Last week in Dudley, and likely to be remembered as the “Boris the Builder” or “I am not a communist” speech, Boris Johnson attempted to lift the spirit of the country and “build, build, build” out of the ravages of the pandemic still gripping every part of the UK. The speech was a flop.
In view of the Government’s chaotic handling of the virus, side-stepping the problem and distracting the public from the impending catastrophe of Brexit makes political sense. But praying in aid the “New Deal” of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) smacks of desperation and delusion, in serving up a reheated programme of infrastructure projects and previously announced financial commitments.
Four times elected as president, FDR was a popular leader who, after the Wall Street Crash, rescued America from a catastrophic 1930s’ recession by uniting the country and using the remarkable power of government.
This was a “real” deal in every sense of the word. Despite significant health problems, FDR had a belief in his own abilities and leadership, and captured the mood of America and the confidence and trust of the people. In his first inaugural, he said “this great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So first, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.
FDR had more advice for Prime Minister Johnson, who seems intent on turning his back on interdependence and international cooperation, when he said, “I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbour – the neighbour who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others – the neighbour who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbours”.
The Prime Minister – steeped in UK exceptionalism, the legacy of Empire, and the idea of the absolute sovereignty of Westminster – is not team player. During the pandemic, he has refused to learn lessons from other countries or even devolved governments. This has put the UK in the unenviable position of competing with Trump, Bolsonaro and Putin in the league table of mishandled pandemics.
‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’
Throughout history, great leaders have used the power of oratory, words, vision, and ideas in great speeches to win and inspire followers. Today, these qualities are thin on the ground. Instead, political management, sound bites, party discipline, social media, fake news, and overhyped manifestos dominate.
Johnson’s Dudley address had no vision. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 29:18 said, “where there is no vision, the people perish”. Johnson has failed to make the transition from campaigning to governing.
Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, famously said we “campaign in poetry and govern in prose”. Explaining this in the American Prospect magazine, Paul Waldman said, “the poetry of campaigning is lofty, full of possibility, a world where problems are solved just because we want them to be and opposition melts away before us. The prose of governing is messy and maddening, full of compromises and half victories, that leave a sour tase in one’s mouth”.
The Prime Minister finds governing challenging. He likes the broad picture but is less comfortable with details. He loves the job but seems less happy with the work. Boris Johnson speaks to his base, not the country.
His Cabinet is packed with ideologues, pro-Brexiteers and loyalists, but the country, even his own party, is not. And his “isms” may be entertaining for some, but to others, look misplaced and frivolous. Jokers or jesters may have a place in politics, but not in the depth of a deadly national health emergency.
Lessons from America
This lack of vision in our politics is depressing. Our politicians seem afraid of the “vision thing”. But if the Prime Minister wants to borrow from America, then there is a deep reservoir of presidential speeches that capture the mood of different eras, inspire in times of national crisis, and seek to heal.
Some of these have become iconic and have been associated with great moments in US history. Barack Obama’s powerful “Yes We Can” inspired Americans to believe in change and confront challenges and problems.
The “new covenant” of Bill Clinton, outlined in his 1992 Democratic National Convention speech, talked about a new pact between citizens and government. We can go back to Theodore Roosevelt and his “square deal”, Harry S Truman and the “Fair Deal” and the “New Deal” of FDR.
One of the most under-rated presidents, Lyndon B Johnson, talked about the “Great Society” in transition in the 1960s to describe his aspirations for civil rights.
President John F Kennedy, facing a period of change in the 1960s, used the idea of “the new frontier”, and said, “We stand on the edge of a new frontier – the frontier of hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered problems of poverty and surplus”.
George W. Bush, speaking to the nation from the Oval Office on the evening of 9/11, said, “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundations of America”.
In President Reagan’s eulogy following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew, he said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’”. And in one of the greatest and shortest – just 246 words – speeches of all time, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address embraced the powerful ideas of hope and democracy when he said, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth”.
Prime Minister Johnson should heed the advice given, in a televised debate in 1988, by Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen to the Republican vice-presidential nominee Dan Quayle, who was trying to compare himself with John F Kennedy. Bentsen, in one of the best putdowns in American politics said, “senator, you are no Jack Kennedy”.
At least for now, Prime Minister, you are no Winston Churchill or Franklin D Roosevelt.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.