The importance of party conference speeches – such as the one David Cameron delivered from Manchester on Wednesday 2 October – is vastly overrated. They are built up for weeks but forgotten in minutes. Perhaps the wisest speeches should be designed that way. There are dangers in a speech that is rapturously received. It can inflate expectations against which the leader is then harshly judged. A conference speech is like a low, electrified hurdle: as long as you don’t crash headlong into the voltage, it doesn’t much matter how high you leap. It is sometimes better to jump the obstacle with restrained economy and a lack of fuss, implying that there are more important things to be getting on with. A muted success, paradoxically, can leave a leader better positioned than a barnstorming triumph.
I learned this lesson the hard way. When I was captain of Middlesex, the club hierarchy made use of how I didn’t mind giving speeches to large audiences. They wheeled me out at forums and AGMs, encouraging me to “gee up the members” and “give everyone a lift”.
One season, as often happens in sport, the (successful) AGM was followed by a moderate run of early-season results. I was surprised to find my job instantly under threat. A senior club official explained why: “You were so confident and optimistic at the AGM that everyone left thinking we were going to have a spectacular season. Then it didn’t happen straight away.” A good speech had weakened my long-term position.
The point is that the AGM was not the real cricket season, just as the party conference is not real government. The AGM was just something that I had to negotiate and survive before moving on to my real job, which was to win cricket matches. If I’d been shrewder, I would have known that unflashy competence is sometimes the best you can hope for. It demands an unusual kind of bravery for a politician to behave like that. They are constantly pressured to articulate a grand vision. “The blandness of our pygmy politicians,” a recent feature in the Sunday Times complained, “reflects . . . an age devoid of big ideas.” An accompanying illustration portrayed David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg cowering in the shadow of Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, whose faces were carved into a British version of Mount Rushmore.
The cult of heroic personality fits neatly with the demands of the modern news cycle. The media nurture the idea of politicians as football managers: executive overlords with a constant and easily defined purpose, governed by stopwatch timekeeping and answerable to an expectant crowd. Will he produce a good speech/performance at the conference/cup final? How many more defeats can he survive? It is conveniently dramatic to imagine politics as a never-ending football season, punctuated by a series of contests that can be clearly categorised in terms of victory or defeat.
Yet the image of dazzling individual performances on big-match occasions doesn’t accurately describe politics – let alone government. Of all Cameron’s speeches, the idea that has stayed with me most clearly is the one that I like the least: last year’s conference refrain about “the global race”. Many pundits loved it for its catchy simplicity, its sense of a nation metaphorically called to arms. I thought it sounded like a soundbite cooked up during a conversation between a focus group pollster and a postgraduate studying for a Master’s in international relations.
In his essay “On Being Conservative”, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott explicitly warned conservative politicians against presenting an overarching, simplistic solution to every problem. The adolescent attraction of heroic leadership, Oakeshott argued, was intrinsically unconservative.
Oakeshott described what he called “the conservative disposition” as the ability to grasp “the inventiveness, the changefulness, the absence of any large design”. Oakeshott’s ideal conservative politician was suspicious of the “jump to glory style of politics in which governing is understood as a perpetual takeover bid for the purchase of the resources of human energy in order to concentrate them in a single direction”.
Far from hoping that the conservative politician would aspire to be a flashy star player, Oakeshott wanted him to have more in common with the referee – “strong, alert, resolute, economical and neither capricious nor overactive”, and careful to avoid “always blowing his whistle”.
Instead of setting the agenda, he holds the right balance; in place of vision, he seeks informal compromise; far from using logical arguments to pursue utopia, he has a nonrational grasp of his particular era and its demands. These are the features of an Oakeshottian conservative. “What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . He is disposed to indicate assent or dissent, not in absolute, but in graduated terms.”
But this version of conservative politics clearly does not easily lend itself to a rousing speech at a party conference. After all, when did a referee ever make a great story, unless, that is, he’d made a huge blunder?
We are conditioned to think that political leaders must approach conference as an opportunity to articulate a catchy idea. I’m not so sure. Ed Miliband certainly captured the news cycle with his promise to freeze energy bills but it remains to be seen whether he will end up grateful that the idea found traction. There is an art in avoiding hostages to fortune and much to be said for getting through the conference season without resorting to picking a “big idea” out of thin air.
David Cameron is often criticised from the right flank of his party for not being conservative enough. Ironically, he may be more conservative than even his detractors would think.