• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Speak up for passionate political oratory

Here is a taste of what is possibly the most eloquent speech made at a British political party conference since 1945: "What sort of people do you think we are?

Do you think that we can become overnight the pacifists, unilateralists and fellow travellers that other people are? There are some of us who will fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love. We will fight and fight and fight again to bring back sanity and honesty and dignity so that our party, with its great past, may retain its glory and its greatness."

These words were spoken by the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell at his party's annual conference in 1960. They summed up his response, during the Cold War, to his party's decision to scrap Britain's nuclear weapons unconditionally. They had the impact he wanted. You are unlikely to hear a passage of such power at any of the party conferences this autumn.

Mr Gaitskell was pleading with his own party. He was also speaking directly to the people of Britain. The only speech at a party conference since then to achieve anything like the same resonance came 25 years later. It was delivered by Neil Kinnock, another Labour leader who never became Prime Minister. He too was fighting to save his party from attack from within. His words were directed against Militant Tendency councillors, but again he was speaking to the whole of the UK.

With rising indignation and scathing contempt he denounced the extreme leftists who were then running Liverpool. He famously described "the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council! – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices."

This was too much for the veteran left–wing Liverpool MP Eric Heffer, who angrily walked out of the conference hall.

These speeches were electrifying. Mr Gaitskell's was the first major British conference speech of the television age; Mr Kinnock's was probably the last. When did any burst of oratory last electrify a conference, let alone the wider public?

The party conference season still excites the political class, which is larger than ever (although fewer and fewer people vote at general elections) and to some extent the media. But conferences are now managed and manipulated by adroit professionals whose aim is control, at all costs. Fire, passion, controversy, dissent, confrontation – these are to be avoided.

The Tory and Labour parties are most guilty. Their conferences have become bland, sanitised affairs. How good it will be if we get some frank dissent, some fierce disputation, even some good old-fashioned rhetorical passion, this autumn. I'm not holding my breath.

To be fair to the LibDems, dissent and even downright truculence have not completely vanished from their conferences. But the LibDem party managers are just as scared of the public airing of splits and disagreements as the organisers in other parties. Maybe it is the fault of the public; we are constantly told that people won't vote for a divided party, and history does bear this out.

Even the SNP, whose conferences used to have plenty of couthy argument and decent passion, have become more anodyne, more carefully orchestrated. Maybe this year's will be an exception, with the point of dispute being defence policy. I certainly hope the undoubted tensions are well aired, and that dissidents are heard loud and clear.

The two speeches quoted above were both made by Labour leaders who failed to lead their parties to power. When Mr Gaitskell delivered his great speech his main rival for the leadership, Harold Wilson, sat stony faced – as far as could be seen, because he was surrounded by clouds of smoke as he kept lighting and relighting his pipe. (Afterwards, away from the cameras, he apparently discarded the pipe and lit a large cigar.)

Mr Wilson eventually became Prime Minister. He was usually too cute and too crafty to make his position clear, if he could possibly avoid doing so. Is that what we want from our politicians?

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

116861