Mal Fletcher
Speeches Are An Important Part of Brexit

"Political language," wrote George Orwell, "is designed to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Though many of us will relate to Orwell's sentiment, we hope that on most big ticket issues politicians will eventually break with the rhetoric to get something done.

Sometimes, however, when deadlines real or imagined approach, we can underestimate the role of political rhetoric, missing altogether its function in floating potentially contentious ideas.

In the UK, caught up as we are in the twists and turns of the Brexit process, too many of us are looking for politicos who might give us the "happy ever after" speech.

In recent weeks, speech after voluminous political speech has left many people aching for a much more definitive statement about our national end-game.

This is understandable. After all, top-tier politicians are supposed to set a lead for the future, not merely manage the moment.

True leadership articles vision, prepares strategy and marshals activity, with an infectious sense of positive intent.

The best leaders can inspire us to endure great uncertainty when we need to, because they also point to the sun-lit uplands on the other side of the valley.

Perhaps this is part of the reason for the massive UK success of The Darkest Hour, the filmic story of Churchill’s premiership during part of World War II.

The movie reminds us that, in the not-too-distant-past, Britain has produced leaders who prefered not to sit on fences. Leaders who were capable of providing a narrative for the future, even if it was one that offered nothing by “blood, toil, tears and sweat”.

However, negotiations on something as momentous as Brexit were always going to be messy and  frustrating for all concerned.

The notion that Britain has become too entangled in the EU's multitudinous regulations and myriad internal powerplays was a key factor for many in their vote to leave the Union.

Yet this is now a major contributor to the messiness of the negotiation process and the sometimes clumsy and woolly-headed statements from those charged with delivering Brexit.

Extricating a country like the UK from rules and a philosophy which apply to so many other nations is surely mind-crunchingly difficult.

Prime Minister May and her cabinet could certainly be clearer on what they hope to achieve in the long run and their vision for Britain's future.

But I daresay that even Winston Churchill, for all his magnetism and leadership skill, would have found this Brexit process difficult to navigate.

In times of massive and rapid change, we are right to demand from political leaders a voice of clarity, transparency and hope.

But we must also remain patient and be prepared to endure the drip, drip, drip of public rhetoric, if it helps politicos to guage public response to their ideas. 

In politics, leaders will often give speeches designed to test ideas, as opposed to firmly and finally nailing them to the doors.

We must swallow our sense of frustration, accomodating their need to cast proverbial bread upon the waters, waiting to see what harvest it returns.

I think it was the infamous Jim Hacker of Yes, Minister fame who once said: “I am the people’s leader, I must follow them!”

He was both right and wrong. Hacker was wrong in the sense that leadership is usually about moving people beyond their comfort zones. But he was right in that a conducter must face an orchestra to conduct it well.

Leadership must always hold in tension a vision for the end destination and a keen sense of the capacity of people to accept change.

In the Brexit process there will be no completely happy-ever-after-ending. There never is, in anything involving human beings, despite our best intentions.

I think most Brits accept that the final deal will not suit all of the people all of the time.

For most, it will present areas of genuine concern even if, as seems likely, the sense of unease is tempered by a palpable relief once the deal is actually done.

For one thing, Brexit will inevitably involve economic challenges, certainly in the short term. We must accept that and make space to accommodate it.

That said, we must look beyond the discomfort, trusting that in time the benefits of Britain's innate inventiveness and international connections will help her to readjust, refocus and rejuvenate.

Throughout the process we must collectively avoid hiding our uncertainties behind a curtain of hubris or, at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, replacing realistic optimism with miserable self-flagellation - as a couple of our former Prime Ministers seem wont to do just now.

The Brexit process may seem to feature a little too much political hot air, but it will become a reality soon enough.

For now, it must be seen as presenting us with an opportunity. There’ll be more speeches yet, but we must allow for the testing of ideas.

Brexit must be faced with resolve, patience and a very British sense of realism, this time tinted with a big dash of optimism.


Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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