I think I must suffer from political deafness. I put these big speeches or PMQs or whatever on my headphones, and I listen, full of excitement, but I drift off in a few minutes and start reading the sports section. Then I start awake again as people around me start going on about how Miliband won on points, or – in this case – how David Cameron gave an epoch-defining speech which will forever change Britain’s relationship with Europe or has crushed Ukip’s tatty rebellion under his polished Oxford brogues.
Anyway. I wondered if part of the problem was hearing it spoken: I figured politicians are quite boring people, so I thought I’d try reading the words. And it turns out it is actually much more interesting, so I recommend you do the same, undistracted by Dave’s “serious face” that he uses for when he’s talking about the sacrifice of our Brave Men And Women Of The Armed Forces (if you haven’t seen it, imagine that you’re doing the crossword while on the loo, and are stuck on a particularly tricky 14 across), or his odd habit of leaning back from podium as though in a high wind and then swivelling gently from side to side like a large, fleshy desk fan.
Still, I couldn’t help but be struck by something. Surely a statement is only interesting or valuable if its opposite is likely, or at least plausible: so if I were to tell you that “I like nice things”, you would probably consider that a waste of your time. But an incredible number of statements in Cameron’s speech, were you to turn them around, would be ludicrous. This isn’t, I hasten to add, a specific criticism of Cameron. Every politician does it. But still, it’s worth taking a look.
The one I first noticed was in a reply to Adam Boulton of Sky in the questions: “I want a Europe that is active, forward-looking, and good for Britain”. You heard it here first: Dave does NOT want a Europe that is passive, backward-looking, or bad for Britain. Glad you cleared that up, D-Cam.
But there were many other examples. Could a politician really say that Britain is “characterised not just by its dependence on others, but its closed-mindedness, too”? If not, why is his praising our “independence and openness” noteworthy? Would a politician ever say “I want to pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world”? No. Then why is the sentence more interesting with a “never” near the beginning? Would he ever claim that “I want the European Union to be a failure”? One imagines not, so the fact that he wants it to be a success should not come as a surprise.
I could go on, and in fact I will. I want to read the alternative speech, in which Dave calls for a “fatter, more bureaucratic Union, vaguely focused on preventing its member countries from competing”. The one in which he ringingly agrees with his critics: “To those who say we have no vision for Europe, I say that’s right, we do not”. The one where he puts out the clarion call for less cooperation and more squabbling, for less flexibility and more rigidity. The one where he daringly says “Some things should be off the table”. The one in which he argues for “simply hoping a difficult situation will go away”.
What’s sad is that the speech had plenty of substance. He has promised an in-out referendum, which no one quite believed he would do: he also said, boldly, that he would be campaigning for “in”. It is, people who know about these things tell me, quite a big deal. But like every politician, he seems to feel that the meat of policy needs to be sprinkled with a fatuity seasoning and served with a side of the bleeding obvious. Or maybe I’m wrong, and these things can’t be taken for granted. In which case, let it be known that I, too, am in favour of good things, and against bad things.