1990s >> 1998 >> no-1124-april-1998

Greasy Pole: Who said it first?

A few years ago Joe Biden fancied himself as the next president of the United States but his candidature came to an abrupt end when it was discovered that he had repeated word-for-word parts of a speech by Neil Kinnock. we can assume that Biden was not penalised because he lifted someone else’s words but because it was clear that anyone who thought Kinnock even said anything worth repeating must be too mad to be trusted in the White House.

This sordid incident came to mind last month when William Hague was accused of pirating parts of speeches made by Tony Blair and in his turn charged Blair with lifting phrases from John Major (which would be even more insane than plagiarising Neil Kinnock). In what seemed a leaked version of a speech he intended to make in Australia, Hague was to have said:

“We can say to the elderly person who is afraid to go out at night for fear of being attacked–we are on your side.”

Which was rather like Blair at the Labour Party Conference in 1994:

“To the pensioners who fear to go out of their homes, let us say–we are on your side.”

There were plenty of other examples because it seems that Hague and Blair are both on the same side of all sorts of people–parents, students, people who run small businesses–in fact almost anyone who could suppress their anxieties at being at one with Blair and Hague long enough to vote for them.


If the charge against Hague was true it can be said that at least he showed a keen sense of timing because Blair made that speech four years ago and we all know what can happen to politicians’ promises over that kind of time lapse. In his past, for example, Blair spoke up for the trade unions and for CND. His election address in 1983 declared:

“We’ll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC (EU) which has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs.”

But in April 1995 he told the Royal Institute of International Affairs that:

” . . . Europe is today the only route through which Britain can exercise power and influence. If it is to maintain its historical role as a global player, Britain has to be a central part of the politics of Europe. so Labour will be strong in Europe.”

What this means is that if Hague is really so short on ideas that his speechwriters are reduced to plundering Blair’s speeches, he has a lot of choice. And the same would apply to Blair. Because what has been overlooked, as the accusations and counter-accusations over the speeches flow backwards and forwards, is that there is a simple, established reason for any similarity between what the two leaders say. They basically agree with each other. In terms of the policies and the promises they offer the voters there is really nothing to choose between them. It is, obviously, difficult to keep spouting the same tired arguments without occasionally repeating yourself, or using phrases which have already been used by the person you call your opponent.

Real issue

This is the nub of the matter; it is the real issue which should concern all those people who allow themselves to be carried away in their interest in the trivial spats between the parties of capitalism. Read the manifestoes, listen the leaders’ speeches–and what do you find? First of all there is a great deal of broad-ranging but empty assertion of “principles”. Both will tell you how courageous, industrious and ingenious the British people are. Both will say that all those qualities are being, or have been, held in check by the policies of the other party. Both will offer sweeping, generalised pledges to make things better. There will be a few memorable sound-bites.

If you have managed to last this long you will then come to the more detailed plans for the management of British capitalism. Here again you would need a microscope to see any real differences. In many examples you could exchange one set of detailed proposals for the other. No-one would notice. And when, after all the reading of manifestoes and listening to speeches, a government is elected you will find them in their actions they are to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from each other.

That is why Blair’s government is upsetting so many of its supporters, who thought they had seen the end of almost 20 years of Conservative government and that after 1 May things could only get better. That is why, as Blair and his ministers attack our living standards and crack down on the poorer and weaker among the working class, they tell us that this is really for our own good because its our fault if we’re poor and weak in the first place–just as Tory ministers used to tell us.

That is why, as they speak in the same terms, what they say is interchangeable. So that they can imitate, or steal, what each other say. If we do notice, we will have gone a long way towards treating these incidents as seriously as they deserve–not as minor spats about who said what first but as the exposure of a social system and its cynical propagandists.


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