May 10, 2013

Why Northern Ireland Politics Needs a Boris Johnson

Margaret Thatcher may have divided opinion but the modern Tory maverick, Boris Johnson unites us all. He is revered and few can deny the political capital that Boris brings to electoral politics.

His personality and buffoonery, underpinned by real substance is political dynamite. What the Boris story tells us is that personality is King.

 As Hugo Rifkind writing in the Times said
‘It’s a rare politician today who seeks to sell himself or herself on the basis of policy alone. We get character, charm, declarations of ethics.’
However, Northern Ireland could be the exception.
We have a deficit double whammy: politics and politicians devoid of both character and policy. For today I’ll keep it simple and just look at the first deficiency.
We don’t have a Boris and Eamonn was right to lament on this. But we can go further: we don’t even have a Denis Skinner, Jacob Rees-Mogg or a Nigel Farage. We could lay claim to Lembit Opik at a stretch.


Frankly, Northern Ireland politicians are a thoroughly ‘dull’ lot. And these aren’t my words, but those of BBC journalist Mark Simpson.
Cast your mind to a given episode of Stormont Today and you’ll see a Plenary session choreographed and scripted to death by speechwriters and SpAds. You’ve seen it before: the elected representative takes to the floor with a pre-fabricated treatise and bestows it upon the world with a slow and painful barrage of logorrhoea.
‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ that don’t mean anything to the common man. Where they could use one word they chose two and where they could speak in Anglo-Saxon plain English they choose a word of Latin origin.
Then when questioned its all evasive language, cliché, euphemism, insincerity and overused idioms.
The politics all feels very ready-made, flat and lifeless.
This reality is perhaps best typified by the Wikiweaks revelation when the former SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie was described by a US official as “wooden” and “burdened with an unpleasant speaking voice”.
It hasn’t always been this way. It’s often recounted that Edward Carson made a massive impression on Churchill following his inaugural speech at the commons and was revered as a barrister.
More recently, Ian Paisley was undoubtedly a compelling speaker of the highest ability. Similar stuff could be said of Gerry Adams who could speak with real cogency.
Though these two political characters really gave meaning to Orwell’s famous quote on political language: 
‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
Anyway here’s the challenge: a vibrant political class is an absolute necessity for ensuring a healthy legislative system and for tackling voter apathy.
As Eamonn Mallie has said previously:
"Never has this election meant so little to so many - apathy is the enemy of all the political parties here."
What political personalities like Boris and Nigel Farage do is awaken the electorate. As the BBC's political correspondent Nick Robinson said on May 3 2013 on BBC News at 6:
"Like Alex Salmon and Boris Johnson; Nigel Farage can reach parts of the electorate that other politicians just can't"
This was echoed by James Foresythe of the Spectator who said in a podcast that the Tory party needs their own Nigel Farage cult of personality. Asked why, he responded:
"Because Nigel Farage reaches parts of the electorate that other politicians can't. And if you look at the Tories they've got one person who can do that and that's Boris Johnson. And I think in 2015 David Cameron has got to find a way to use Boris Johnson. Because there's going to be a massive story: what is Boris doing? Is Boris going to come back as an MP? Does Boris want to be a leader?
I think that Cameron should indicate pretty soon that Boris is going to be campaign chairman, because that is somebody who can talk to the kind of people that Nigel Farage is currently reaching. Brings together the Tory family."
Charlie Brooker in the Guardian went further and explained why the Boris' and Farages of this world can do what other politicians can only dream of:

'Farage, like Johnson, appears to be genuinely enjoying himself most of the time, like a delighted Aquaphibian guffawing in a bumper car. And this enjoyment instantly endears him to a huge section of the population on a level that transcends – or at least sidesteps – politics. Many people who hate Nigel Farage the reactionary throwback find themselves liking Nigel Farage the chortling oaf. Being a chortling oaf not only makes you critically bulletproof – oafish chortling being a perpetual escape pod – it functions as a kind of cloaking device, somehow obscuring the notion that you're a politician at all. Farage and Johnson are widely viewed as down-to-earth outsiders, despite their backgrounds and policies marking them out as anything but. 
In other words, the best way to succeed as a politician is to pretend that you aren't one. Which is both an interesting philosophical bind, and a hell of a mess for the future.'

So we need to front up to this paucity of personality. To do so, let’s go lateral and ask: why are our politicians so dull?
Firstly, the Times columnist Tim Montgomerie speaking on Radio 4 really came onto something.
To paraphrase Tim: modern politicians haven’t commanded men in uniform like past generations or presided over successful businesses.
Unquestionably there’s an advantage in having a crop of politicians who’ve done their time in the real world; men and women who are at the top of their game who can then apply their experience learnt at the coal face in speeches and the days affairs.
Secondly, in Northern Ireland we have a fascination with being skilled in reading, writing and arithmetic.
What about public speaking?
Look at the Americans. They’re always bright, vibrant and wonderful communicators: a reflection perhaps of the American spirit and their conditioning towards unbridled optimism. The fact that public speaking is at the core of American education system could teach our policymakers a lesson.
The truth is that we in Northern Ireland are pretty weak on communication skills. It certainly doesn’t help that we’re conditioned towards a bizarre blend of cynicism and modesty where nobody wants to put their head above the common whole. Just think about what it’s like for a young person to show intelligence in the classroom – it can be positively dangerous.
Our society is more about taking and knowing your place.
The famous American Dale Carnegie, author of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living wrote a seminal piece on learning the rudiments of public speaking.
‘As I looked back and evaluated my own college training, I saw that the training and experience I had had in public speaking had been of more practical value to me in business — and in life — than everything else I had studied in college all put together. Why? Because it had wiped out my timidity and lack of self-confidence and given me the courage and assurance to deal with people. It had also made clear that leadership usually gravitates to the man who can get up and say what he thinks.’
The irony here is that Dale Carnegie is the man who wrote that ‘any fool can criticise, condemn and complain’. However I really feel that there’s something in my critique. The Northern Ireland electorate need not reconcile itself to a permanence of bland and utterly uninspiring politicians.


We can’t teach ‘Borisness’ or coach our politicians to be like Obama, but we can educate our young people in public speaking and recruit men and women who’re genuinely skilled orators. Just look at Jim Allister’s speaking skills: he spent years at the bar as a practicing barrister.
If all else fails Stormont could just buy the class of 2015 the classic book on good political oration by Aristotle, On Rhetoric. Then the current stock of politicians would learn the fundamentals of good public speaking: ethos, pathos and logos. Whatever that means…
(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)


Update:

Boris gives us an insight into his secret from 2004 interview with Independent:

‘I think it’s important to remember that most people find politics unbelievably dull, so I don’t see any particular vice in trying to sugar the pill with a few jokes.

http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/8920151/the-wit-and-wisdom-of-boris-johnson-edited-by-harry-mount-review/
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