It is mean of me to single out Mrs May. Very few modern politicians are good at oratory. The Prime Minister is very far from being alone. But, inevitably, because prime ministers’ speeches tend to be rather more important than those of other politicians, Mrs May’s efforts at public speaking are more noticeable than those of others.
The two recent terrorist atrocities (Westminster and Manchester) led, quite rightly, to Mrs May making emotional speeches to the nation from Downing Street. In both cases, her words were well judged. She said what had to be said by our head of government. I stress that I make no criticism of the content of her speeches. But I do have to say that her delivery was simply appalling.
Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches were often extremely emotional in content, but they were always delivered in what one might call a matter of fact tone. There was nothing of the ham amateur actor in Churchill’s delivery. The drama was to be found in the words, not in the way they were spoken. As I wrote that last sentence I realised there was something wrong in it. It was, in fact, the combination of the words and the totally undramatic way in which they were spoken which made his speeches so successful. Mrs May, on the other hand (along with most of her colleagues in the House of Commons) thinks there must be drama in the delivery as well as in the content. Her voice quivers, like that of the worst amateur actress, as she expresses the resolution of the British people to defeat these vile terrorists. She goes in for dramatic pauses. In fact, she uses every trick of the third rate actor in order, she assumes, to convince us that she passionately believes every word she is speaking.
Just listen to Churchill speaking four words. “We shall never surrender”. Now imagine Mrs May saying them. I suspect you will see my point. Churchill knew that his four words would strike a chord in his listeners. To speak them in the manner preferred by the juvenile lead in the village drama club would rob them of their meaning. But Mrs May and, as I keep stressing, most other modern politicians, thinks the words are not enough: they have to be delivered with high drama.
And then her listeners just cringe in embarrassment.
This is a problem which can very easily be overcome. And it certainly ought to be easy for a vicar’s daughter to overcome it (no self respecting vicar, when proclaiming the Gospel, would ever dream of trying to improve the words of the evangelists by indulging in cheap dramatic tricks).
Some will say that I am fighting a lost cause, that the decline in standards of public speaking is inevitable now that politicians no longer address meetings in town halls or stand on soap boxes in market squares. But I disagree, especially in the case of prime ministers. It has become commonplace for prime ministers (I assume they are imitating American presidents) to stride out of Number Ten and stand at a lectern in order to address the nation. If that’s what they want to do I really don’t see why they should not bother to do it well.