"Facts tell, but stories sell . . . If you're not communicating in stories, you're not communicating.”
James Carville and Paul Begala, US political consultants
Politicians like to tell stories. Anecdotes turn abstract concepts and political arguments into credible situations and events that people can understand quickly. Anecdotes work best when they’re about people. People relate and react to other people, their highs and lows, their triumphs and their tragedies, their achievements and their failings. When people act, or when things happen to them, we can feel love, hate, joy, happiness, sadness, pity, longing or resentment.
In politics, strong anecdotes prove points and prop up prejudices. So, Ronald Reagan, the master storyteller, told Americans about the scandal of the “welfare queen” from Chicago’s south side. He told stories about farmers, preachers, people living in small-town America and, as Dan Rather has written, the payoff usually carried a political wallop. Reagan also told the story of the WWII bomber pilot on a doomed plane who refused to parachute because a wounded young gunner couldn’t evacuate. OK, the last one came from an old war movie, but Reagan kept on telling it anyway.
Less memorably, Tony Blair sometimes peppered his party conference speeches with brief, oblique anecdotes to show that his government was delivering.
Which brings us to yesterday’s speech to the Conservative Party conference by Theresa May, the home secretary. She provided an excruciating example of how anecdotes can go badly wrong in politics. To illustrate the supposed lunacies of the Human Rights Act, a bête noire of Conservative conference goers, Mrs May cited the example of:
"the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because—and I am not making this up—he had a pet cat."
The trouble was, she had her facts wrong. The justice secretary, Ken Clarke, all but disowned her claim, in public and on camera. Then, a spokesman for the judiciary said that the case she referred to involved a Bolivian man whose appeal against deportation was based on a relationship with a British woman of some years' standing. As part of his evidence to a court, he cited his joint ownership of a cat, to demonstrate the seriousness of the relationship. The basis for the home secretary’s comment appears to have been an immigration judge's light-hearted remark about a cat no longer having to fear adapting to Bolivian mice, which was quickly seized on by right-wing newspapers.
The liberal media has hardly been able to contain its glee, especially as daily coverage of the conference rapidly became dominated by the May – Clarke, er, “catfight”. [Click here, here, here, here and here.]
It was an undignified episode. Doubtless some lowly speechwriter has already been handed a glass of whisky and a loaded revolver for embarrassing the home secretary. But it is Mrs May's misjudgement that matters in the end. At the very least, the woman who once bravely coined that phrase about "the nasty party" ought to learn her own lesson. She should be confronting her party's prejudices, not flattering them.
Political differences aside, I suggest there is another, simpler lesson for all politicians and their speechwriters – don’t ever rely on anecdotes unless you can be absolutely certain they are 100% fireproof.
Ronald Reagan got away with his story about the fictitious fighter pilot, but he lived in a different political culture, in a different time, and had established a conspiracy of fiction with his constituencies. The UK’s trip- them-up media culture won’t allow top politicians any such leeway. But then, the powerful and those who aspire to lead us should be held to account for the claims they make.
Remember how, in 2000, Gordon Brown, the then chancellor, used Oxford University’s decision to exclude Laura Spence to highlight the bias in the university system against working-class applicants. He was soon shown not to have been in full possession of the facts. Later, successive Conservative leaders, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, both made claims that specific people had been poorly treated by the NHS, only to see the stories fall apart.
And, right back in 1992, Labour’s general election campaign became bogged down in the war of Jennifer’s Ear -- though that argument was also about the ethics of involving a (named) young girl in a political campaign.
Mrs May is not the first politician to be discover the downside of a faulty anecdote. I’m sure she won’t be the last.