What became of all the passion?

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The Independent Online
'IT IS only words.' How many times have you heard that said, scornfully, of politicians, or of political institutions? But it ought not to be a condemnation because, without words, there can be no politics. The word 'parliament' means talking shop. Words have always been the tool of the politician. If those tools go rusty then there is something amiss with the trade of politics.

The words traditionally used by lawyers and politicians in Western countries were designed for a specific purpose: to pile up an argument sentence by sentence, to produce a powerful mixture of facts and opinions which wins the day. But that use of words is now being replaced by another, in politics as elsewhere: words as accompaniment to a television image. It is the picture that counts. If I go to my constituency today and ask people about a news bulletin in which President Clinton appeared, they will recall what he wore, how his hair was, whether he smiled, much more clearly than they can recall what he said. And the same for the rest of us.

Happily, it is still a convention that you should say something when you appear on television. But that convention will wither away. One can imagine a time when politicians will simply appear with a suitable expression and a carefully-chosen tie and the image will speak for itself. Already two sentences are usually enough. This concept of the sound-bite has nothing to do with the piling up of arguments, or indeed with the ordinary processes of reason. Bypassing those processes, the image becomes the message. It is true that in every age the art of oratory is said to be in decline. But this could be terminal.

This devaluation of words affects even a statement in the House of Commons. We are told to be conscious of the camera, and advised - though I neglect the advice - to include a sound-bite. No wonder that in the House of Commons the age of oratory is over. It is no good pining for that parade of 18th or 19th century oratory, garnished with quotations from the classics, going on for hours. Quotations are almost extinct, because they need a shared culture, a sufficient body of recognition, which no longer exists.

When I was at the Home Office, preparing for one of the capital punishment debates, I wondered whether I should include in my speech this telling quotation from Housman: 'They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail: the whistles blow forlorn, and trains all night groan on the rail, to men that die at morn.' My officials were in favour, but my junior ministers were against. Sadly, the ministers were right; the quotation would not have worked. Yet why should it seem bizarre to quote a great English poet?

I caught only the tail-end of forceful oratory in the House of Commons. I missed Iain Macleod and Aneurin Bevan, and the best of Michael Foot. Enoch Powell carried to a considerable height this process of piling up ferocious words in argument, coupled with a force of personality which was formidable. The best speaker in the present House of Commons is Tony Benn. Out of an accomplished education, he knows how to use words to build up an argument: its content may have little appeal, but the presentation commands respect.

One weakness now is that most Commons debates are poorly attended. They become adversarial party encounters, with the level of argument low. There is little opportunity for oratory, except on free votes; then, but only then, the argument actually matters to the people there, rather than to an audience elsewhere. Because opinions can be changed, it is worth summoning up the old effort.

I am concerned here with the art of the spoken word. Ministers must not let the language of Whitehall cross the square into Westminster, because that language is meant to be read, not spoken. Civil servants forget that the English sentence which is to be spoken differs in structure from a written English sentence. The Whitehall sentence tends to be about 50 per cent longer, with intricate dependent clauses and a total absence of euphony. In Westminster, to construct a good argument one must tap the harmony of the English language. This means avoiding the long words that parade in Whitehall as a proof of authority. 'Demonstrate' and 'assist' are everyday examples. So, currently, is 'currently' - almost always superfluous. So is 'appropriate', a word that may mean illegal or indecent or improper or foolish, but too often means nothing: just a quadrisyllabic substitute for precision of thought and expression.

In European meetings the opportunities for oratory are even more limited. In the Foreign Affairs Council, or indeed the Environment Council, 12 ministers sit: soon it will be 16. They usually speak their own language, with an array of amazingly skilled interpreters mouthing simultaneous translation from nearby booths. Given the limited vocabulary and predictable opinion on these occasions, one can begin to understand what is said quite well, even though the language is unfamiliar. One can follow the Dane or the Italian talking about milk quotas without more than a fleeting knowledge of their language.

But because of the Tower of Babel atmosphere, and the sedentary posture, there can be no piling up of effective argument. Best are the French, whose politicians still convey a sense of aesthetic pleasure in language, and use it with care and precision. M. Balladur is a man of few words, but they drop like jewels into a stream.

The United Nations is different again. One must distinguish between the Security Council and the General Assembly. In the Security Council, speakers are seated round a horse-shoe table with an audience. And whereas the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels is in theory private, the Security Council is public. The issues are broader and less technical than fishery quotas or qualified majority voting. The media watch and listen. As a result, there is oratory in the Security Council. But it does not nowadays match that of Abba Eban, Foreign Minister of Israel during the Suez crisis; his Oxford Union style was in that old-fashioned way extremely powerful.

Also as a young diplomat in New York I heard Krishna Menon, one of India's leading spokesmen under Nehru. He was the nearest thing to an 18th-century English orator. Once, at the end of a vituperative performance on Kashmir which lasted two or three hours, the great man collapsed. His huge lion head was buried in his hands. A doctor was summoned, and Krishna was carried into a waiting room, to rest on a sofa with attendants fluttering around him. Those whom he had insulted during his speech were summoned, not to forgive but to be forgiven. The theatrical occasion had been completed to the emotional satisfaction of the main actor. Lord Chatham would have been pleased.

The most difficult forum - worse than Westminster, Brussels or the United Nations - is the party conference. One is in theory among friends, but in fact many people present want a punch-up: in a novel I once described the elder statesman winding his way to the platform and physically attacking the Minister.

In the Home Office debates it is necessary to beware the sergeant of police. He can be the most formidable orator. He can speak straight to the heart of his audience; his voice and vocabulary sound non-political and, as a good politician, he knows how to use those advantages. If the Minister is to respond with equal success, he needs to be triggered by something. It may be by a preceding speech, or by some heckler. This is why it is a mistake to use the autocue, which makes the speaker a prisoner of his script.

Commentators must bear a responsibility for the rustiness of the tool of words. Political columnists entertain us but, in assessing politicians, do not recognise the importance of effective argument. They too have succumbed to the lure of gossip and the sound-bite, and their audiences are treated to the instant impression rather than a reasoned process. In the end only reasoned argument, expressed in words, can lead to right decisions. This is why in politics, force and precision of language are strengths which we are foolish to neglect.

The writer is Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs; the article is based on a speech to the Royal Society of Literature.

(Photographs omitted)

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