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The decline of political speechmaking

By Philip Collins

8 min read

informed Summary

  1. The evolution of language since the advent of the printing press has led to continuous criticism about its decline, especially in political rhetoric.

For as long as there has been writing, the accusation has been levelled that more will mean worse. Ever since William Caxton lamented in 1490 that, no sooner had he invented the printing press than “our language now used varyeth ferre from that whiche was used and spoken when I was borne”, the alarm has been sounded about decline. And, indeed, we have a prime minister who talks about putting things in “buckets” when he means getting his priorities right. His predecessor Liz Truss talked about growing the pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice. The former health secretary Matt Hancock went full business power-talker when he described harnessing “the mission-driven capability of Team Health and Care”. Keir Starmer was no better in his recent piece in the New Statesman. Clichés clashed with mixed metaphors in pursuit of galvanised government: “the missions need to be real and rooted in people’s lives—in each case a North Star to keep our eyes on the prize”.

Political language, like politics itself, is at a low ebb. But the reason why is more complex than it might at first seem. It is tempting, and in fact common, to allege that today’s politicians are worse than they once were. Yet British politics still recruits from the same cadres it always did. Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins were career politicians just as much as Wes Streeting and Rachel Reeves. They seemed broader not because of the books that were in front of them but because they had war service at their back. David Cameron and George Osborne were clever boys from public schools who went to Oxbridge. So were Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler. Has the political elite become somehow systematically more stupid? No, there is something else going on.

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