Friday, 27 May 2011

Was I the only person underwhelmed by Obama's speech?

I have a lot of respect for the US president - far more in fact than I have had for any other serving US president.

I was naturally pleased that in the last week he has visited Ireland and the UK. That he should make a historic speech to MPs and peers in Westminster Hall is particularly fitting at a time when many have questioned the wisdom of the relationship between the UK and the US. Obama is undoubtedly a gifted orator with abilities far beyond most of those occupying front bench positions within the Commons. He can excite and enthuse in a way few politicians can. He's also by nature both confident and positive, something I personally admire far more than his oratorical skills, and therefore I was keen to hear what he would be saying to the assembled group of politicians in Westminster Hall (where I once gave a speech during a meeting on protecting NHS services organised by Dr Richard Taylor).

As might be expected, Obama's optimism shone through. It was the kind of speech we've come to expect from the president, speaking up the relationship between our nations and forecasting new opportunities in which we could, in alliance, retain global leadership. His delivery was flawless; his intervention on some key issues (not least in addressing questions about the changing world order - a hot potato British politicians seem afraid to touch) was bold and timely. But I was left feeling underwhelmed by his speech, which for all its flair and eloquence felt like a pat on the head from the master. "Good doggy, there's a good boy. Go fetch!"

The British media have been largely uncritical of Obama's speech. This is unfortunate. Of course, there was so much positive within it, and I personally enjoyed the way he is so comfortable taking on pessimism and negativity. I'm not going to analyse the full speech in any depth but, for all the positivity and the "Yes, we can!" attitude, in some respects Obama asked more questions than he answered. While he sees the emergence of China and India as economic powers a product of Western values, and by implication welcomed new players in a changing world arena, he said very little about the relationship we should have with such powers instead focusing on developing a UK-US "indispensable alliance". Why should it be indispensable, and why so exclusive? What economic benefits would it necessarily bring? And why do we need to continue to "lead" the world, especially given the economic progress of the aforementioned countries? Does Obama still cling to outdated concepts of hegemony and colonialism?

Similarly, the president appeared to give little thought to relations between the UK and the EU. How will any strengthening of the relationship between our countries affect that between ourselves and our European partners?

I was least impressed with his statement on Afghanistan. I know he needs to be positive, and to signal that he is optimistic for imminent resolutions to long-standing problems. I welcome him having the courage to openly address the matter, but his assertion that we "are preparing to turn a corner" to my mind smacks of blind - and probably misplaced - optimism. There is nothing to suggest that bin Laden's death will damage the Taliban, or provide the catalyst for forging a new, peaceful Afghanistan. The nation's history and divisions are far more complex than that.

Also, Obama spoke of the need to double investment in Higher Education. I don't necessarily disagree in principle, but surely he was aware of recent controversies and of the fact that the UK can not currently afford such an investment? Why did he feel the need to stir up that particular hornet's nest?

My principal concern is that Obama - and, sadly, many of our own politicians - are keen to talk about new realities but less keen to embrace them. The world has changed since the 1950s. The UK and the US do not "lead the world" - at least, not in the same way they used to. And yet, there remains this strange reluctance to accept the inevitability of change or to realign ourselves with the new powers. It seems that successive presidents and prime ministers treat the "special relationship" as an article of faith; either under the delusion that the UK's and the US's world dominance is given or because of an unwillingness to accept the unpalatable truth that we are being eclipsed and our positions as "leaders" undermined. Obama is right that we should not be fearful, but is incorrect to assert that the way forward is to reinvent the old. While I support a closer working relationship between our nations I was concerned that Obama avoided mention of the many problems that have afflicted the "relationship" in recent years. Positive visions for the future, even those based on a misconception of our value to the world, are good and well - but they don't negate the need to deal with the problems of the past.

Obama's speech can be viewed in full on the BBC website.

I find the esteem in which he is held by the public over here quite incredible: he has, unbelievably, a higher approval rating than either Cameron, Clegg or Miliband. It strikes me he's the kind of leader many in our country would love to have, and I can fully understand why. He has what party training programmes and discriminatory shortlists can never produce - character. It should not be surprising therefore, that MPs and Peers were going to such lengths to meet the president afterwards, seemingly feeling themselves privileged to be in the Great Man's presence.

My friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on Facebook, asked "shall I wash my right hand? - I shook hands with Obama!" That, apparently, was one of the more sober reactions. Fellow Scottish Lib Dem blogger littlegrumpyG observed that "our politicians swoon over the President of the United States with his 26 car motorcade and rush for a handshake with him as though they will, by osmosis, soak up some of his charisma and apparent wisdom. [Obama] is a political rock star. Just touching him can make the blind see, the deaf hear and Ken Clarke awake from slumber. But please, have a little decorum. You are elected politicians, there to serve the people, debate the laws of the land and occasionally, very occasionally, get on the six o’clock news...Scottish Tory MP David Mundell, for example, will never wash his right hand again after jumping over three rows of chairs and giving Black Rod a dead leg just to thrust his sweaty palm towards the President. Floella Benjamin, a Lib Dem peer, went one further by hugging the President which she later gushed about on Twitter."

This is, of course, embarrassing. But it also demonstrates another unwelcome truth - that our supposed "mother of parliaments" is so short of people with the capability to reach out to the public. It's also short on quality debate - you'll find a more considered and intelligent level of political discussion at the Pullman Tavern in Kilmacolm.

The real challenge for our politicians in the aftermath of Obama's speech is not how best to strengthen working relationships with the US but on how our politicians, their parties and democracy itself can reconnect with the public in the same way that Obama seems to able to. Improving the quality of debate rather than simply raising the volume, as most British MPs do, would be a useful start.

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