The Inter-Continental address: an analysis

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The Independent Online
THE American academic Garry Wills has just published a book called Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon & Schuster), an improbable but splendid 80,000-word exegesis of a 237-word speech. Professor Wills demonstrates, 130 years after the speech's delivery, how Lincoln's knowledge of Greek oratory and political nous combined to produce words which united a riven America.

In a humble local spin-off of the professor's project, I have been looking again at the speech made by John Major last Thursday night to the Conservative Group for Europe. On balance it may be unlikely that, in 2123, a don will write a book called: Major At The London Inter-Continental Hotel: The Words That Remade Europe. Even so, the Gettysburg and the Inter-Continental addresses have the same broad theme: the identity and endurance of a nation. And close analysis of Major's words last week provides a commentary on both the state of his own career and that of modern political rhetoric.

Literary Influences. Professor Wills finds Lincoln, contributing to a very young literature, borrowing authority from the Greeks: Pericles, Thucydides. Major gave his audience a 'legend of ancient Rome' about the sibyl, and drew on home-grown writing for his peroration on national constancy: 'Yet Britain will remain distinctive and in Europe. Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and - as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist . . .' Major is a modern politician and you would not necessarily expect him to have read the books cited himself. All speech-writing teams have a joke man and a quote man. But has Major's quote man even read the source texts properly?

You can see the cheeky reasoning behind the use of Orwell: an iconic Socialist writer recruited to the Tory cause. And Orwell did write of 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist'. The phrase comes from the first section of his essay 'England Your England', a meditation on national identity written under the threat of the forced redefinition of England in 1941.

But Orwell was writing of the difficulty of summing up a country from its parts - 'Are there really such things as nations? . . . How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?' - and his list of contradictory fragments included, alongside those spinsters pedalling towards their sacrament, 'the queues outside the Labour Exchange.' Odd that the Prime Minister did not borrow that image as well. Or perhaps the speech writers had acquired the line out of context from some anthology of Englishness, edited by Kenneth Baker or A N Wilson.

Could Orwell have envisaged this ghostly contribution to conservatism? Perhaps, if his quote man wants some more lines from the writer for a future idyll on British durability, he could try this, from Homage to Catalonia: 'Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday . . .' Well, perhaps not.

Major's Oratorical Style. Professor Wills describes the way that Lincoln's writing and delivery evolved throughout his career to reach a peak at Gettysburg. In the speech-making career of John Major, the evolutions have been imposed from outside. Like many modern politicians, he has been draped in different personae like an Action Man doll.

His first - and probably instinctive - public image was that of Uncle John: kind, mild, shy. This Prime Minister might have been, to paraphrase Orwell, a bit of a turnip or parsnip, but this, his handlers suggested, might be preferable to the national palate after the wild-sprouting broccoli of his predecessor.

At the start of the 1992 election, this was the figure offered to the electorate, with the campaign trying to glamourise drabness. Rallies were replaced by chat-ins with Mr Major positioned on a stool, Val Doonican-like, crooning his vision.

This approach finding little response from the polls, the party then tried out Big Bad John, in which manifestation the Prime Minister would leap on to a wooden box, and pick verbal fights with left-wing demonstrators, or even Lib-Dems if no Trots had turned out. Though comical to those who were not his natural followers, this seemed to make the Tory press - and, perhaps, the electorate - feel better about him.

It was none of these Johns on display in Major's speech last Thursday, although his quote man's reference to the sibyl - who, in legend, carried around a stone on which she stood before prophesying - may have been a classicist's in-joke about the soap-box. However, where previous Major rethinks had involved the exterior aspects of rhetoric - a wooden stool, a wooden crate - last Thursday's new model was the first to try to do something about the wooden words. The Prime Minister's verbal history has been one of pragmatic subject-matter and functional prose. For example, his 1992 conference speech included an extended oration on a theme which might have surprised the great Greek speak-

ers: the provision of public lavatories on motorways.

There were some stony echoes of this style last week. 'Take 'subsidiarity', which I call 'national precedence' . . .' said Mr Major, poignant in his apparent belief that the alternative was a more fun-word. But, elsewhere in the Inter-Continental Address, the PM's speech writers tried him out with a new voice: idyllic, lyrical. 'Long shadows on country grounds . . .old maids bicycling to Holy Communion.' As personae floated before the electorate, Uncle John and Big Bad John had given way to John Betjeman.

Historical Background. Wills shows that Lincoln at Gettysburg used the model of the Greek funeral oration. Major, at the Inter-Continental, employed the form of the pastoral idyll. Its main political use in recent years was by Ronald Reagan, whose 'It's morning in America' rhetoric similarly presented a false but tempting picture of a country to distract the public from its modern reality. Major's employment of the idyll, however, was particularly brazen. In the very week when he spoke romantically of 'old maids bicycling to Holy Communion' - the Church of England was in turmoil. One old maid - Ann Widdecombe - had very pointedly got on her bike to Rome. And, as Major unfurled his traditional summer flannel about the 'long shadows on county cricket grounds', a season was beginning of English county players in pastel-shaded one-day outfits for the first time.

Conclusion. Wills concludes that Lincoln at Gettysburg cleverly honoured the past in order to secure a consensus for the future. Major at the Inter-Continental promised to fight for the survival of an England which no longer existed. So a political speech can indeed, as Wills suggested, say far more about the orator's length of vision than they intended.