Michael Foot and the role of oratory in modern politics


Michael Foot was Labour leader when I first stood in St Albans.  In electoral terms he was a disaster, one opinion poll just before polling day even put the Liberal-SDP Alliance ahead of Labour, and in the event they limped in only a couple of points ahead.

His great parliamentary speeches preceded televising of Commons proceedings and although I worked in the House in the late 1970s, I never heard him speak in the Chamber. But many years later I was a guest at the Fabian Society 100th Anniversary Dinner where then opposition leader Tony Blair and Peter Hain were supporting acts to Foot and Barbara Castle. 

Blair and Hain made the staccato, verbless, soundbite speeches demanded by modern media. Foot and Castle were a revelation to me.  Their oratory swooped and soared, great cadences, building sentence upon sentence.  It was like listening to great poets or medieval storytellers.  It was inspiring. The only person I have heard come close in current times is Barack Obama – and even now the oratory is being crushed out of him by the weight of office. We are going to need good narrative to take us through the blood, sweat and toil of the next decade.  Perhaps we could relearn a thing or two from Michael Foot and his generation.


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