Monday, September 25, 2006

 

Ming vs Flash Dour Gordon

Menzies Campbell’s Leader’s Speech enthused me last week, and I’m still more enthused after watching the Labour Leader Pre-elect. Ming set out a Liberal vision; while I can see what appeals to people about the Chancellor, Mr Brown doesn’t appeal to me. He has a more forceful voice than Ming, but it was all on one note, and his relentless attack on the listener called to mind Ming’s best joke, that “The Labour Government is like the hurricane that hit the Azores yesterday. A great, grey depression spinning around and sucking everything to the centre. And its name? Hurricane Gordon.” Few platform orators have good jokes, and most of Ming’s got a laugh – like those of every Leader – more through relief than mirth, but that one was so appropriate and made such good use of a topical gift to him in the weather that I actually laughed, and I can’t remember the last time I did that in a Leader’s Speech. Gordon Brown’s moments of comparative light-heartedness weren’t so much jokes as short points where his face made an effort to relax slightly, as if every five minutes his autocue had flashed up, ‘Try to look less murderous for a second’.

Gordon Brown

Neither man is appealingly charismatic, but both can be commanding. How did they compare? Watching Mr Brown’s speech has inspired me to take another look at Ming’s, rather than to comment on his today in detail; I don’t think I could face seeing or reading it all again. There were one or two good things in it, though. I did nod when he talked of inspiring people, and mentioned people he’d spoken to who want to get involved in politics because they want to change the world. Yes, I can understand that. It’s what got me started in my teens. But the tone of his speech was all what Labour (for which you can read ‘Gordon’) could achieve, that “We will build the good society,” not about involving people but about what I’m sure he sees as benevolent rule from the top. When he spoke of looking out for everyone, not just Labour people, I agreed with his words, but I’m sorry to say I simply didn’t believe them from him. It’s true that Mr Blair and Mr Brown’s government has had a different view of what ‘Labour people’ are, but it’s just shifted from poor people and unions to rich people and whatever Daily Mail-style ‘majority’ they think they’ve hit on for their latest piece of bossiness, while still picking out people outside ‘their’ chosen groups to demonise. That’s still a long way from valuing every individual and letting them make their own decisions.

In one of the most pervasive and pernicious bits of Labour rhetoric from the last decade, Mr Brown constantly linked rights with responsibilities; not in the general, perfectly reasonable sense that we all have rights in society, but we also have responsibilities to each other. No, yet again, he reeled off a list of ‘rights’ which were contingent on doing specifically what the Labour Government tells you (a bullying approach specifically rejected by the Liberal Democrats in our philosophy paper, It’s About Freedom). If a ‘right’ is only doled out to you when you’ve ticked off all the Government’s chosen commands, it isn’t a right that you own, but a favour at Labour’s whim. This is not the man to write a written constitution.

When Jonathan Wallace has just put up a speech of mine on YouTube, complete with more uses of the word ‘um’ than I thought humanly possible, it may seem unwise to point out Mr Brown’s hesitations and fluffed words. But that’s not going to stop me. Political speeches are always peppered with tiny mistakes, and it’s mean not to make allowances for them, but when Mr Brown was trying very, very hard to make a speech about values, and stop just being the man obsessed with every penny we have, it took a heart of stone not to laugh as he spoke of “Noble purses worth – noble purposes worth fighting for…”

Menzies Campbell

So what did I like about Ming’s speech on Thursday, other than that gold dust-like genuinely funny joke? Well, he started disarmingly, talking about how he’d enjoyed Conference particularly since Tuesday lunchtime – when a hefty majority of us backed his new tax plans. It appealed to us all, because it wasn’t decided by a union block vote or a hefty donor, and neither was his job – both the tax policy and Ming himself won the arguments and persuaded individual Liberal Democrats to back them, and we all appreciated him acknowledging that. Now, after that he moved on to a set of warm-up jokes, and as you know my views on Leaders’ jokes I’ll draw a gentle veil over them. What his speech was really about was the substance.

In fact, if you wanted a message from Ming’s speech, while the aim was, rightly, a Britain that is free, fair and green, two phrases kept coming up throughout.
The politics of substance,”
“The rule of law.”
Early on, Ming attacked the Tories for being “determined to avoid policy decisions at all costs,” and he expanded on that later as he said “Cameron’s Tories are a substance-free zone” (apparently something Mr Cameron’s dealer has also bemoaned now he’s turned so squeaky-clean):
“Their idea of political principle is to say, tell us what you don’t like and we’ll abandon it. They have learned all the wrong lessons from Mr Blair - the spin, the photo opportunity, the endless sound bites signifying nothing.
Political parties shouldn’t be glorified advertising agencies.
“It’s all very well for Mr Cameron to say he is a liberal now – but real liberalism means leading public opinion not following it. The British public is entitled to the politics of substance, not the politics of spin.”
Ming is not a politician in the slick style of Mr Blair and Mr Cameron, and he’s right to make an issue of that, with much in his speech on our concrete proposals about “the issues that matter”. His message, as I’m sure any Lib Dem spin doctor would tell you, is that he is unspun. However, if that was a deliberate point echoed throughout his speech as a political attack, I suspect the repetition of “The rule of law” tells you more about what Ming really believes. He is an old-fashioned Liberal, and an old-fashioned lawyer, and belief in the rule of law is perhaps the founding Liberal value. It means that everyone should be bound by the same rules, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, majority or minority, and – most crucially – government as well as governed. I got the strong impression that, while he was irritated that so much of politics depends on who’s the slickest salesman rather than whether they’re ‘selling’ anything worthwhile, he is outraged at the same Labour Government striking moral poses to order us all about as has proven itself arbitrary, corrupt and a lawless international bully and bully’s lickspittle.

After the week’s big debate, the substance of Ming’s speech naturally led heavily on tax:
“We will cut national income tax for 28 million working people. We’ll abolish the 10 pence starting rate. We’ll cut the basic rate from 22 pence to 20. We’ll raise the top rate threshold from £38,000 to £50,000. We’ll take over two million of our lowest earners out of income tax altogether… We will reward ambition and aspiration – not penalise effort.
“We will not raise the overall level of taxation. But we will reform the tax system so that it is fairer, simpler and greener. Under our plans, some will pay more. We are straightforward about this. The very wealthy will lose their generous pension tax subsidies. Tax breaks on capital gains will be removed. Those who can afford to make a greater contribution should do so. And we will raise environmental taxes too. All of us should pay tax on the pollution we cause… If we are serious about the environment, only action will suffice.”
And, perhaps most importantly:
“Climate change is the greatest moral and practical challenge we face. We must act. Not in the future - not just when new technology becomes available - but now.”
He attacked the Mr Blair and Mr Brown’s Government for believing that terrorism should be tackled by taking away personal freedoms, angered not just that they’ve given up British values of tolerance and diversity at home but tarnished Britain’s reputation abroad:
“Let me be very clear – Terrorism is a threat to everything that liberals stand for – individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law…
“In foreign policy, the Prime Minister has elevated belief over evidence, conviction over judgement, and instinct over understanding. Put quite simply, he has presided over a foreign policy which is neither ethical nor effective…
“Security is not being gained, it is being lost.
“Terrorism is not being defeated, it is being invigorated.
“Freedom is not being spread, it is being undermined.”
Ming has long been an impressive platform speaker in shorter, magisterial speeches about international relations – just as Mr Brown can come across with a powerful conviction in short bursts. One is in danger of making every speech a lecture, the other of making every speech a bludgeon. Well, I felt battered after a whole speech by Mr Brown today all in that relentless, overbearing style, but fortunately Ming has found different tones to strike that make a full-length speech listenable. He’s still grandly persuasive as he pronounces judgment on the moral failings of governments at home and abroad, but at times last week he could be disarming, though that’s never going to be his speciality as it was Charles’. And rather than only taking the moral high ground with merciless severity, when talking about, for example, never accepting torture, he was so level and serious that I applauded not just the words but the obvious belief. Ming doesn’t find it easy to speak with thrilling passion, but he outlined some outrages with such deadly condemnation you can’t be in any doubt of his convictions.

For Mr Cameron’s inability to make up his mind (which week are we in? Is he for or against the war in Iraq right now?), there was scorn that won just about the biggest, angriest applause of the speech:
“And now Mr Cameron expresses his reservations about Britain’s foreign policy. Well I say to that – Where were you? Where were you when what was needed was not reservation but votes? I’ll tell you where you were. You, Mr Cameron, were in the government lobby backing military action against Iraq.
“You should apologise for supporting that war.”
I have to say, though, that Ming made a rare mis-step following that; to go from Iraq to a slight snigger in asking Mr Cameron to apologise for writing the last Tory Manifesto had more bathos than moral force. But no speech is perfect.

He was more effective and surprisingly comfortable in telling his own story, born in a tenement in Glasgow and raised by parents who worked hard to give him the opportunities, like university, that they never had. It put real, personal passion into his priority of tackling poverty and inequality, and reminded us that while he may sometimes seem as much of a toff as David Cameron, he’s worked for what he’s achieved and is grateful to the state for his education, his athletic training and his health care, rather than sitting back and relying on the family fortune. And because he’s depended on public services, he’s determined to make them deliver value for money, rather than Labour’s investment being wasted by constant and incompetent micromanagement from the centre. Unsurprisingly, while Mr Brown’s instincts are to take tight central control to deliver things for people, Ming’s are to put power in the hands of local areas and individuals to make services deliver what they want, rather than what Labour thinks is good for them.

Ming talked about his ambition to put our principles into practice, living dangerously but, I think, skirting the large hole in front of him marked ‘David Steel prepares for government’. After all, as he pointed out, not only do people in almost every area of Britain have Liberal Democrat representatives in Parliament, the European Parliament, devolved parliaments and assemblies and local councils, but seventeen million people in Britain experience Liberal Democrat government already. Yes, I was quite struck by that number, too. Controlling councils from great cities to deep rural Britain, Liberal Democrat Council leaders are responsible for a combined budget of over £10 billion. In Scotland, we’ve driven ideas through in coalition, and been rewarded last year by more votes and more seats there than any other party but Labour for the House of Commons – pushing the SNP into third place, and leaving the Tories trailing, again, their one MP stranded on his own. Ming looked forward to more gains in next year’s Scottish elections, and the bigger challenge ahead across Britain, to lead from opposition towards government (in how big a step, we all wondered).

By the end of that, yep, I was impressed. Plenty of substance, and his delivery was more assured than since before he became Leader, as well as more interesting than I’ve ever seen him. While Charles Kennedy is far more engaging than Ming in conversational performances, judging by this I’d write one of Ming’s platform speeches far more highly. Do I have reservations? Of course. Sometimes he can be too quiet, and there were a few points in the text at which I grimaced. I suspect he was speaking to the public at large, rather than admitting ‘I was conned,’ but when he talks about his optimism for what Labour might have achieved in 1997 before their decade of failure in practice I admit to being a grouch; I was never taken in, and I suspect I grumble too much when people say ‘everyone was’. And I sighed when, just after attacking “racism, sexism and homophobia” he said the answer was to be more representative of “women, the disabled and black and ethnic minorities”; with that and his mentions of that political cliché the “Hard-working families,” as well as several feeble policy papers and motions last week that I’ve already criticised at length, I do get the feeling that, at the top of the party, there is a genuine commitment to opportunity for all regardless of gender or race, but that any other sort of diversity is very much a random add-on rather than a priority. Ho hum.

One of the press’ favourite attacks on Ming, of course, is sheer age discrimination. I saw him and Deputy Leader Vince Cable depicted as Statler and Waldorf last week; well, I have to say that it isn’t age that turns you into an overcritical Muppet, but temperament. Four of us sat watching Ming’s speech from high up in the conference hall – tragically, not in our own little box – and while Richard and I were comparative oldies there, in our thirties, there were so many Statlerisms coming from us to begin with that it’s a good job we weren’t sat near any journalists. Before the speech, not only was there a photo-tour of The Life of Ming, from sprinting, through wig, to flak jacket (actually, he looked rather good in it, but there are some photo-opportunities at which no leader can expect a Lib Dem Conference not to snigger), but what really set us off was what came before then. If you were watching at home – I know, you were glued to it, weren’t you? – you fortunately won’t have heard Party Treasurer Tim Clement-Jones harking back to the fundraising of Lloyd George (eek!), nor seen the slideshow of all our MPs from the 1980s onward. It’s the first time Rosie Barnes and David Owen have been seen at a Lib Dem Conference (we didn’t even use to practise the Daily Hate), and it’s fair to say they didn’t get a lot of applause; however, once it got into MPs we still have now, it suddenly became much more noisy, more competitive and more hilarious. We just hooted as very geographically concentrated bursts of hysteria were heard for what were evidently people’s local MPs, and there was a loud but no doubt partly ironic reception for the open-shirted, menswear catalogue shots of two of our chaps (and a bigger one for the former leadership candidate appearing only as a small figure in the background of two much more popular MPs). I suspect one Cornish MP should also be telling whoever selected the slides that extreme close-ups of him are not as kind as they are, for example, to an MP from Manchester. The four of us just sat there and, in common with much of the party, took the piss. It may be an innovation that isn’t repeated, though they all looked great when the MPs and MEPs suddenly filled the stage behind Ming at the end of his speech, like a mass of fans invading the pitch. Do that bit again.

The thing I remember about watching Ming’s speech, however, is that while we’d unwisely been warmed up to mock what was in front of us by the beauty parade and hideous, hideous soft rock it was all set to, the speech itself demanded to be taken seriously. And we did. Yes, our Statler and Waldorf tendencies came out in the odd murmured aside, but there are have been some Leader’s speeches where I’ve found my level of scepticism rising throughout, or where I’ve been shifting in my seat wondering when it might end. Not this one. And no, while there are a small handful of Leader’s speeches from which I can still remember lines and the feeling of inspiration years later, those are rare indeed, and this wasn’t one of those either. It was a good, solid speech, full of substance, giving a strongly Liberal message, and well if not flamboyantly delivered.

Oh, and Ming’s over-used and instantly imitable mannerism? As no-one can have failed to notice, when acknowledging applause, he raises his arms aloft and keeps them there, triumphally. I wonder if he struck that pose when winning his Olympic medals, or if he’s just adopted it now? I notice that sketchwriters and cartoonists targeted it ruthlessly last week, partly because it was so startlingly but mainly, I suspect, because it didn’t look at all a gesture of age or infirmity, and they were crabby at him spoiling their script with a look that’s highly mockable, but for looking bullish rather than old. Each time Ming stood powerfully with his arms raised, two thoughts sprang to mind – a mixture of calling to the sky as if challenging some tribal god, and ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. Gordon may not be flash, but Ming’s stance says, ‘Call down the lightning!’

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Comments:
The arms aloft thing has been around for a while. Paddy started it, probably in an attempt to reflect the then new bird of liberty image. It just looks odder from Ming because he's ganglier.

His other problem is a total inability to say "environment".
 
“Let me be very clear – Terrorism is a threat to everything that liberals stand for – individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law"

Good post, Alex.

I thought that the other merit of the speech was that it was very very clear. You always knew what point he was making and why.
 
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