Political speeches and the art of silence

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“We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.”
Winston Churchill

Conference season 2023 was notable less for its diverse policy announcements and promises than for something noticeable and widespread across the parties: Silence.

SNP

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf brought the UK party conference season to a close. He affirmed that his SNP remains committed to not being part of the UK party conference season for long. While there was much talk of strategy, Yousaf emphasised that he and his party need to focus on the ‘why’ of Scottish independence, not just the ‘how’.

This was an implicit acknowledgement of the party’s polling numbers taking a hit in recent months, amid organisational turmoil and a general sense of the wheels coming off. It’s not at all clear that the nationalists have the numbers to win a referendum – despite Yousaf’s bullish insistence that he would welcome one ‘tomorrow’. It’s often the case in politics – and communications more generally – that what is not said is as significant as what is said. Hence the art of silence. “Our party is in crisis” said no successful political leader ever.

Conservatives

Ditto, “We are almost certainly going to lose the next general election”. This was the unspoken slogan of the Conservative Party conference earlier in the month. Even in terms of policy, the conference was largely dominated by the art of silence. Until the very end, when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced – or rather confirmed – that the northern leg of HS2 was to be cancelled. Awkward, that, as the conference was held in Manchester, where the high-speed railway line had been due to terminate.

The prime minister’s other major policy announcements were raising the smoking age year-on-year so today’s 14-year-olds will never be allowed to buy tobacco, and scrapping A levels. (These policies presumably had a mixed reception round the back of the bike sheds.) Perhaps Sunak’s boldest gambit, though, was to position himself as the change candidate at the next election. His party might have been in power for 13 years, but he vowed to end a ’30 year status quo’. This effectively meant taking aim at the legacy of Tony Blair, the last major ‘change candidate’ to win big. (And, left unsaid, it also meant distancing himself from former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the one-time ‘heir to Blair’.)

Labour

And that brings us to the bookies’ favourite to replace Sunak in Number 10. Even his most enthusiastic supporters would concede that Labour leader Kier Starmer is not a charismatic speaker. He is no Blair or even Cameron. And his pitch for change is based less on any positive vision for the future than in tapping into a widespread sense that the Conservatives are a spent force. That’s why many observers have suggested his best strategy is to rely on the art of silence.

Starmer’s party conference speech had to reassure conservative-leaning voters that he’s a safe pair of hands. But without saying anything to alienate his left-wing base. In that sense, he could not have asked for a better start than to be glitter bombed by a protestor from the latest offshoot of Just Stop Oil. That both positioned him as ‘too moderate for some’ and handed him his best line: “Protest or power? That is why we changed our party”. He was then able to focus on setting out his priorities when in government, without any particularly headline-grabbing announcements. ‘Dull but determined,’ was the verdict of CNN. Job done, then.

The art of silence

Given that there will almost certainly be a general election next year, it was a relatively subdued party conference season. In part that reflects simple caginess, in part a sense of inevitability that change is coming. It might also be the result of a recognition that, in the fast-moving world of social media, politicians can’t expect to set the agenda with set-piece conference speeches in the way they once did. But they can certainly make fools of themselves by saying the wrong thing. That’s why voters are well-advised to pay as much attention to what politicians choose not to talk about as to what they actually say.

PS – the Liberals may or may not have mastered the art of silence. I’m afraid I can’t remember.

PPS – the art of silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just listen to the collected speeches of the late Queen.