No more seaside slapstick

What is this conference madness that turns intelligent people into frothing cartoon characters?
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The Independent Online
There is poison in the air, some kind of intellectual pollution. Subtle British people are behaving like morons. I had been going to write a nice conventional piece about Michael Howard, or immigration, or something. But after three weeks of political conferences, their effect on the men and women I know is too disorientating, just too interesting, to be avoided.

The scene is a party, or a hotel room or a government office. In it, a clever, self-aware man is talking about the world, juggling pluses and minuses, arguing about the public good. This man is - well, Michael Portillo actually. Or Michael Howard. Or Peter Lilley. Or Michael Heseltine. Or almost any of them. Good conversations, real dilemmas.

Then they get up at a conference podium and become barely recognisable caricatures of themselves. Portillo is so offensive about Europe and the SAS that the Foreign Office has to placate continental governments and other ministers pretend not to have heard his speech so as to avoid saying anything about it. His reputation in Whitehall is rising; he has admirers across the political spectrum. But once a year he gets up at the conference and does his best to destroy it.

He is the most striking recent example, but they are all touched by the same disease. For 51 weeks a year, Lilley is a considerable thinker on social security issues, unpartisan and thoughtful. But take him to the seaside in October and he descends to gimmickry and jeers. Michael Howard works like a demon to disguise any hint of open-mindedness. Home Office policy is driven, it seems, by an insatiable appetite for tabloid-headline answers to things we all know are not so easy. The needs of conference come first, and lead to proposals attacked by the Lord Chief Justice as unjust.

Lord Chief Justices can be wrong. But crime has plagued us during the Conservative years. Home secretaries have told Tory conferences, year after year, that they have found the answer, and have failed, year after year, to deliver it. Neither the liberals nor the authoritarians have been convincing. You might have thought there would be some reflection of this history, even an explanation about why Howard rejected the separation- of-powers argument? Not a bit of it. This was written for instant applause, not for analysis.

As conference speeches are judged, Michael Heseltine's, like Michael Howard's, was undoubtedly a triumph. What do we mean by this? Again, not that he made us think, but that he succeeded in collapsing this subtle, fascinating country of ours into a Day-Glo cartoon for half an hour. He jumped about, stabbed the air, bellowed headlines, fired cheap shots into the nation's living rooms. Yes, very good. A "triumph", no doubt. He said true things. But I cannot have been alone in finding the spectacle of a man of his age and intelligence doing pantomime a little demeaning.

All these people come to Blackpool, it seems, bent on persuading the country that they are worse, cruder, sillier than they really are. Why, please? Who is meant to benefit from this?

Each day here we have walked through streets filled with poor people on holiday, people dressed badly, short of money and ill-looking, searching glumly for fun. Then, once inside the conference capsule, we have heard the party pretending that Britain is a sunlit land of rich and self-confident people, a place without shadows. The effect is surreal and it does not do the Tory cause much good.

Perhaps these blank simplicities are needed as an annual reward to the party faithful for cold nights hobbling along suburban avenues with leaflets? Once in the hall, the representatives also speak in stark headlines. Moist- faced young men and grinning old ladies wildly applaud stale jokes against Labour. But one only needs to talk to them at fringe meetings, or in bars or restaurants, quickly to realise that they, too, are far subtler and more interesting than they appear when addressing the conference.

Talk about economics or the constitution, social security or the family, and they seem formidably informed, open-minded people. Often they are involved in local politics, or charities, or struggling businesses. We in the liberal press tend to sneer about them and patronise them; but they know more about the world than most journalists do - this one included.

These may seem points against the Conservatives but they apply to the other parties, too. There have been numerous clever jokes, well made rhetorical patterns and good news clips over the past three weeks from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. But I do not think I have heard a single speech that really attempted to engage in a difficult, complicated debate, argue aloud and send the audience away thinking harder than when they came in.

Colleagues, who have been coming to party conferences for longer than the decade I have, say that in the Fifties and Sixties leading politicians felt it part of their duty to educate conferences. If so, it has been forgotten. Conferences now seem to diminish almost anyone who comes into contact with them.

They perform other functions. They get politicians on to the news, though the deluge of announcements and speechifying means most of what happens is not seen by the voters. They give the press a chance to judge the direction and morale of the parties; to find that the 1995 conference season has been excellent for Labour and less good, though not disastrous, for the Tories, is worth knowing. They kick-start the political year, help settle strategies, bind the party together, allow contacts to be made and friendships to be renewed.

They force ministers and shadow ministers to meet and talk to the humbler people who work for them in the country. They enable ambitious, young, unknown people to grab the national spotlight. They have glorious moments of real drama. They are surrounded by amiable dinners and jolly parties. For all those reasons, it would be ridiculous to be against party conferences as such.

This is, rather, a bleat from the sidelines, a plea for politicians to rethink their attitude to these awful seaside weeks. The rhetorical tricks and phoney gimmicks of what are regarded as "good" conference speeches seem increasingly stale. They convey an impression of ministers and shadow ministers who are ignorant of their people, who feel that unless they keep it cheap and simple they will not be heard. It is not true. There is a hunger for seriousness.

Who will deliver it? Well, there is one politician who has already made a refreshing un-speech, pleading for grown-up politics and sounding in public just like his private self.

He said a year ago he wanted "no windy rhetoric, no facile phrases, no pious cliches, no shallow simplification, no mock-honest, mock-familiar, ad-man's speak" and he derided "the glib phrases, the soundbites, the ritual conflicts" which obsess the political elite but bore normal people milling about elsewhere. That was John Major, speaking in Bournemouth last year. But in Blackpool, this year, we have had little else. He, too, has had to sit and grin through a sea of rubbish. When he performs today, I think we should judge him by his own good words.