an argument that suggests the loss is insignificant. The interview on the Today programme matters more than a speech. Political communication is conducted through Twitter and blogs. No one needs direct contact with anyone. As for politicians, they thrive in these days of political orthodoxy by being as dull and cautious as possible.
The cabinet ministers who tend to last the longest are those who are managerial – safe plodders who can be relied upon not to make a gaffe or rock the boat. The Transport Secretary, Phillip Hammond, is regarded as one of the great successes of the current Government, a minister who might be called upon to replace Andrew Lansley in order to clear up the chaos of the NHS reforms. No one is likely to release or buy a DVD of Hammond's greatest speeches, whereas such a DVD exists of Tony Benn's best addresses from the House of Commons. But while Hammond may soar, great public performers do not always achieve their ambitions. None of those listed above – from Foot to Heseltine – became prime minister, although in their different ways they all sought the top post.
These puny arguments are refuted by the recent visit of President Obama to London. I love political theatre and yet had succumbed to the era of managerial politics by deciding not to attend his speech at Westminster Hall. Although I was offered a ticket for his speech, I was willing to make a sacrifice on behalf of Independent readers as I had a column to write in the immediate aftermath and was worried about meeting the deadline. Thankfully, a friend who had offered me the ticket was kindly adamant that I change my mind rather than watch on the TV.
I went, and of course immediately realised what I always used to know. Politics live is much more vivid. For sure, Obama's speech was formulaic and platitudinous, but he can hold a hall. One American commentator noted later that it was always worth re-reading an Obama speech to discover whether it was quite as significant as it seemed when delivered. But such a gap is part of the orator's art.
I have seen Bill Clinton speaking live several times. He was more mesmerising than Obama, and a speaker with more tonal variety. I cannot remember a single word he spoke. It does not matter. He could make a connection with audiences at the time he spoke. In both presidential cases their careers were built on this skill. Voters valued the art. They felt part of a special project, participants as well as intoxicated onlookers. At their peaks, Obama, Clinton and Blair defied fashionable, complacent indifference.
To some extent the same applies with the last generation of British practitioners. Their careers were enhanced by skills as performers. At his peak, Benn was utterly spellbinding, and as a result impossible to ignore. Between 1974 and 1981 he was by some margin the most discussed politician in Britain, even if Bennism did not prevail over Thatcherism during an era when ideological battles were played out more overtly. Foot became Labour leader – not bad for a politician who had shown no great orthodox political ambition. Heseltine was a deputy prime minister in a career of highly charged significance. Imagine if the current shadow cabinet had a few orators. Labour seems dull partly because most of its senior figures opt for dullness.
Voters seek more vibrant connection, the politician as direct communicator, a sense of politics live. The fashionable medium is Twitter, along with blogging – virtual politics, politics at a distance, giving the false impression of intimacy. Yet place politicians as different as Ann Widdecombe and Gordon Brown on a stage at a literary festive and the hall is packed – real people crammed together at the same event.
In the US the culture of never-ending elections means that those who aspire to the top have no choice but to be great campaigning public communicators. In the UK there is a gap. Political life will be enhanced if any politician is capable of filling it. There is an audience beyond Twitter.
Steve Richards's live political show is at Kings Place on Monday 6 June. His special guest is the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow MP. Tickets available at kingsplace.co.uk/rock-n-roll-politicsReuse content