Fluency with language is one of the basic skills of political leadership. Politics is the art of persuasion, democracy is the duty to explain, and language is the means.
But so far the British general election of 2017 is a contest between the inarticulate and the incoherent, with a dash of innumeracy in the unimpressive mix.
Why does political language matter? Because when a candidate cannot pithily convey the core of his/her strategic judgment for the country, it probably means they don’t have much of a judgment to convey.
Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn has shown the slightest flair for phrase-making. This is not a superficial point, but a reflection of the fundamentally flawed nature of both contenders for national leadership.
We can choose between two sorts of failure to explain: lazy thinking (J. Corbyn: ‘Mmmm… well, it will cost a lot….Yes, I do know the figures…. Can we come back to that?…’); or desperate obfuscation (T. May: ‘Nothing has changed, nothing has changed’ on social care). One implies that costings don’t matter, the other that the public doesn’t need to know. Either way, these embarrassments are not accidents, but the result of poor strategy. Neither of them has thought through the hard choices, and that’s why they equivocate under pressure. May matters far more than Corbyn because she is still more likely to be carrying national responsibilities after the election, despite her diminishing poll lead.
Elections are exercises in framing national challenges in language that gives the voters a choice of directions to take. Up to now, the British have been less well served than the voters of France and even the voters of Iran, in the two most important elections of 2017 so far. Germany’s will be important too, but that lucky country has a choice between two able candidates, whereas France and Iran had available a disastrous option, and both electorates refused to take it. They were given clear direction by the deserved winners.
Hassan Rouhani was confrontationally honest about the choice between his reformist approach and the harsh alternative.
Emmaneul Macron had the political courage to call out the incompetence of anti-European populism and challenge Marine Le Pen with deadly facts. This was an uplifting contrast with ‘Brexit means Brexit’, an evasion of the strategic choices on which voters deserve some sense of direction. Brexit might mean anything from trying to preserve as much as we can of the benefits of the single market, to a sudden rupture of supply chains and export markets, with catastrophic consequences that are deliberately not being spelled out.
The Prime Minister’s speech last week is an exercise in wishful rather than strategic thinking. ‘If we get Brexit right, then together we can do great things…..’ But there is no guidance to her judgment of what is right, except that we will ‘pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement between the UK and the European Union’. What sort of agreement does that mean, broadly speaking? There is no clue to British strategy on the compromises necessary to negotiate such a deal. Where is the balance to be struck between continued free movement of goods/services and end of free movement for people? We cannot have both, but the electorate will not detect that hard reality from campaign rhetoric. Debating that balance might be a useful function for a general election. It would have been even more useful in the referendum campaign. It is inaccurate (to be courteous) for the Prime Minister to say we voted with our eyes open last year: the wickedly difficult choices, between a range of bad options outside the EU, was artfully concealed behind the slogan ‘take back control’.
The only firm position offered to voters now is that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, which, as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has written, is either empty or nonsensical. There is no acknowledgement in national strategy of academic studies showing that all known options available to us (the Norway or Switzerland models, using WTO rules etc) would shrink our economy, or that no deal would in fact be worse economically than any conceivable deal that Britain might be forced by necessity to accept. Necessity? For countries to trade with each other they have to agree some rules, and there will be none between ourselves and our biggest market if we have ‘no deal’.
Our chief national negotiator’s language is literally vacuous (Oxford Dictionary: ‘Having or showing a lack of thought or intelligence; mindless.’)
Of course, no negotiator would give away detailed positions of use to negotiators across the table. But skilled negotiators use public language to strengthen their position, put the other side under pressure, build consent for tough choices and prepare the public for the consequences. A strong leader writes the narrative that shapes the outcome. The Prime Minister has either failed to convey her strategic judgment if she has one, or her empty language shows she hasn’t grasped the grimness of the choices, even in private.