Political speeches can be odd things. A speech that wows its audience as it is delivered, bringing hundreds to their feet in rapturous applause, over time becomes lacking in meaning and has little real impact. Alternatively, a speech seen at the time as dull and routine can grow in significance as the full meaning of its content becomes clear.
It remains to be seen whether the universally acknowledged dullness of Alistair Darling’s budget speech this week is a true reflection of its importance. However, for me at least, Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Liverpool on the 9th March has already grown in significance over the last fortnight.
In my review of conference post I said that the speech was a kind of “this is who I am and this is what I believe” speech. I now think that there was more real politics to it than that. While perhaps not immediately obvious, it contains some significant shifts in approach for the Party and some real pointers to the kind of direction Clegg is thinking of leading us all in.
The one shift I spotted while listening to the speech in the hall was on tax. I remember I lent over to the friend I was sitting next to and said, “Oh, that’s new”. Clegg declared;
“So if, before the General Election, we find we can deliver our objectives with money to spare, we shouldn’t look for new ways to spend it. We should look for new ways to hand it back, especially to those who need it most.”
We have been on a journey in policy terms from the tax raising days of the “longest p in history”, the penny on income tax to pay for education, to our current position of not increasing the tax burden. However, it looks like Clegg wants to go further and is opening up the possibility of the Lib Dems becoming a “tax-cutting” party.
The other thing I sort of half noticed at the time was how Clegg dealt with the hung parliament and coalitions issue. I enjoyed the rhetorical effect of the “No…No” segment of the speech and the way he dealt with the audience heckling. I also noted the careful use of language. They way he appeared to say a lot but in a way that still gives him an awful lot of room for manoeuvre if needed. However, it was the media coverage of this bit that has made me look again and recognise its real significance.
For a long time I have been concerned that the Party has failed to find a language in which to talk about hung parliaments and so on in a way that has authenticity. Our awareness of the huge pitfalls that such discussions can open up has made us speak about this in a way that most people find, well, odd. I thought this became glaringly obvious during the leadership election when both candidates struggled to sound convincing. There were moments that even had me wanting to shout, “can we have a straight answer to a straight question please”.
Yet, in this speech Clegg appears to have found a way to approach this that works.
The third area is the subtle, but hugely, significant change in tone. Neil Stockley has written an extremely good post about this. He points out that, while this was a speech that only a liberal could make, it only used the word ‘liberal’ 2 times. Instead the word ‘Britain’ was used 30 times.
I haven’t counted the number of times the word “system” was used in the speech, but it did seem to appear frequently. Throughout the speech a constant theme was how people had been “let down by the system”, how the Liberal Democrats were the only party on the side of the people against the “system”, and that we are the only party with a genuine commitment to reform the “system”.
Clegg’s commitment that we will see more actions like the walk-out over the euro-referendum, the claim to being an ‘anti-establishment’ party, the stories of how individual people were struggling to deal with the ‘faceless’ bureaucracy of the modern state, and the recognition that we need to do more than just polish our green credentials but find ways to convince people that environmental change is doable are all evidence of this shift in tone
It is a change in tone that I am entirely comfortable with. If Nick Clegg can make this shift more than one of tone and nuance, make it a real change in the way the Party argues and campaigns, then I might even start getting enthusiastic about it.
I think Nick Clegg might be inching his way towards that elusive ‘narrative’ that everyone seems to be looking for.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.