Thursday, May 11, 2006


Voices: their importance in politics

I always feel a bit winded after a 'passage of play' in politics which has involved lots of events and shocks; beginnings of ends and ends of beginnings. So, to get my breath back, I'm posting on something apparently trivial but actually quite important to politicians' chances of success: the quality of their voices. Some research quoted in Brendan Bruce's 1992 book, Images of Power, suggested that 38 per cent of the impact politicians make via the media, is through their way of speaking. Admittedly, the very emergence onto the national scene indicates some kind of acceptable voice but to make it to the very top with a poor voice suggests compensating talents of some rare order. I've had a go at making two short lists- this time five each (as I can't run to the usual ten); the first of those I don't like; the second those I do.

Voices I hate
I debated whether to include quite a few here, like John Prescott's surly growl or Nigel Lawson's superior drone but ended up with the following as my top five hates.

5. Clement Attlee
How he got to be PM sounding as he did I'll never know-though he is lauded as Labour's best ever prime minister. He spoke in short clipped sentences like a small town accountant or an infuriating minor bureaucrat. Arthur Lowe, Capt Mainwairing in Dad's Army, was an inspired choice for the role as he echoed so well that apalling forties style type diction.

4. Gordon Brown
Gordon has a severe problem with his rumbly old bear of a voice which communicates no joy, wit or interest but only, when raised in the Commons, loud didactic Scottish 'truths'- very boring and he'll bore us a lot more by the time he's through.

3. David Cameron
I know this is prejudiced by my dislike of Tories in general, but that sharp, piping public school voice I find really irritating already. Recently I heard him haranguing Blair at PMQs and thought at first I was listening to the carrot topped Chris Evans- yes, that bad.

2. Ted Heath
Truly awful to listen to. It was the combination of below stairs vowels desperately seeking to sound posh which made him sound so embarrassingly naff. I reckon it was the voice, not the Three Day Week which lost him the election in February 1974.

1. Margaret Thatcher
You've guessed it and I'm sorry to be so predictable. But she suffered a bit from the Ted Heath syndrome of wanting to sound several rungs up the social ladder. But in addition there was that self righteous lecturing, hectoring shout with which she sought to admonish, encourage or persuade. How Dennis put up with it I will never know. I still wake up having had nightmares in which she has been making speeches.

Voices I do like
Quite a few nearly made it,like Churchill's aristocratic lisp and, as I'd decided to borrow from the USA, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. But Winston was a true one off and the others not British so I ended up with the following.

Robin Cook
I never shared the prejudice that he was incoherently Scottish as I found his voice clear, lively and arresting; it was one which demanded to be heard and succeded in being so.

4. Bill Clinton
Well, OK, so I did choose one American; the old charmer was so persuasive. It was/is an intelligent, informative voice which soothed and flattered: no wonder he took the knickers off the American elctorate more than once. [Damn, I should have put George Bush in the 'Hate' list too...]

3. Willaim Waldergrave
Yes, I know he's a toff and all that, but he addressed us as if we were as intelligent as he is in a voice which would have come over very well as a professional broadcaster. Have to confess Michael Portillo nearly made the list too for similar reasons and he has gone into that medium.

2. Cecil Parkinson
Another smoothiechops who flattered and cooed, especially into Maggie's shell like as well as a few other ladies I'm sure. but his voice was pefectly modulated and easy on the ear, making him an effective frontman for Thatcher's indefensible regime.

1. Shirley Williams
Some say she is one of the greatest underachievers of postwar politics while others rubbish her as terminally indecisive and muddle headed. I always liked her enormously and still stop to listen when that full, warm, caring understanding voice issues forth. No wonder her staff in the Education Department would work all night just to hear her say 'thank you'.

I've always found Douglas Hurd's voice rather amusing.
For 'amusing' I'd substitute 'highly irritating'; he didn't quite make it into my 'hate' list, mainly because I'd forgotten about him.
George Osborne's tone is far more irritating than Cameron's, though both deserve a place on the list.
Portillo should be top of the list!
Agree Osborne is irritating and similar to his Notting Hill mate, of course. If he really becomes Chancellor then I suspect he'll become, for me at least, more than just sightly irritating...
Anon: I could quite easily have put Portillo high on my list; he does have a beautifully modulated voice.
I don't know how you could possibly leave Ruth Kelly off that list Skip. Her voice is a uniquely ghastly combination of Mancunian and Estuary English in addition to making her sound like a man. At least Mrs Thatcher had some femininity!

Tony Blair also regularly lapses into Estuary English, but in his case deliberately to disguise the fact that he is a toff. A similar trick was performed by Harold Wilson during his time as Labour leader. He was an extremely clever Oxford don but successfully managed to hide it behind the pipe and all those flat northern vowels.

In stark contrast to this feat of downward social mobility was the case of "Woy" Jenkins. His father was a Welsh miner, but Jenkins actively strove to rise above his humble origins and ended up sounding like minor aristocracy. I'm not quite sure why, as an ambitious Labour politician, he chose to do this. There is no doubt that the plummy accent he deliberately acquired ended up doing him real political damage, not just as a potential Labour leader but also as leader of the SDP. I am sure that the ability to appear ordinary is one reason why Blair and Wilson got to be Prime Minister and Jenkins didn't.

My favourite "Woy" story is the one about his departing speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party after his appointment as President of the European Commission in 1976. "I leave this PLP without rancour," he told Labour MPs. Whereupon Dennis Skinner piped up: "I thought you were taking Marquand with you."
That's a belting little story Paul, thanks. This thing is very subjective of course but I think I agree with you on Kelly- it is a very strange noise she makes- but I've always thought Blair's attempts to 'prole down' is quite endearing in a way.

You are right that appearing 'ordinary' is important and I just wonder if 'Dave' can pull off that trick, longterm, when he is so much more of a toff than any of his predecessors since way back to Alec Home, let alone relatively humble little old TB.
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