Political speeches and the true 'greatness' of a nation

By Jill Segger
October 16, 2012

Writing in the Observer on 14 October, the paper's chief political correspondent Andrew Rawnsley presented readers with a composite of the speeches given by the leaders of the three main parties at their recent conferences. It is an amusing swipe at the banalities and dog-whistles of political rhetoric, which you can read here: http://bit.ly/UVtj78 but it is also a reminder of something ugly and delusional which underlies that rhetoric.

Pivoting on a facile representation of national pride - illustrated by a certain gloating tone about the successes of London 2012 - and a braggart insistence that “this is the best country in the world” (words which David Cameron actually used in his conference speech last week), this kind of empty grandiloquence conceals the smallness of our politicians' vision and the meanness of government policy behind a façade of conceit and jingoism. Consider these words from our Prime Minister:“Britain is on the rise, nothing matters more”, Britain can deliver. We can do big things. We saw it this summer. The Jubilee, the Olympics, the Paralympics...the best country in the world...and let's say it: with our Queen, the finest Head of State on earth.”

As our sick and disabled citizens live in fear for their futures: as the Department for Work and Pensions own figures reveal that 55 per cent of people found 'fit to work' by Atos are stripped of their benefits and left without either employment or money: as Housing Benefit and Working Families Tax Credits are cut; as the working poor are encouraged in antagonism towards benefit recipients by Ministers and the right-wing press, and as our NHS is dismantled and sold to Tory party donors, we are offered chauvinistic platitudes and a profoundly impoverished notion of what constitutes “big things”.

There is no doubt that the Olympic and Paralympic Games lifted the nation. But the utterances of many politicians show little understanding of the real reason for this. Of course, there was the pleasure in seeing athletes from the United Kingdom do well, but the lasting message was something utterly different. It was that of co-operation and respect within competition; of a manifestation of our plural and multi-cultural society and of a sense of solidarity which might just survive the high emotion of last summer if we remain sufficiently vigilant to prevent the politicians from hijacking it.

Samuel Johnson's observation that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” pillories the scoundrel – it does not devalue patriotism. Politicians need to learn that virtue must be inseparable from Gandhi's words: "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members." Conflating greatness with acquisition and the acceptance of an hereditary head of state will not measure up.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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