Friday, June 24, 2005

 

On Blair, Lying and Political Communication

A politician's main skill in a democracy is that of being able to persuade people. People living together develop 'interests' or things that they want. Left to itself this produces a situation in which groups come to pursue their interests using all means including violence. Democracy, of course, substitutes talk, discussion, negotiation to pre-empt such a breakdown of order. Ability to communicate persuasively is the magic ingredient of civilisation. So politicians are both essential and a necessary evil in that an integral part of persuasion is a tendency to distort the truth so that immediate audiences can be won over. Sometimes politicians are so keen to persuade that they overstep into direct lying as Peter Oborne's recent book The Rise of Political Lying so graphically demonstrates.

This is the context in which Tony Blair's rhetorical abilities have to be considered. He won the leadership of his party in 1994 determined to change it in the teeth of opposition from such elements as the unions and leftwing constituency parties. Inevitably, from the outset, he tended to empahasise one case to his supporters and another to his opponents in the party. So he and fellow+ modernisers claimed that privatised enterprises would be taken back into the public fold when talking to unions but ommitted such an emphasis when addressing those wider audiences who supported privatisation. That he kept so many people happy for so long is a testimony to his skills but inevitably such gifted politicians tend to contribute towards their own demise as audiences overlap and people begin to compare notes.

Blair has often been compared to Ramsay MacDonald, a vain and shallow former leader of the party who ended up jumping ship and working in coalition with the Tories. Many critics see Blair's colonisation of the middle ground as tantamount to the same thing. But I would argue that Blair's outstanding communication gifts make a nearer comparison, The Welsh Wizard- David Lloyd George. Here was a man blessed with an amazing facility to persuade but which eventually produced a majority of people distrusting him, with the result that his political career in office virtually ended in the early 1920s.

Blair's speech to the European Parliament on 23rd June demonstrated to a European audience the same sublime persuasiveness. Many MEPs were wound up to jeer and attack the person blamed(unfairly) for torpedoing the European budget negotiations but he succeeded in disarming them and presenting such a case that many ended up not rejecting but endorsing the alleged Euro renegade. Robin Cook was right to name him as the outstanding political communicator of his generation, exceeded only, perhaps by Bill Clinton when in office. But wheras Lloyd George, and Clinton for that matter, eventually ran out of people whose trust he could win, Blair is not done yet. He is still at the height of his powers and likely to relish being in post for long after Gordon Brown thinks the removal vans outside number Ten are overdue.

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