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banner Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
The greatest Liberal orators
Former Home Secretary Lord Jenkins of Hillhead confessed a lack of knowledge had never stopped him from using similes and metaphors in speeches about an issue, as he took a tour of great Liberal oratory.

It was his use of imagery which was particularly singled out by former party leader Paddy Ashdown when he introduced his fellow peer at the Liberal Democrat History Group fringe meeting on speeches and speechmaking.

Lord Ashdown cited an example from a Lord Jenkins lunch speech last week, when he talked of new Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith and his shadow cabinet.

"He said he thought it was a bit like hanging a 'Do not disturb sign' on the bedroom door, and with a characteristic flourish he added: 'Which is alwight if you are having fun inside'."

In a broad historical sweep, Lord Jenkins contrasted the oratory styles of great Liberal speakers since Palmerston in the 1850s.

Speech seduction

He spoke of Gladstone, who with his words could hold 10,000 people in a market place for an hour and 40 minutes (his Commons speeches lasted more than two hours) while never remotely playing down to his audience.

And Lord Ashdown was left wistfully shaking his head as Lord Jenkins recited one of Lloyd George's eloquent passages.

If delegates had hoped to pick up some last minute tips for a conference speech, it may be a little late to follow Winston Churchill's example - he spent 10 hours dictating one speech during 1940.

Lord Jenkins said oratory - and debating - was now at a discount in the House of Commons, arguing that nobody could deliver a great speech to just 20 MPs.

"These MPs all have rooms and they all have assistants - they seem to spend their time in their rooms with their assistants!"

Battleground of words

Lord Ashdown stressed the importance of speech making, saying: "I have always thought that words are the battleground of politics."

But even when speeches are made in modern times, they often are never heard by the public, argued Max Atkinson, author of Our Master's Voices.

Since 1968, the average length of soundbites had dropped from 42 seconds to just nine seconds, he explained.

And few politicians had managed to follow Ronald Reagan's example of moderating his speaking style for television without losing the rhetoric.

Televised speeches had been replaced by "tedious and irritating" interviews, he argued.

"With breathtaking regularity, politicians have come to fail on one of the most basic rules of conversation - that questions should be followed by an answer."

Unlike speeches, interviews did not last for posterity, he added, noting that nobody had ever published a book of great political interviews.

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