I loved Obama's speech unreservedly. So there

Obama gave a well-written, brilliantly delivered, and - for the US - subversive inauguration speech. Why was the reaction of many UK progressive commentators so hysterically cynical?

I sometimes get the sense there is a widely-held belief that dissent is inherently more intelligent than approval. Twitter is a good demonstration of this. Say anything – make the most uncontroversial, most incontrovertible statement you can think of – and seconds later somebody will pop up with sophistry about why it is as terribly wrong as wrongetty wrongness can be. It is the currency of the world.

This is the only way I can explain the hysterically cynical reaction of UK progressive commentators to Obama’s inauguration speech, on Monday. While I joined hundreds of millions around the world watching one of the most important speeches of one of the most powerful people, my timeline was littered with “boos”.

The general tone was yeah, yeah, yeah words are cheap (not their words, mind you, only Obama’s words), this is only rhetoric – his actions are right-wing, tweeting articles about his terrible record in the Middle East, environmental issues, the use of drones. All valid criticisms. All setting the reality of his last presidency against the rhetoric of his speech. All raised at the wrong time. All ignoring what was happening right at that moment.

We would all be falling over ourselves to congratulate a Hollywood actor or Church of England archbishop for delivering the very same speech. Even though neither has real power to do anything about it. Even though their speech is likely to be heard by a tiny proportion of the people who heard Obama’s words yesterday. So, which is it? Do words make a difference or not?

Because the reality of that moment was that his brief was a rhetorical one. What is required of a President in his inauguration speech is – have you guessed it yet? – a speech. And it was a bloody well written, brilliantly delivered, historic speech. That is what passed these commentators by, while their own jeering was ringing in their ears. I applaud you for taking him to task over his policy failures. I do the same. But is it too much to ask we start on Tuesday and treat this seminal occasion with the joy it deserves?

If I had told you ten years ago that a black man would be standing on Capitol Hill delivering an address which spoke kindly and fairly about women, ethnic minorities, gay people, action on climate change and free healthcare, you would have laughed at me with the same cynical sneer that curls on your lip as you read this.

Rooted at the core of this discontent are fundamental misunderstandings about US politics. A failure to understand the task faced by a President with no majority in the legislature. You define Obama as right-wing, but fail to see that this is only according to arbitrary fictional standards. Within the reality of what is politically possible in the US, he is practically a subversive. If all he manages to leave behind is healthcare for hundreds of thousands who had no access to it before, marriage equality and a chink in the impenetrable armour which resists gun regulation, he will have been on balance a very good President indeed.

What would you rather? That he came out and made a speech about the dangers of immigration, shirkers versus strivers and drawn curtains? Only last week you were explaining how damaging this sort of language can be, when used by our PM. And yet, when one of the most important people in the world uses his most visible rhetorical platform to speak in the language of hope and fairness, you slate him nevertheless, because you predict he’ll do nothing.

But he already did something. His words set absolutely the right tone to his second term. His words will make it a tiny fraction more difficult to bully the gay or brown kid in schools everywhere. His words will make it a tiny fraction more difficult for our PM to continue using the language of fear. His words warmed the heart of this olive-skinned, immigrant poof.

Two weeks ago many of the same people were up in arms about three words used by a columnist in the New Statesman. We recognise the capacity of words to oppress and hurt. Why not their capacity to lift and heal? Which is it? Do words make a difference or not?

Actions speak louder than words, or so it goes. That doesn’t mean words don’t matter. Well-chosen, passionately spoken words have the power to change people’s hearts and minds. I may not always be on board with Obama the President. But Obama the Orator is a different matter. It saddens me that so many cannot tell the difference.

President Obama on the platform in front of the Capitol Building for his second inauguration. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle