The age when leaders had the time to answer questions - Greg Wright

ONE of the delights of scouring YouTube is its ability to bring the voices of the dead back to life.

Tom Bower

Just search, for example, for Robert Kennedy’s Day of Affirmation address in Cape Town from 1966 and you soon connect with a nobler age, when politicians delivered speeches that set out detailed and coherent visions of a better world.

In the speech, Kennedy, who was to be assassinated two years’ later, provided hope and inspiration for anti-Apartheid activists by stating that “each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance”.

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A truly sublime piece of rhetoric. The current incumbent of the White House could never reach such heights of wisdom.

But Kennedy’s speech is far from the only example of the fine, nuanced language used by politicians in the days before soundbites and the exhausting demands of 24-hour news.

I remember watching a fascinating interview from the early 1970s, featuring the then Prime Minister, Ted Heath, and Robin – later Sir Robin – Day.

At the time, the UK was in a real crisis, with the economy in freefall and violence breaking out in Northern Ireland. There was genuine cause for panic, but the interview was a masterclass in calm dissection.

Day asked incisive questions. He then allowed Heath the time to provide a detailed answer. Day never once raised his voice or talked over Heath.

At the end of the interview, the audience had a genuine insight into the Government’s response to the gathering storm, because the politician was actually allowed to answer the question.

The public could then make an informed decision about whether or not they supported the approach taken by the Prime Minister.

The decline in the quality of political discourse was highlighted when I met the veteran journalist Tom Bower, who was the keynote speaker at the Yorkshire Business Awards, organised by Variety, the children’s charity.

“When I started covering politics in the late 1960s, the debate was far more profound,” he said. “I think the electorate was better informed.

“What is really depressing now is that there is a huge divide, not so much between class but between age. Young people are far less aware of the past than they used to be.”

“I spent a lot of time with the miners [Joe] Gormley and [Arthur] Scargill. They were very educated people. They had different experiences of life.”

Mr Bower added: “The quality of people coming into Parliament is way, way down.

“The real problem is that the media doesn’t allow the politicians a chance to debate because they are looking for soundbites... there is hardly any time to develop a thought.

“This particular general election is an extraordinary clash of ideologies. We haven’t seen anything like this for years.

“If you watched the Andrew Marr interview with Boris Johnson last Sunday, he never let Boris talk. I think people are pretty engaged in politics but they are depressed by the quality of the politicians. “

Politicians on the whole are dedicated, but, to quote Mr Bower: “If they sneeze in the wrong place it ends up on YouTube.

“It’s much harder to run a private life now as a politician. That makes it difficult to get quality people.”

In the days when Robin Day was in his prime, politicians were given time and space to breathe. Flaws in their arguments were exposed after lengthy, respectful dialogue.

How times have changed. Our attention spans have diminished.

Politicians often sound like robots, trotting out soundbites in response to coaching from their spin doctors, in the belief that, through the constant interruptions, a winning message will register with voters. Our frenetic world has lost the most precious gift of all; the ability to pause and listen.