This article is from the December issue of Total Politics
The real tragedy of Gordon Brown’s career lay in his mistaken belief that stealing the keys to Downing Street would give him Blair’s power.
It was a fatal error: Blair’s powers came not from the keys to Downing Street but from his extraordinary powers of communication – his ability to convince, cajole and command. Language has been a vital instrument of power through the ages.
Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, bin Laden, Gaddafi were all cunning linguists: they knew just how to use language to plunge their followers into the darkest depth of despair before lifting them to the height of ecstasy.
Throughout history, one lesson is clear: where rhetorical skill leads, power and wealth follow. Just track back and see. It starts with the Romans. ‘Pax Romana’ must be one of the most audacious wordplays in history, a match for Orwell’s “War is peace” in its 180-degree spin on reality.
But so it continued: the Romans ran rhetorical rings around our ancestors for centuries. Petillius Cerealis, the governor of Britain in AD 61, was accustomed to beginning speeches with the gloriously disingenuous, “I have no capacity for public speaking… but I feel I must just make a few points.”
The logic that followed was Alice in Wonderland-esque: “We brought you peace to stop your tribal fighting. But we can’t keep peace unless we keep armies. And we can’t keep armies unless you give us money. And that means you must pay us taxes…” Genius! The spinmeisters in Iraq and Afghanistan could do worse than copy that word for word.
Eventually, rhetorical power shifted to those other Romans: the Catholic church. Pope Gregory and Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, found it equally easy to spin us into submission. Pope Gregory’s first words on arriving were wonderfully flattering and rhetorically beautiful: “These are not Angles [ie English], but angels!”
The language of the preacher remains deeply embedded in our national psyche even today, with political and business leaders often invoking religious imagery, from Thatcher’s Francis of Assisi and Blair’s preacher-style sermons to business ‘mission’ statements and corporate ‘creeds’.
After the Norman Conquest, the baton of power passed to the monarchs. William the Conqueror was described by a contemporary monk as “fluent and persuasive, being skilled at all times in making known his will”.
And monarchs had no choice but to use rhetoric. They couldn’t rely on simple divine right to quell rebellions and repel foreign invaders. They needed strong words and images. The powerful images of Henry V speaking at Agincourt or Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury remain scorched on our collective national consciousness: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”
As democracy took root, rhetorical power was slowly passed on to our politicians. Parliament was lacklustre at first, but eventually the words uttered there led the land. Wilberforce, Pitt and Gladstone were masterful rhetoricians, but no parliamentarian ever commanded the nation with greater power or more magnificent oratory than Churchill. Even today, his words send a shiver down the spine of even the most reluctant patriot.
But that was 70 years ago. Who leads the field today? And when we survey the rhetorical landscape, what does that tell us about the distribution of power in modern Britain? Clearly, power no longer rests with the monarchy. Her Majesty has only made one notable comment in my lifetime – about her “annus horribilis”. It sounded less like a call to arms than a call for Anusol. Nor does the future offer much hope for the royals: Charles’ most famous line concerned monstrous carbuncles, a term only previously understood by sufferers of staphylococcus.
Power no longer lies with the church. Rowan Williams has a phenomenal talent for saying the most controversial things in public, but doing so in a way that guarantees no one will notice, while Pope Benedict has all the oratorical impact of a flapjack – surprising perhaps, given his experience and training in Hitler Youth.
Nor does power sit with the political class any more, despite the growing numbers of communications professionals surrounding our leaders. The big society was always bound to fail in Britain – linguistically, if for no other reason. The trouble is, ‘big’ has universally negative connotations in Britain, from Big Brother to Big Business to Big Deal.
So royalty, the church and the politicians have lost their oratorical edge – which is why republicanism is rising, church attendance is plummeting and political turnout is stagnant. But that leaves the question: where today does linguistic power lie?
For my money, it lies with the press. Journalists and editors are now the ones who design our window on the world. They are the ones who determine what information we receive, who create the words, phrases and ideas that stick – from Brussels bureaucrats to mad Muslims. They are the new rulers of rhetoric.
But that might be about to change, particularly as the figureheads of the popular tabloid press – Coulson, Brooks and Murdoch, Senior and Junior – all now face a real prospect of prosecution. If the police go the whole way, it could prove to be a genuine turning point in the balance of power in Britain. And mastery of language will prove pivotal in that battle.
We’ve already had some taste of what’s to come. Murdoch Senior’s “This is the most humble day of my life” was up there with the greats – although it could be paraphrased: “I may have the wealth and status of a demi-god billionaire, but I have the heart and stomach of a human.”
Likewise, there has been some brilliant rhetoric on the other side of the interviewer’s recorder, with Hugh Grant slicing the debate as “goodies vs baddies” while Steve Coogan responded, super-swift, to examples of the press’s better deeds: “Even Hitler was nice to dogs.”
There’s more to come, for sure. Will we once again see the Murdoch camp claiming, “It was The Sun Wot Won it”? Or will it be the turn of Twitter-based celebrities to shout “Gotcha”? I lick my lips in anticipation. ■