Politicians’ Poets

M.G. Zimeta

‘Comrades,’ Jim Callaghan told the Labour Party Conference in his first speech as leader in 1976, ‘there is a line of poetry which is a good line for socialists, even if it was not intended to be: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a Heaven for?”’ He was quoting Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’. A line of poetry intended to be good for socialists might have been found in Brecht, but Browning would be more familiar, and less alienating, to the wider audience beyond the party.

Margaret Thatcher, in Blackpool in 1987, quoted Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ (‘a humble and contrite heart’), before praising her record in government.

‘Labour’s spin-doctors are trying to convince us they’re doing brilliantly because the NHS is no worse under Labour than it was under the Tories,’ Paddy Ashdown told the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh in 1999:

It reminds me of a line from the famously bad poet laureate, the McGonagal-like Alfred Austin, who wrote ‘On the Illness of the Prince of Wales’, this immortal couplet: ‘Across the wire the electric message came/He is no better. He is much the same.’

A hundred years earlier, William Harcourt, in his speech to the Liberals in 1897, used Pope’s ‘Universal Prayer’ to pretend to lament the struggles of a rival party:

The poet says, ‘Teach us to feel another’s woes...’ He must be a hard-hearted politician indeed who can view without a feeling of compassion the premature decay of the great Unionist majority.

In 1922, Asquith misquoted Gray’s ‘Progress of Poesy’ to jeer at Lloyd George for getting cold feet about calling a general election:

The kite was vigorously flown with the benediction, if not with the manipulation, of the prime minister’s well-known henchmen in the Press and elsewhere. And after floating for a week or two in what the poet calls the azure deeps of the air, and dominating the whole political horizon, it came down with a heavy bump.

‘A poet wrote, “No man is an island unto himself,”’ Ted Heath reminded the Tories in 1973, a few months after Britain joined the EEC. ‘Today no island is an island. That applies as much to the price of bread as it does to political influence.’

‘Keeping our heads as Labour loses theirs,’ David Cameron said this week, alluding, like Thatcher before him, to Kipling.

In his advice to political speech-makers, Aristotle observes that the logos of a speech (the technical content, the logical argument) isn’t enough; you also have to demonstrate ethos (the credibility and authority of the speaker) and pathos (sharing the values and sentiments of the audience): Browning rather than Brecht, Kipling rather than Geoffrey Hill, Donne rather than Neruda.

Tony Blair, in Brighton in 1997, described Milton as ‘our great poet of renewal and recovery’ before quoting from Areopagitica (not a poem, but never mind): ‘A nation not slow or dull, but of quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point that human capacity can soar to.’

It's notable that the poets quoted by party political leaders have almost always not only written in English, but been of English origin: never Scottish, never Welsh. (Gordon Brown misquoted Goethe, without naming him, in 2009: ‘And so I urge you, as the poet said, “dream not small dreams because they cannot change the world.”’)

Jeremy Corbyn’s choice of poets in his inaugural conference speech last week as Labour party leader broke all the rules. He drew on Ben Okri’s 1999 poem ‘Mental Fight’ (its title an allusion to Blake) and Maya Angelou’s foreword to her 2009 Letter to My Daughter (‘You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them’). Neither poet is English, although both are from former British colonies, and Angelou is a woman. Celebrated and distinguished female poets, and poets who are not English, have been writing in our language for as long as British party political leaders have been quoting poetry in their speeches. But Corbyn is the first to acknowledge them.


  • 11 October 2015 at 12:56pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Corbyn is an austere man for austere times. People think he will bring fat pay packets and holidays in Spain. But I am minded of Ewan MacColl:

    "I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way,
    I get all me pleasure the hard moorland way.
    I may be a wage slave on Monday,
    But I am a free man on Sunday."

    • 12 October 2015 at 10:07am
      M.G. Zimeta says: @ Simon Wood
      I didn't know that Corbyn was expected to deliver us fat pay packets and holidays in Spain. He makes me think of Geoffrey Hill ("Against wild reasons of the state / His words are quiet, but not too quiet. / We hear too late or not too late.").

      Thank-you for the MacColl. I would like to see a senior British politician introduce foreign policy and an overseas military intervention with reference to Owen or Sassoon, or a families policy with reference to Larkin ("This Be The Verse"), or a communities policy with reference to Zephaniah - great British institutions all.

  • 12 October 2015 at 12:55pm
    Toyin says:
    Thanks for noticing, sharing and acknowledging this political poetical intervention by Jeremy Corbyn. I'm impressed by the fact that not only did he enrich a stagnant tradition by widening representation of gender, but also ethnicity.

    • 13 October 2015 at 10:05am
      M.G. Zimeta says: @ Toyin
      "Political poetical intervention" is a very good way of putting it - thank-you. I also like the way you characterize Corbyn's act as an enriching and reinvigorating of the tradition rather than an abandonment of it. I hope his decision marks the beginning of a significant change in who politicians of all parties choose to quote - for reasons of both ethos and pathos.

    • 13 October 2015 at 10:17am
      Simon Wood says: @ M.G. Zimeta
      Aye, now get on t'moors, lad, and walk thee.

    • 13 October 2015 at 10:07pm
      GreenMan says: @ M.G. Zimeta
      Interesting piece, thank you.

      On a slightly mischievous tangent, and with reference to the quotation from Geoffrey Hill above, might Iain Duncan Smith have fatally misinterpreted the same lines while preparing his trademark speech?

    • 14 October 2015 at 9:13pm
      M.G. Zimeta says: @ Simon Wood
      Lovely turn of phrase. Yes, I think I will, thank-you.

      And some time make the time to drive out west
      Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore

    • 14 October 2015 at 9:28pm
      M.G. Zimeta says: @ GreenMan
      Actually, I also had that disappointing or horrific thought after I posted that Hill quotation: "this reference to 'quiet words' could be about 'Quiet Man' Iain Duncan Smith." Although in his case I guess the "wild reasons of the state" would be "social security for people with disabilities."

      Hill was writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer so I like to think that in the full context of the poem IDS would not be able to appropriate it. I also like to think Hill would object to IDS appropriating it. Maybe this is why politicians tend to stick to safely dead poets - because those can't protest how their work is used, and by whom?

  • 13 October 2015 at 11:09pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Have a little forbearance while I rain on this parade. While pointing to an admirable level of general education, including knowledge and appreciation of the arts, of the man or woman who quotes it, poetry, just as prose fiction, is a very frail reed when used as a political prop. This is a two-way street, and both directions lead to dead ends. Not only does the idea of “political utility” undermine any independent (aesthetic, literary) evaluation of poetry, its actual use on any specific political occasion can be seen as an excess of rhetorical skill that will be unlikely (perhaps even impossible) to convert into meaningful political action. Doggerel, simple ballads, chants, and “poetic” slogans might arouse an audience, or even prod a crowd into immediate action, but poetry of merit? It just won’t wash. After the euphoric rush and admiring gush comes, “What next mate?”

    • 14 October 2015 at 10:18pm
      M.G. Zimeta says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I agree with you that in these speeches, the poems don't seem to be chosen for their aesthetic, literary qualities but rather for their cultural significance to the audience (or the cultural significance of the poet) - pathos. And, as you say, quoting poetry can give the speaker an air of intelligence and broad education - ethos. And I think Aristotle would agree with you that poetry is no substitute for arguments that are logically and empirically sound - logos.

      Perhaps it is the openness or ambiguity of the meaning of a line of poetry, taken out of its literary, aesthetic context, that allows it to inspire many without necessarily directing any? Aristotle distinguishes political oratory from other kinds of oratory (legal and ceremonial) as oratory intended to move its audience to do or not do something. As you say - "what next, mate?" In a political speech, it's the speaker who decides, not the poet.

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