Recently it’s seemed like Britain is going through an extremely difficult adolescence, changing from one thing into another, working out which parts of its old personality to keep hold of and which to shrug off.
In other words it looks a bit like this:
The Brexit vote, the rise and fall of UKIP, the fall and rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and an increasingly difficult relationship with business, Parliament and the media all illustrate this upheaval. Lately I’ve been interested in reading speeches from similar periods of great upheaval in British social and political life and examining how speakers previously made sense of what was going on around them.
I expected to spend most of my time on the social revolutions of 1945 and the 60s/70s. I didn’t expect to find myself reading and rereading a speech less than 20 years old, and I certainly didn’t expect that speech to be by Peter Lilley, who (with all respect to him) hardly has a reputation as a modern-day Churchill. But then I read this:
It’s a fascinating early attempt to rebrand the Conservative party after the bloodbath of the 1997 general election. And it’s important to note that the Peter Lilley of 1999 wasn’t the Peter Lilley of today – a prominent Eurosceptic and occasional rebel, secure enough and comfortable enough to defy the Whips at will. In 1999 Lilley was deputy leader of the party. It was his job to speak for Conservatives across the land. To help lead the party through an electoral Sahara. And he clearly felt that the best way to do this was to admit their shortcomings quickly, publicly and without caveat.
“The public's greatest area of unease about Conservatives is our supposedly hostile attitude to the Welfare State and particularly to Health and Education.”
Or “Conservatives' intellectual body language has conveyed a palpable feeling of guilt about support for the public services.”
Or “Unless and until we are prepared to accept that there is more to life and more to Conservatism than defending and extending the free market, we will always be on the intellectual back foot where the public services are concerned.”
These are huge, bold statements. But they were refined even further, distilled into pure poison, by none other than the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, a few years later, with her famous ‘nasty party’ speech to the Conservative party conference in 2002. The speech is here:
Some party activists would have recoiled at this language, or been offended by it. But here’s the thing. It’s notable that both Lilley and May use their speeches to praise their party leaders. And they don’t denigrate the previous leaders who presided over electoral oblivion.
That’s important and it summarises something important about successful ‘rebranding’ speeches – indeed successful speeches of all types. There has to be both carrot and stick.
The stick is the admission that things can’t go on as they are. It’s the fact that bovine acceptance of the status quo is for some reason unwise or even threatening. It’s the context for your new product or for the activities of your well-established organisation.
The carrot is the incentive to change – the positive rather than negative case. It’s the vision of what will happen if you do buy the new product or accept that organisation’s expertise.
The most successful speakers during times of serious social upheaval all understand this message. Blair, Barack, Bevan. But we can use that model whenever we speak, in order to strengthen our message, write a more interesting speech and arrive at a more compelling more effective narrative.