Friday, September 22, 2006


Return of the Leaders

With Ming’s speech all over today’s newspapers, I’m looking back in my usual up-to-the-minute way not at the current Liberal Democrat Leader but at two blasts from the past seen at Conference this week. Charles Kennedy made a much-publicised speech to the Conference on Tuesday afternoon setting out some key themes, but you could easily have missed a major speech by Paddy Ashdown at about, ah, 1am on Thursday morning at the ‘Glee Club’. Well, I say major speech. More of a shaggy dog story, really, but to an ecstatic reception. And no, he didn’t tell any jokes about Ming… And, oddly enough, neither of them really employed their best-known and most imitable speaking traits.

Charles Kennedy

Charles looked good coming on stage; if there’s one thing that’s a gift to those who want to use him as a stick with which to beat Ming (and he was ostentatiously supportive of Ming in his speech; you could almost hear the growls of disappointment from the assembled journalists) it’s that he looks much younger than his forty-odd, while Ming looks older than his sixty-odd. It was a pretty good speech, though for all that he’s been talked up as a great communicator, it certainly wasn’t a great one. Actually, I do think Charles is a great communicator, but he’s never been a great platform orator. Put him in a more relaxed, conversational environment and he’s brilliant, but I’ve never heard him give a speech to compare with the passion and rhetoric of Paddy Ashdown’s Leader’s speeches. Put Paddy in an informal setting that calls for him to be engaging, though, and he always seems a bit stiff and aloof. Well, except at 1am in the ‘Glee Club’. But it’s a very rare talent indeed who can be outstanding at every type of communication.

Charles’ speech, then, was pretty much as I expected, though as Millennium says, the surprise wasn’t any particular part of the content but that there added up to so much of it, speaking for double his allotted time. One unintentionally amusing moment came for light-watchers; at Lib Dem Conference everyone but the Leader gets a set length of time for their speech, with a light showing at the lectern and hanging from the ceiling for the audience to see. It starts off green, turns amber with a minute to go, then red to stop. If the red light actually starts flashing, you’re about to have your microphone switched off. On Tuesday, the amber light came on at 4pm, just as Charles was just to finish; by five past, with the former Leader still evidently with no intention of leaving the stage, the amber light winked plaintively out, and no light was shown until the next speaker was clear to start, twenty minutes later. Despite my jealousy at his ability to overrun time so drastically without being stopped, it really doesn’t seem worth all the bother he had to go through to get it.

Charles was a little hoarse, but still got a big laugh on John Prescott’s cowboy outfit, “Not so much John Wayne as Blazing Saddles,” and had a good, if meandering message. He touched on four key themes, social justice, democracy, climate change and internationalism, and outlined a small number of unfashionable issues on which the party should “keep the flame alive”. These all seem to have gone under the radar, but if there was a coded critique of party direction (including under his own Leadership), it was here. Regional government in England, largely abandoned by the party; pro-Europeanism; and not getting hung up on coalitions but fighting as an independent party (something on which all three contenders for the Leadership this year were much less clear than Charles) were all there, and all have the potential to come back as big ‘I told you so’ issues. Yes, it’s ironic, but while journalists and other professional gossips have spent the week watching every nod, wink and handshake to decipher what Charles thinks, I’ve not read a single analysis based on what he actually said. Charles is more engaging than passionate much of the time, but there were flashes when he really hit hard; he really isn’t a fan of the Labour Party. “Those who the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad… The gods must really have it in for Labour” was a jokey aside, but you got the feeling he meant it, particularly after tearing into the Labour Government for the damage it’s inflicted over Iraq on the integrity of our country and diplomacy: “It is absolutely damnable in my view. Damnable.”

Incidentally, I wonder why Liberal Democrat Voice is asking, “When would you like to see Charles Kennedy back on the Lib Dem front bench?” with poll options running in strict times from months, to years, to ‘Never’? Aside from rejecting the last one, it’s not my business to press him on any of those, and I’d object to anyone polling on my own long-term health problems. Surely the best answer would be “When he’s properly up to it again?”

Paddy Ashdown

True or not, Paddy and Charles rather than Charles and Ming seem to have been reported as the Leaders not really getting on this week. Whatever the business going on there, I thought both were brilliant Leaders, though neither were perfect (and please feel free to call a doctor should I ever lose my grip enough to say any Leader is perfect). Paddy, of course, gave up the Leadership of his own free will before most of the party wanted him to go, though there’d been a degree of tension about how close he was to Mr Blair; though I had a great many arguments with him, that was the only issue, a strategic rather than a policy issue, on which I thought he was really desperately wrong. You’d imagine those most wary of Paddy on that issue would be some of the instinctive, anti-authoritarian Liberals of the sort most likely to visit the Glee Club, and you’d probably be right. But the fact remains that when Paddy went back there for a turn the night before last, he went down a storm. For Lib Dems of my generation, there’s a piece of our heart that’s forever Paddy, and if the press had really wanted to see devotion to a returning former Leader, they shouldn’t have watched us clapping Charles but laughing with Paddy as we all decided all over again that we’d follow him into a ditch (again) if he asked us.

If you’ve not heard of it, the ‘Glee Club’ is an event that takes place on the last night of Conference, where comic songs and sketches are performed, often by MPs, but mainly where a large group of inebriated Liberal Democrats sing in turns inspiring, scandalous and comic songs from three centuries of Liberalism, all collected in the Liberator Songbook. Well, I say ‘sing’… It’s not something the control freaks in any other party would tolerate, and even for us it can be a little alarming if you’re not used to it. For me, one of the most entertaining moments of the night was not Evan Harris’ Woody Allen monologues – it was definitely not Evan Harris’ Woody Allen monologues – nor the song about Mark Oaten, but the sight of Stephen Tall gazing around in appalled horror as the last of his Conference virginity evaporated.

Paddy’s moment of glory came with a long, superbly delivered monologue – not quite as long as Charles’ speech, but it seemed at times like it could manage it – after a moving little tribute to the Glee Club’s revue star, Harriet Smith, whose funeral in the summer was the last occasion on which I was in Brighton. I can’t repeat Paddy’s shaggy dog story about the two tribes and the wizard; not because I don’t remember it (in fact, I remembered the punchline from when he used to tell it on turning up to the Glee Club as Leader, and many of the audience joined in on a lot of the lines), but because it involves such a multiplicity of ludicrous sound effects that I’d be unable to deliver it in person, let alone written down.

I know, you’re disappointed, aren’t you? After all that buildup? Well, even if you aren’t, I’m going to make up for the lack of shaggy dog with one of my favourite Paddy true stories that I probably shouldn’t repeat, but which I still repeated in the bar that night, with all my favourite Paddy mannerisms, without actually noticing how very little distance separated him from me. Fortunately, he didn’t hear, and so I survive to unwisely tell this tale of how our former Leader’s behaviour was subject to the ingestion of… Certain substances.

For more than a few years, I was on the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee, and it was chaired by the Leader. Paddy and Charles had very different styles, though it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say we swapped King Stork for King Log. While Charles was laid-back and clever in the way he moved the meetings along, only occasionally steering on an issue about which he felt very strongly (and it was equally noticeable which policy issues he didn’t find completely enthralling), with Paddy the meetings were longer and harder because for Paddy, every single dot and comma was an issue of principle that must be fought to the death. I remember well the rather fraught atmosphere before the Conference in Brighton in 1994 at which we debated cannabis – the one at which Paddy strode off the stage in such a visible huff (though, I should point out, I just did lots of interviews on the subject but didn’t actually speak in the debate. So it wasn’t me). When Paddy got to the point of frustration that meant he took his glasses off, set them in front of him and started to tell us, “Colleagues… This used to be a good Committee to chair…” and then “I’ve thought about this for a long time,” the late, awesome Nancy Seear broke in with a stentorian bellow, “Not as long as some of us! I’ve been campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis since before you were born!”

You’ll have gathered that in those days, there was occasionally the merest hint of tension about Policy Committee meetings. I was, back then, the youngest person on the Committee by ten years, and I had a way to defuse the tension that I’d practised over years in the party’s Youth and Student wings. When things got a little fraught, I got out some sweets and passed them round (the only time Richard Holme ever spoke to me was when he was after my confectionery). Sometimes they were bonbons, sometimes chocolates, but for their disarming effect if not their taste I’d most frequently bring Love Hearts. It’s rather difficult to keep shouting at someone if you’ve just picked up something that says ‘HUG ME’. And the person on whom these had the most noticeable effect of all was Paddy. I never dared ask what the message he’d taken was, but a Love Heart was the one thing that could put him off his stride; he never failed to blush.

I wasn’t the only person who regularly brought sweets to the meetings; I was, however, the only one who regularly offered them round. A party official whose identity I shall for the moment protect (well, he likes Doctor Who too) would always sit next to Paddy and feed him jelly babies. One evening, I approached him conversationally at the end of the meeting and wondered just why I, with no money, should keep the meeting catered for while all he did was suck up to the Leader. He looked at me steadily and asked, “Have you never watched what happens?” So he explained, and next time I watched carefully.

Unlike many of us mortals, Paddy was supremely fit. He’d go to bed at two, do 500 press-ups, wake at five, do 500 press-ups, and if he felt his staff deserved a lie-in, he might not ring them until six. He believed breakfast, lunch and dinner were for wimps. So by the time a 6pm meeting started, his blood sugar would be very low and he could be more than a little irritable. But as more and more jelly babies entered his system…

…he literally became a sweeter person.

And that’s the story of how the former King of Bosnia used to be kept doped by jelly babies.

…And Those Famous Mannerisms

I mentioned yesterday that Ming, like Paddy and Charles, has immediately adopted one over-used and instantly imitable mannerism for his speeches. There wasn’t a lot of either in those by Paddy and Charles this week, strangely enough, but you’d know them if they did them. Charles always seemed someone that impressionists had difficulty with, and, true, a lot of politicians walk about the stage without a script in their hand, so you wouldn’t ‘get’ him just from that. But having listened to a lot of his speeches over the years, I can tell you one, one very distinctive vocal trait that at least regular Charles-watchers would recognise, that they would recognise, and that was a key reason why his Leader’s speeches would often go on a bit and drive his speechwriters to distraction. He would drive his speechwriters to distraction. And that, friends, is because when he wanted to make a point, not only would his delivery get slower and slower, but he would repeat his words for emphasis. He would repeat them for emphasis.

The most distinctive message in which to sum up Paddy’s speeches is, let me tell you this frankly, less in his words than in his other mannerisms, which is perhaps why so many impressionists got him spot on and even I was unwise enough to try him the other night. That clipped tone, so easy to imitate where Charles’ gentle accent is so tricky; the eyes incredibly narrowed, as if ready to focus lethal beams into the distance; and one hand, outstretched, upturned, as if reaching to hold some sacred flame or, as it was unkindly described, ‘the dead spider’. We may have taken the mickey out of both ex-Leaders, but the party still loves them both, and deservedly so.

And Ming’s mannerism? Ah, well. More on that story later, but I suspect you’ve spotted it already…

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For the first time, I’ve removed a comment from here; although it was in no way malicious, and although I may have been unwise in posting an old, relatively private story in the aim of being amusing, I felt deeply uncomfortable with the comment posted to this article last night. No doubt it’s already been widely read, but I simply decided that I didn’t want speculation about anyone’s possible medical condition on this blog. I have no idea of its accuracy (and neither, I think, did the commentator), and it just didn’t seem right. Apologies for my first example of censorship; I won’t make a habit of it.
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