Friday, February 18, 2005

Listen with Gladstone

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Voices over

Labour is fighting the general election with verbless slogans like “Forward not backwards” and “Your children with the best start." Soon people will not be able to speak at all – quite possibly in my lifetime.

How different from the nineteenth century! Then thousands of working men would stand in the rain for two or three hours to listen to Mr Gladstone. Lately I have been taking solace from listening to him myself.

It is possible. The other day I went to the bookshop at the British Library. That’s the new building in Euston Road that looks rather like a railway station. It is next-door to St Pancras, which looks very like a national library. There I bought a double CD (Voices of History) of recordings of the great and the good.

The quality of the Gladstone recording is poor. It was made on a cylinder in 1888 and he sounds as though he is broadcasting from somewhere far away. No doubt it could be cleaned up, but it is somehow right that it has not been. With the help of a transcript, you can hear his Victorian optimism: “wonders upon wonders are opening before us”.

Florence Nightingale is also hard to make out, but the rest are clear as day. There are the dictators Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, as well as Trotsky speaking in English. There are the royals, going back as far as George V. There are Lloyd George, Asquith, and two other Liberals: Herbert Samuel and Margaret Wintringham, who was MP for Louth between 1921 and 1924.

Winston Churchill dominates the discs, particularly when set against his Conservative contemporaries Baldwin and Chamberlain – you can almost smell the fusty overcoats as they speak. The odd thing was that for many years Churchill was not seen as a particularly good speaker in the Commons. There was so much preparation that he was unable to deal with interventions.

He also struggled with a tendency to lisp. When Churchill was home secretary and presiding over the Siege of Sidney Street, his deputy Charles Masterman was on holiday in France and becoming increasingly alarmed at the accounts in the newspapers. When he got back he burst Churchill's room at the Home Office with the query "What the hell have you been doing now, Winston?" The reply was: "Now Charlie. Don't be croth. It was such fun."

And then there is Attlee, telling us that we must show the same sense of purpose in peace that we did to win the war. This is the dream that haunted Labour for decades. The idea that socialism involved giving up our liberties for the common good. You still see its effect today, with Charles Clarke’s enthusiasm for identity cards and house arrest.

Which brings us back to the death of civilisation as we know it.

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