My diary said eleven in the morning so I turned up in good time at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster last month, ready to do a turn for a sixth-form conference on politics. For half an hour or so I was to talk to an audience of about 1,000 youths and youthettes about the present government’s performance and the present opposition’s prospects. I like these occasions. I was looking forward to my 30 minutes.
Except that I had got the time wrong. My session was billed for noon, not eleven. The hour now left slack was too short to start anything else. Irritation yielded to curiosity when I realised that Charles Kennedy was on his feet on the conference rostrum, and would be followed by Iain Duncan Smith. It is instructive to be a fly on the wall when adults talk to youngsters or pets. Unwittingly, we reveal much when we think it in our power to spin our listeners any line we like. Why not (I thought) slip in, sit among the sixth-formers, and observe how these two opposition leaders performed for an audience of teenagers?
I tried imagining myself to be a boy again, listening to Mr Kennedy and then Mr Duncan Smith as I might once have listened to their 1960s equivalents. Then, my own political orientation was still unformed. The instant I put myself into this frame of mind I realised that of the least importance to me would have been the particular policies the speaker attached himself to. Important would have been the impression formed of the command with which he led rather than followed his audience, the rigour and integrity of his argument, and his intellectual grip. These were the qualities which drew me to Keith Joseph in the 1970s, awaking my own political sensibilities. I sat back and listened first to Mr Kennedy.
The Liberal Democrat leader was playing King of the Kids. Kennedy is a bright and likeable man and came across as such, but with this audience he was verging on the ingratiating and some of them (a minority) sensed this and bristled. Most, however, lapped him up; Kennedy played it for laughs, and got them. Anticipating the opinions and concerns which predominated among his listeners, he sidled up to them. ‘At least you knew where Maggie stood,’ he told them.
But it was hard to know where Charles Kennedy stood. On top-up fees (and the question of how money should be raised for further education) he said that central government should stop telling the smaller platoons how to finance education: ‘local people know best,’ he said, bafflingly. Surely in so large an audience there will have been a few to whom it occurred that some universities do want to charge top-up fees, and it is our Whitehall-centred control that is stopping them?
There was a question about the euro. Mr Kennedy talked of the need to hasten a referendum because this must be a democratic decision. ‘Conservatives, I think, are against a referendum, you’ll have to ask them,’ he said. This was disingenuous. The only sense in which Conservatives are against a referendum is that they are not proposing that Britain should join a single currency, so there would be no question to put.
Turning to education policy, Mr Kennedy then addressed his young listeners as though the entire youth of Britain had been transported as slaves to weep by the waters of Babylon. ‘What can you look forward to?’ he cried despairingly, to a further ripple of applause. I reflected on what they could look forward to: more places in more universities than at any time in our history; the best employment prospects for a generation; a free and prosperous country in which to take their place, as likely graduates, among the lucky ones.
The Liberal Democrat leader’s parting words were these: ‘I don’t have all the answers, but my goodness I’m working on the case.’ The subtext was, ‘Let’s not bore each other with the argument. Know, instead, that I am cool.’ Mr Kennedy left, his performance an undoubted platform success.
I would have despised this when I was 17, and despise it still. And I know that there will have been 50 among that thousand, burying their misgivings beneath the general applause, but thinking the same. They will remember this short half-hour long after the hundreds clapping vacantly have forgotten it. It will have sunk deeper with them; doubts always do. When speaking in public on serious matters, never forget that you are only talking – really talking – to a few of them: a minority who do not even know each other; or know, yet, that they are not alone. Of course it is best not to lose the mindless, but if you can only keep the mindless by disappointing the thoughtful, settle for the thoughtful. They will not forget.
Iain Duncan Smith is no crowd-pleaser, and there would have been no way for a Tory leader to have pleased that crowd, had he the tongue of an angel. They booed and hissed before he even spoke. But his speech had a kind of integrity about it which I knew at once I would have recognised at any age. He ignored the jeers and told them that politicians should make no concessions to so-called ‘youth’. The worst way to try to engage those who were alienated from politics, he said, was to dumb down or camp up the way you communicated.
He had some hard things to say – about, for instance, the need to finance improvements to further education by seeking contributions from those who would benefit. He criticised the way standards in A- and AS-levels had been undermined, and said that it was not in the interests of his audience that their results should be devalued (more boos).
When it came to questions, these were mostly abusive. IDS dealt with them with dignified good humour. At the end there was a small but enthusiastic burst of applause from a minority.
The next day a report appeared in the press that the Tory leader had been booed at a sixth-form conference. ‘I hear our leader bombed in front of an audience of kids,’ one of his parliamentary party told me, raising eyes heavenward. You can’t win, I thought. But maybe you can. Maybe he will. He would have won me.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.