Ed Miliband has given himself a chance to be heard, but he won’t take it
After the carnival barking of the phone-hacking saga, the long break beckons for Parliament. For the party leaders, though, there will be little rest. Against the advice of their entourages, who after all want a break from their boss, the three leaders will now spend eight weeks worrying about their conference speeches.
In my former life in Labour politics, I would come back after the break to find Tony Blair surrounded by paper on which he had scribbled fragments of ideas. Over several weeks we added lines and moved the papers around. It was like the party game in which several people draw a funny animal. Hours that will never come back were spent searching for the elusive theme that would magically connect childcare tax credits, the balance sheet rationale for PFI and the case against a narrowly realist conception of foreign policy. The sculptor Jacob Epstein, when he was asked how he got such a good likeness of Ernest Bevin, once said that he took a block of marble and simply chipped away all the bits that didn’t look like Ernest Bevin. That’s what writing a conference speech is like — searching for the point in the rubble.
Most conference speeches disappear with the dying fall of their final phrase. Oratory on the conference platform rarely alters a leader’s fortunes with the public. The anxiety of the preparation is not, however, pointless. We need to refine the cliché that it is imperative to speak to the country as well as to the conference hall. The task, in truth, is to persuade the conference hall that the leader will be attractive to the public, if he is ever granted a proper audience.
That much is the political dividend that Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, can expect from the phone-hacking saga. Mr Miliband has had a good couple of weeks — he has performed better, in fact, than many observers, myself not excepted, thought possible. Yet the rise in Mr Miliband’s approval rating has been a little grudging. He has a long way to go before he can be viewed as an alternative prime minister, but the internal dissenters have been hushed. He has won for himself a brief opportunity to be heard. Does he have a message to convey?
Mr Miliband already has the rudiments
of a coherent conference speech. His most recent critique, applied to banking, the government and the Murdoch press in turn, has been about the malign consequences that flow from the irresponsible actions of the privileged. It’s an excellent line of attack in its own right and it suggests a sovereign idea — power and responsibility — that should resonate with the public.
The idea that power lies in the wrong places in Britain — too much with govern-
There is, to put it mildly, no clamour for the Miliband-Balls team to run the economy ment, too little with the people — solves the basic conundrum of the set-piece political speech, which is: what’s the thread? The balance between freedom of expression and privacy is a question of fundamental importance. So is the question of whether mayors are a better magnet for investment in market towns than shire councils. So is the question of whether any functions of government are better done in Brussels than in Westminster. So is the question of whether disabled people should be given the budget to choose the service they actually want. In every arena, power comes with conditions of responsibility. The theme works for every section of a speech. I’d be inclined to repeat use it every year, for ever.
Writing a credible speech on this basis does pose one big problem, however. Soon-
‘It could be worse — you could be
er or later, preferably in Liverpool on 27 September, Mr Miliband is going to have to have a Theresa May moment. The Conservative party started its long climb back to electoral acceptability when Mrs May told the 2002 party conference that, out there in the world, people thought of them as ‘the nasty party’. Victory was still eight years distant but that was the first public sign that the party was starting to catch up with the political facts.
There is a raw political truth that now confronts Mr Miliband.The economic recovery barely even merits that description, yet there is, to put it mildly, no clamour for the Miliband-Balls team to run the economy. The Labour plan is clear enough. Argue forcefully that the Chancellor has made a catastrophic growth-defying error of judgment. In due course, the public will realise it has backed a dud and punish the government for its ideologically motivated economic mistake. The downside of clarity is that when something is wrong it’s obviously wrong. Even if Mr Balls turns out have a point, the public has decided that some of the blame attaches to the last government. Employing great arithmetical chicanery, Mr Balls can argue that the public has been duped.Yet even if he is right on the economics (which he’s not, entirely), he’s wrong on the politics. They still think it was your fault, Ed. I’m afraid that shouting louder, as if they were silly foreigners unable to speak English, is not likely to change their mind.
So the only hope for Ed Miliband is a Theresa May moment. We had a good time and we are sorry it cost a bit too much. The banks spent most of the cash, and we did stop that getting worse, but we shouldn’t have spent as much as we did. Sorry. It would fit perfectly into the ‘power and responsibility’ theme — we made a mistake when we were in power because we weren’t as responsible as we should have been. It would electrify the speech and change the trajectory of politics. It won’t happen because it’s not what either Mr Miliband or Mr Balls thinks. But until they think it, power will only ever be something they talk about.
Philip Collins is a former speechwriter for Tony Blair. He now writes for the Times.
the spectator | 30 July 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
Why do those of us who support capitalism use that word? It was designed by our enemies. Capital, of course, is a vital component of an economy, and capitalism could be defined as the separation of the provision of capital from its management — a good idea in principle since it makes it possible to create and diffuse wealth much more widely. But it is a bad word because most people lack notable capital of their own, and therefore believe that the -ism advanced in its name can do nothing for them. As I argued in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, the actions of governments, bankers and central bankers have made this scepticism seem vindicated. The link between the generation of wealth and general prosperity was what enabled us to beat Soviet communism. For more than ten years now, that link has been fraying. When it breaks, so will our freedoms, our comforts and even our basic decencies.
We keep being invited to decide whether Anders Breivik is a deranged loner or an extreme-right ideologue. Why can’t he be both? Isn’t it an important factor in the success of left or right extremism that it gives an apparent logic to people’s personal hatreds and inadequacies? A Muslim stole your girlfriend (as seems to have happened to Breivik), so you are attracted to a theory which suggests that Muslims are stealing your civilisation. In a reasonably harmonious society, such theories will have few takers, so Breivik is probably wrong to think he can set Norway ablaze. But in large parts of the Muslim world, where many young men feel disfranchised, ‘psycho’ tendencies can more easily be reified, even deified. Perhaps those declaring Breivik ‘mad’ are unconsciously resisting the modern doctrine that one must ‘engage’ with extremists. Certainly, if the logic of our multicultural public policy were followed in the case of Breivik, British government, police and educational agencies would already be seeking meetings with Nick Griffin and other BNP ‘community leaders’, ‘dialoguing’ in Right Now magazine and seeing if more couldn’t be done to allow the teaching of (nonviolent) Nordic racial superiority in state schools. It is right to shy away from such an approach. But when Boris Johnson writes that Breivik is ‘a narcissist and egomaniac’ and should therefore be dismissed, he misses the vital historical fact that narcissists and egomaniacs are quite capable of taking over the world unless their theories are challenged, rather than placated or ignored.
Narcissism and egomania have even been known, I can exclusively reveal, in British politics. Gordon Brown’s denunciation of the Murdochs, after years of sucking up to them, was a classic example, clothed as righteousness. Boris himself, of course, suffers from no such delusions. But there was a bit too much of ‘Look at me’ in the way he let his police commissioner fall last week. It may be that something terrible will come out, but on the face of it, neither Sir Paul Stephenson’s foolish freebie at a health spa nor his use of Neil Wallis for PR advice looked like resigning matters. Although people often complain ‘Why does no one resign any more?’, we are now living in a period when people resign too often. Elected leaders should usually defend unelected public officials until iniquity is proved against them. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes just ‘Sauve qui peut’. If the Mayor had come out strong for Sir Paul, he could surely have survived, and the policing of London would have been more stable as a result.
The day after Breivik carried out his atrocities, we visited the Alhambra in Granada — thanks to the kindness of friends, by night. There you can see in stone the results of civilisational conflict. The Alhambra complex, Moorish and therefore Muslim, is overlooked by the palace of Charles V, built in early mannerist style. Modern guidebooks tend to disparage it as the ruthless assertion of victory over Islamic culture. It is partly that. But then how many great buildings are assertions of defeat? Besides, the palace is beautiful, especially in its graceful patio within. Its existence also pays a compliment to what it conquered, since the Emperor, rather than destroying the whole place, built his palace so that he could contemplate its glories. Standing in the patio of the palace under the stars, I could not regret the Reconquista; but descending through the Hall of the Ambassadors or testing the acoustics in the Court of the Lions, I did not feel that I was forbidden from admiring them. With the passage of time, the importance of who wins, who loses fades: the tourist has the luxury of enjoying the best of both. But no doubt, in 1492, there were Breiviks on either side.
When I first visited Spain 35 years ago, a substantial minority of the population still wore distinctive dress — a particular sort of beret, for example. On this occasion, I did not see a single person wearing anything you could call Spanish. Even the policemen merely looked vaguely continental. Everyone wore international casual clothes. Yet the overall, elegant impression is quite different from that of a British crowd. It is to do with what the wearer thinks clothes are for. In Spain, they are to please others. In Britain, they are to please ourselves. As a result, it is the British who always look so displeased, and displeasing.
I t is moving to watch Otto von Habsburg’s obsequies on YouTube. A man in tails bangs on the door of the Capuchin Church in whose crypt the emperors are buried and calls out the numerous titles of the dead man (Duke of Auschwitz is one). The monks on the other side of the door say ‘We do not know him’. Only when the man in tails says, ‘Otto, a mortal, sinful soul’, do they open the door and admit the coffin. I also watched a clip of a speech in which von Habsburg described Europe as ‘an old reality’. If he had come to the throne on the death of his father, and lived this long, he would have reigned for 89 years. Instead, bits of his former empire were controlled by Hitler, Stalin, Rákosi and Kurt Waldheim. Oh for the old reality.
the spectator | 30 July 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk