Sunday, 16 December 2012

What Ed Miliband needs to learn from Demosthenes

It is imperative that the parliamentary opposition in the UK gets its act together.The  proposed 'Welfare Uprating Bill' is set to abolish the 80-year-old connection between benefits and living standards. The bill ELIMINATES the honourable principle that the income of those on benefits should rise proportionately with inflation/cost of living.  It will be very difficult for any government ever to reinstate this principle. Britain’s poor will be pushed down the slipperiest of slopes.

It is sickening enough that George Osborne, the Chancellor behind this venomous piece of legislation, is heir to a baronetcy, has an inherited fortune of £4 million, and was educated at St Paul’s School (fees currently £29,466 p.a.).  But my nausea level rises even more at the Orwellian name of the bill. The OED says that ‘to uprate’ means ‘raise to a higher standard’, ‘upgrade’, ‘improve the performance’ or ‘increase the value’ of something. The bill does none of these things to the living standards of Britain's poorest. It really needs to be called the 'Social Security Drastic Reduction Bill.'

Whatever the Labour Party’s (hazy) position on the bill, one thing is certain:  it will be painful to listen to Ed Miliband’s speeches on the topic.  Never has a prominent British politician’s  vocal delivery hurt my ear-drums so badly. I know that this is not his fault, for he has had surgery to correct a deviated septum. But FIVE DAYS with a competent actor or singer could sort him out. He needs to use his chest voice rather than try to make sound in his nasal cavity and squeak through the front of his face. He needs to propel a sustained column of air up through his larynx with the help of his abdominal muscles.

'Démosthène s'exerçant à la parole', J.L. du Nouÿ

Demosthenes the ancient Athenian orator knew that his whiney voice was proving a handicap, so he hired the famous tragedian Satyrus to sort out his breathing. He practised speaking over the roar of the waves and gargled with pebbles.

The worrying thing is that Demosthenes seems to have left it too late to learn to use his whole body in creating sound. His political mission was to stop the Kingdom of Macedonia taking over Athens, and he FAILED. This raises the alarming question  of what history would have looked like if some of the other great speakers had been afflicted by nature with Demosthenic/Milibandian voices and had failed to get vocal training.

If Churchill had sounded like a Bee Gee, how would ‘Fight them on the beaches' etc. have come across? If Martin Luther King had squealed like David Beckham, would we have listened to him when he told us that He Had a Dream? If Miliband doesn’t stop sounding like someone on the Goon Show, no amount of political commitment on his part will Make Poverty History in the UK.

The two friends of Miliband with whom I have discussed this say that he is a pleasant and committed politician who simply despises all PR.  This position may be admirable in principle, but not when the future of Social Security in the UK is on the line. I once had a few singing lessons, have researched ancient oratorical delivery, and could fix the supply of air passing through Miliband's vocal cords in a week. It would make a good TV make-over programme. I will let you know if he takes up the offer.


  1. Is George Osborne himself not reputed to have had vocal coaching? I always think my beloved MP, Nick Clegg, has got a bit of a problem with speaking from the back of his throat.

    I agree with the sentiment entirely. It may seem superficial, but the deciding factors in crucial arguments so frequently. I recently had the experience of hearing the economist Paul Krugman's voice for the first time (on TV) having read his articles for years. There wasn't anything wrong with his voice, but it wasn't terribly commanding. I found myself quite disappointed that his voice didn't have the natural authority to match the intellectual force of his arguments - and I found myself wondering, too, whether had he been possessed of more such a voice, and more such a demeanour, whether his arguments might have figured more prominently than they have. Are our political cultures that superficial? Probably.

    I had a similar experience in the early stages of studying languages, actually, and particularly in classics. Mileage varies on how much to invest in the presumed authenticity of pronunciation, of course, but I was surprised how many of the sample recordings on various CDs and websites suffered from the speakers in question not speaking terribly clearly or terribly well by the standards of any language. A lot were quite amateurish, which is a shame. Delivery can do a lot to sell things.

  2. Pebble-gobbed Demosthenes
    Couldn't speak for want of ease
    Now when all is hocus-pocus
    People have no sense of focus
    They cannot know from where they are
    A plug-&-play particular