John Major: It's time to turn our backs on "spin" and "soundbites"

The former prime minister argues that we need a real engagement with democracy, not the meaningless platitudes around which politics now operates
November 8, 2017

As a boy, in the 1950s, encouraged by close friends, I cut my teeth as a public speaker on a soapbox in Brixton Market. Even in a crowded and busy market, some took time to stop and listen or question. No one seemed to resent me or my views. No one was hostile, although many must have disagreed with what I said. Today—as politics has become more rancorous—I have often thought back to that time, and wondered how we lost that tolerance of opposing views.

Certainly, tolerance was missing from the EU Referendum Campaign, when honest and thoughtful political debate was abandoned in favour of exaggeration, half-truths and untruths. No one seemed ashamed or embarrassed by this. Indeed, some revelled in it, which suggests that mendacity is acceptable if it panders to a popular prejudice. Then it is sanctioned by many who know it to be untrue, and welcomed by others whose prejudices are supported by it. And, if delivered with wit and panache, it may even be believed. Some of the media reported what was said—even when they must have known it to be improbable (at best) or untrue (at worst). In this way, the Referendum showcased a deterioration in both the conduct and reporting of our politics.

It is a strength of our democracy that debate on policy is fierce. That is as it should be: policy affects people’s lives. Passions can rise—and sometimes it is right for them to do so. But policy disagreement is not only across the floor of Parliament. Too often, members of the same Party are seen as opponents: not “one of us,” to echo an unfortunate phrase from the 1980s, and this leads to rival camps being formed. These factions—opposing wings of the same Party—fight one another more vigorously than they do their opponents. This is potentially destructive to the Party system, which is the main operating structure of our democracy. The old political adage: “My opponents are opposite—my enemies are behind,” is currently apt for both our main Parties.

The anti-European Right wish to control the Conservative Party: the neo-Marxist Left wish to dominate Labour. Both are making headway in a battle for the soul of their respective Parties. These ideological battles have dangers for our democracy. The rebellious radicals of Right and Left argue for partisan policies that appeal to the extremes of their Party base. As they do so, political divisions widen, consensus shrinks, and a minority of the Party begins to manipulate the majority.

This is dangerous territory. The malcontents should remember that without some effort at consensus our tolerant Party system can become ungovernable. In politics, as in life, consensus is wise, not weak; and tolerance is a virtue, not a failing. If fringes begin to dominate a political Party, the middle ground of their support will turn away in disgust, as the shrillest voices and the most extreme views begin to dominate debate.

The language and tone of politics matters. It can enthuse or repel. Excite or deflate. Uplift or cast down. Clarify or confuse. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley used his oratory to stir up violence. During World War II, Churchill—in Ed Murrow’s memorable phrase—“mobilised the English language and sent it to war.” In the 1960s, the Conservative Enoch Powell inflamed opinion on immigration—and the Dockers marched in his support. Oratory can change public opinion—for good or ill.

Today, we need it to explain complex policy in a way that is easily understood. It is decades since the popular press fully reported speeches in Parliament. The speeches may have been dry, often dull; but, perhaps by osmosis, policy was understood.

“Spin” and “soundbite” has replaced informed argument with meaningless phrases: Labour’s “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”; and the Conservatives’ “Take Back Control” serve as memorable examples of pitch-perfect absurdity.

They convey nothing. They explain nothing. And they are worth nothing. And they can mislead. I once used the phrase “back to basics” and it was taken up to pervert a thoroughly worthwhile social policy.

There are rare occasions when public interest demands “an economy of the truth”; but, in the main, clarity – and honesty – really is the best policy. And by honesty, I mean more than simply straight-talking. I mean honesty in facing up to challenges; honesty in acknowledging fears or dangers; honesty in action; and honesty in admitting the limitations of Government. Honesty can be politically inconvenient, but less so than concealing the truth.

Honesty commands respect. Slogans do not. Soundbites do not. Spin does not. Honesty is essential in a functioning democracy. I don’t wish to be prissy about this by suggesting that there was some past, mythical age in which everything was perfect. There certainly wasn’t. I wasn’t. But politicians can do better to serve the electorate – and they must do so.

As that young boy across the river, I would never have believed that the weight of that responsibility would ever fall upon my own shoulders. It was a privilege, but a burden too— as it is for all those who bear it. All must ask themselves: Did I do what I believed to be right? Did I speak up—and not be afraid to speak the truth? We are blessed to live in this land.

We are blessed to live in this land. But each and every one of us has a responsibility to keep democracy alive and kicking, and never stifle free speech or freedom of action if it is within the law.

This is an edited version of an extract taken from the One People Oration given as part of Westminster Abbey Institute’s autumn programme Democracy on November 6th