Are politicians too obsessed with anecdotes?

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

  • Published

Political speeches used to be about big ideas, with rhetoric to match. But nowadays they're full of stories about "ordinary" people. So, what's going on?

Norman Wisdom was one of the greatest clowns in British history. Wearing an ill-fitting suit, his cloth cap askew, the 1950s film star was the epitome of the little man defeating the odds.

Image caption,
Cheeky devil: Norman Wisdom forgot his manners when talking to Winston Churchill.

Yet Wisdom nearly got himself into big trouble when he actually dared to challenge, even mockingly, the authority of Britain's best-known politician.

Working in the early 1940s in Winston Churchill's bunker, part of the communications team trying to defeat Hitler's war machine, he turned one day to the prime minister and called him "Winnie", according to his memoirs.

Wisdom, a young soldier, was put on a charge. Order was restored. Impertinence was no laughing matter.

But what would happen today if a similar figure was to address a political leader in such over-familiar terms and attempt a discussion?

Well, a fair bet is that it would appear as an anecdote in a speech.

Keen to reinforce their image as "ordinary", one of the "people", politicians are now littering their oratory with references to people they have met on their travels - the cancer patients angry at the NHS, business owners bedraggled by red tape, mums and dads just trying to keep the household budget in the black.

'Fitness to rule'

A study by Judi Atkins of Leeds University and Alan Finlayson of the University of East Anglia looks at how many "anecdotes" - stories about their own lives or a re-telling of those put about by people they have encountered - are used in party conference speeches.

In 1990, when Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown led the three big parties, the answer was: zero. Not one homely or shocking little tale of this type was employed to back up their argument.

By 2007, with David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Sir Menzies Campbell in charge, this had risen to 20.

This raises a question: Are politicians getting out more, meeting more "real people", and becoming more "open", or is something else happening?

Dr Atkins and Professor Finlayson suggest it is part of a subtle attempt to get their messages across.

Dr Atkins told the BBC: "It's just another way of them trying to demonstrate their fitness to rule. It's not so much 'I'm a great, powerful leader who is therefore fit to rule.' It's more 'I understand ordinary people, their concerns and hopes. If I'm ordinary to them, I can rule in an appropriate way.'"

An anecdote suggests that the point being made is a view widely shared or that the politician speaks for the wider community.

David Cameron was mocked when, during the first televised prime-ministerial debate in 2010, he recollected talking to a "40-year-old black man", who had served 30 years in the Royal Navy.

The man had railed against the Labour government's record on immigration and the "abuse" of the system, the Tory leader revealed.

'Do something about it'

Yet some intrigued newspaper reporters went looking for the man. It transpired that Mr Cameron had been describing Neal Forde. He was in fact 51, had served just six years in the Navy and, more damagingly for the future prime minister's argument, had quite a nuanced view on immigration.

Mr Cameron's original tale would also have meant Mr Forde had joined the armed forces aged 10.

It was an embarrassing episode.

But, more fundamentally, the lack of specifics in Mr Cameron's comments seemed to lay bare the mechanics of the anecdote. It was obvious that a person in a certain, useful category was being cited to make a point.

Leaders used to lace their addresses with references to statistics, newspaper articles or literature, but the chattier style is now prevalent.

Image caption,
David Cameron's contribution to the prime-ministerial debate attracted extra scrutiny

Take last autumn's conference speeches as an example.

Labour's Ed Miliband tried to emphasise his normality by discussing his childhood as the son of an eminent Marxist academic: "You know there were toys and games, rows about homework. I was actually a Dallas fan, believe it or not, which didn't go down well with my dad, as you can imagine."

Mr Cameron, this time more successfully, used a textbook anecdote when he spoke to the Conservatives using a person's name: "To meet the challenges our country faces, we must have confidence in ourselves, confidence as a party. We've been in office two and a half years now - and we've done some big, life-changing things.

"Just ask Clive Stone. I met him years ago, when we were in opposition. He had cancer and he said to me: 'The drug I need - it's out there but they won't give it to me because it's too expensive. Please, if you get in, do something about it.'

"And we have. A new cancer drugs fund that has got the latest drugs to more than 21,000 people and counting.

"There was a reason we could do that. It's because we made a big decision to protect the NHS from spending cuts. No other party made that commitment."

It cast the prime minister as being on the side of the people, further empowering him with a sense of legitimacy derived from this.

'What do you reckon?'

Nick Clegg's speech to the Liberal Democrats was less explicit in its use of specific anecdote to convey a wider idea. But he made an attempt to look "in touch" when discussing the party's cherished policy of a "pupil premium" worth £900 to help the most disadvantaged children at school.

He said: "Every parent knows how it feels when you leave your child on their first day at school. That last look they give you before the door closes behind them. The instinct to go with them, to protect them, to help them every step of the way. That's how we should feel about every child."

It was less a case of "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" than "I am thinking what you're thinking".

According to Dr Atkins and Prof Finlayson, such anecdotes subvert one of the principles of rhetoric laid down by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that the wisdom of a "notable" person - such as an academic or other expert - is necessary to back up a point.

It elevates the "ordinary", as mocked by the comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, who satirised the modern phenomena of phone-ins and internet chat sites.

In a spoof broadcast, the public were inanely asked "What do you reckon?" about everything: "You may not know about the issue, but I bet you reckon something." The wisdom of the masses was all.

But politicians need all the help they can get in communicating with their fellow humans, with countless commentators and polls saying they are becoming perceived as more, not less, in touch with most people.

Dr Atkins said: "They don't help themselves with things like the expenses scandal, which suggests that they are not ordinary. People can see the amount of taxpayers' money they are spending.

"The use of the anecdote is partly to make things more accessible."

Going back 30 years or more, leaders were just as keen to stress their ordinariness. Margaret Thatcher referred to her upbringing as a shopkeepers' daughter, but this was simply stated, rather than accompanied by stories of stacking shelves or standing at the till.

And Churchill's wartime speeches would not have been more stirring had he recounted how "Norman, a small soldier with a cheeky grin" had told him: "We've got to fight them on the beaches, Winnie."

Times, and politics, have changed.