Of Politics, Communication – and the Strength of Silence
Writing memoirs stimulates the brain. Looking back over an array of diaries, letters and government papers I have been forced to weigh up comparisons between then and now which would otherwise not come into my mind. One of the most striking changes over these last fifty years has been in the relationship between taking decisions and communicating them. This is true of diplomacy and politics; I suspect it is true for business and finance and indeed any profession practiced by a reader of this essay.
When I joined the Foreign Office in 1952 Anthony Eden was Foreign Secretary. He was well known as a sophisticated communicator in the idiom of his day. His chosen medium was the House of Commons, of which he was a master — not in terms of eloquence but in skilful reasoned exposition of a case. His own immediate audience was more important then than it is today, but his speeches in the Commons were also fully reported in the serious press. He would supplement them by occasional major speeches in the country, which would also be fully reported. From time to time he would no doubt have private conversations with the Editor of The Times and other significant papers. And that was that.
In the same exercise I found myself looking briefly at an even earlier generation. My grandfather was the Member of Parliament for Frome in Somerset from 1918 to 1923. I have two large albums of local press cuttings of his constituency activities during this time. I have similar but much thinner records of my father’s meetings in the Newbury constituency during the 1950’s and 60’s and my own in Oxfordshire in the 70’s and 80’s. The striking difference is that my grandfather’s meetings and those of his opponents were reported in a detail which seems fantastic today. Nor was this simply a matter of taking down a speech in shorthand. The exchanges with hecklers are scrupulously recorded, so that the report builds up in the reader’s mind the atmosphere eighty years ago of those crowded village and town halls where democracy was at work. In the absence of radio and television these local press reports provided entertainment and political education at the same time.
We have moved into a different and more frantic age. When I was Home Secretary I discovered that my private office and senior officials were catching trains home about an hour later than their predecessors had under Willie Whitelaw a few years before. I asked them when they had an hour or two to spare to research why this was. They returned saying that there was no particular increase in the quantity of policy or administrative work in the Home Office. The increase was overwhelmingly in the hours which they had to devote to equipping the Home Secretary and others to explain government decisions and policy to the outside world. But there is a limit to the hours which even politicians and their advisers can be expected to work. One piece of machinery which has not noticeably developed in the last century is the human body, which still requires hours for sleep and even recreation. Inevitably if more time is inexorably devoted to public communication there is less time for private interchange and thought. Is it politically correct to argue that greater transparency and openness leads automatically to better decision taking? I doubt it. Openness has to be argued in terms of democracy, not efficiency. The irresistible pressures nowadays for immediate comment and reaction can easily crowd out the time which should be spent in considered reflection. Democracy comes at a price.
Openness has to be argued in terms of democracy, not efficiency
It used to be said that in the British Government the Home Secretary was the Minister to whom sudden news was always bad news — an inner city riot, a prison escape, a disaster on a football ground. Now that the world is so much more dangerous I suspect that the Foreign Secretary runs him close in this respect. Suppose for example that two truck loads of British soldiers are blown up one afternoon in Basra. This would not be a new type of disaster. Indeed, the British Army suffered serious reverses in Southern Iraq in the Great War. In that era it would be days before British Ministers would be required to confirm or comment on what had happened. Now, within hours, the Foreign and Defence Secretaries and perhaps the Prime Minister would be compelled not just to give an account of what had happened but to update British policy as a result. Yet there is truth in a lesson which Ted Heath taught me long ago, that the first account you get of a sudden incident is almost always wrong. This is not because your advisers wish to deceive you; they are not in possession of the facts, yet know that you need to hear immediately from them. Within one or two days the picture will be clearer — and different. Yet the Minister does not have those days at his disposal before he explains himself. Moreover, he has to explain himself not once but over and over again, each interlocutor trying to probe into the most sensitive areas. Following one statement which I made as Home Secretary I recorded thirteen separate interviews on the trot covering exactly the same ground — and that was fifteen years ago before the latest multiplication of radio and television.
Is this rush to communicate necessary and irreversible? Ministers, Chairmen of companies, Vice Chancellors of Universities, Chairmen of Hospital Trusts — they are all in thrall to public relations advisers who answer a resounding yes to that question. For such advisers public appearances are a virtue, silence a failure. They are powerfully influenced by the rules of the celebrity culture which dictate that the more often you appear the more successful you are. Celebrity is often a matter of fame without talent. It is like the flame in a fire of wet logs which has to be constantly encouraged by the bellows.
I have to admit that there are good reasons why an actor or a film star should appear as often as possible in public. In these professions appearance is indeed everything — it is what they are about. But the evaluation for other professions is far from clear. For a Chancellor of the Exchequer or a company Chairman, public communication is not an end in itself. Their main purpose is to enable the nation or their own company to thrive. Public communication is a technique which can help, but not their main objective.
Consider for example the choice facing the Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard. His immediate opponent is the Prime Minister who believes in constant communication. Hardly a day goes by without Tony Blair appearing before the people. If Michael Howard fails to take up every opportunity for appearance which presents itself he will certainly be criticised for hanging back. Yet there is another option. He will look at the performance of Gordon Brown, arguably the politician who has grown fastest in power during the last year. Gordon Brown uses silence as a technique. He sits in his Treasury fortress day after day, exerting through Whitehall the formidable power which he has created for the Treasury but not feeling the need to proclaim that power hour by hour. Every now and then he emerges from his fortress to make a significant speech and then retires again. These periods of glowering silence suit the Chancellor’s own personality and serve him well. Now that Michael Howard has created a small but effective team of lieutenants, he might too well find it better to cultivate a certain reserve, so that when he speaks there is an element of rarity about it which compels attention.
The choice is harshest and most cruel for the Royal Family. For them the lessons of history are mixed. The republican cause in this country was strong when Queen Victoria retired into silent widowhood. Her popularity revived when Disraeli coaxed her back into public appearances, and her reign culminated in the triumphs of the two Jubilees. Since then the world of communication has totally changed. The Royal Family is deprived by convention and character of some of the modern means by which others bring their faces and their arguments before the public. The Royal Family cannot argue and debate in the same way as the rest of us. Disraeli and Queen Victoria relied on pageantry, and that magic has not entirely evaporated as each Coronation and Jubilee show. But pageantry is now associated with expense and therefore with envy in a less deferential age. There are some public relations advisers who urge the Royal Family to minimise their difference from other celebrities and to engage wholeheartedly in the different excitements which the modern media provide. When one adviser recently criticised the Royal Family for being out of touch with the real world he was clearly thinking, not of the real world in which most of us live, but of the virtual world of shows and media driven appearances in which he has made his own reputation. The Queen has established her own path through this thicket of advice; on the whole it serves her well and she will not now change it. The Prince of Wales, and now his sons, have a wider and more difficult choice. They need all the time to look for a way in which they can reach ordinary people direct rather than through the exaggerations and distortions of the media. The opportunity presented, for example by the huge range of The Prince’s Trust and the support it gives to so many individual lives is not yet fully used for this purpose.
As ever, it is a question of striking the right balance. We cannot uninvent or ignore the modern media or the culture of celebrity; silence is not really an option for those in positions of authority; but they should not ignore the advantages of well-judged reticence.
|Ten most respected professions||Ten least respected professions|
|1||Doctor||1||MP (Least Respected)|
|8||Ambulance Driver||8||Car Dealer|
|9||Police Officer||9||Company Director|
|Source: BBC Radio 4 Today Programme|
Do Women Rule The World? Current female political leaders
|Bahamas||Governor–General Dame Ivy Dumont|
||Prime Minister Khaleda Zia
||Premier Jennifer Smith
||Governor–General Adrienne Clarkson
||Queen Margrethe II
||President Tarja Halonen
||Queen Elizabeth II
||President Megawati Sukarnoputri
||President Vaira Vike–Freiberga||1999–present|
||Prime Minister Mirna Louisa–Godett
||Governor–General Dame Silvia Cartwright
||Prime Minister Helen Clark
|New Zealand (Maori)
||Queen Te Ata–i Rangi–Kahu Koroki Te Rata Mahuta Tawhiao Potatau Te Wherowhero||1966–present|
||President Mireya Moscoso
||Prime Minister Beatriz Merino
||President Gloria Macapagal–Arroyo
||Governor–General Dame Pearlette Louisy
|Sao Tome and Principe
||Prime Minister Maria das Neves
||President Chandrika Kurmaratunga
|Source: Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership/Prospect magazine
Only five countries have never had a single female member of government: Lebanon, Monaco, Saudi Arabia, Tonga and The Vatican.
Lord Hurd of Westwell, British Foreign Secretary, 1989–1995, and is President of Montrose Associates.