Conspicuous in Absence


BBC’s seven-way televised debate, 31st May, 2017, Cambridge.

BBC’s seven-way televised debate, which took place on 31 May in Cambridge, featured the ‘leaders’ of the seven main political parties up for election on 8 June: Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, UKIP’s Paul Nuttall, Green co-leader Caroline Lucas and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. The leader of the Conservatives, PM Theresa May was paradoxically conspicuous in her absence, having sent the Home Secretary Amber Rudd to speak out for the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to send SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson was not discussed, but May’s absence was criticised on a continual basis during and after the debate.

For those interested in a real political debate which make clear political stand points and opinions to fellow debaters and the audience, May’s absence was indeed problematic. While her reasons were obvious, not wishing to risk her leading position in a situation difficult to control, and while Amber Rudd seemed to efficiently express May’s views, even imitate May’s controlled tone of voice and composure, the absence of the leader of the political party currently in government could be understood as an unwillingness to engage with political debate and the electorate.

Jeremy Corbyn had been accused of the same in the weeks and days up to the debate because of his rejection of the invitation, but his last-minute decision to turn up meant that he appeared to take the electorate seriously. In light of Corbyn’s appearance, it is perhaps the last time that May can decide not to turn up – it would now harm her ‘and her team’ (to borrow her current catch phrase intended to make voters ‘forget’ that she is leading the Conservatives) more not to turn up than to risk being put on the spot by participating.

This matters, not so much in the small tit-for-tat about who is neglecting the electorate or being a coward, but rather in the bigger picture of finding a format in which politicians can effectively communicate with the electorate (or indeed any inhabitant of the UK, including those unable to vote such as the famous three million EU nationals). As it stands, the mainstream media are often being accused of being partisan – see Boris Johnson’s swipe at the BBC for inviting a ‘left-wing’ audience to the televised debate – or setting too many rules for politician and audience behaviour: who can speak, when can they speak, to whom can they speak, and – as in previous televised debates – can the audience even clap when they want? Instead of incessantly debating the rules of the debate, it might allow for greater plurality of opinion, and therefore exposure to more than ‘the right’ and ‘the left’ views, if there were simply many more TV debates in which not only leaders were invited but party spokespersons on, for example, security, public services or foreign policy just to name a few of the topics discussed in the BBC debate. That way, the electorate could hear better-informed discussions on topics they thought important for making up their minds up to a general election. It would not mean more work for the individual politician, but it would mean a closer engagement with the people who vote for them. It might even train the politicians to discuss without shouting over each other’s head, as we saw in the TV debate.

More TV debates or other formats of open discussion might also mean that politicians would eventually tire of repeating the same slogans and phrases over and over again. What was surprising about the BBC debate was, in fact, that the majority of the debate took place without a constant repetition of the stock phrases we have heard for the past weeks. Only 80 minutes into the programme, when the question about leadership came up, did the Amber Rudd revert to ‘Theresa May and her team’. It will be interesting to see if more of such debates – and more are coming up in the final stretch to the election – will force the politicians to speak with more variation in both content and choice of words.



Leadership and Ethos


The UK general election campaign started on Tuesday 18 April 2017 when Theresa May announced that she would seek a general election on Thursday 8 June 2017. The day afterwards, the Westminster parliament approved this motion, so we are now in the midst of an election campaign.

The terms of the media debate have already been established: this will be an election about ‘leadership’, i.e. the deciding factor will be the personal qualities of the leaders of the main parties. This accords well with Aristotle’s theory of rhetoric. According to Aristotle, ethos (character) is the strongest and most effective proof of oratory (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 1.2, 1356a).

Commentators who argue that we should ignore the personalities of the party leaders, and focus on their actual policies instead, are ignoring the point that, for Aristotle, the most effective form of persuasion is not logos (the content of the argument), but ethos (character). In a time of political crisis (the Brexit process was formalized when Article 50 was triggered on 29 March 2017), rhetoric always comes to the fore. As the philosopher Hans Blumenberg puts it, rhetoric becomes essential whenever there is a need to act combined with a lack of knowledge. For Blumenberg, the lack of evidence and the compulsion to act are the preconditions of the rhetorical situation (see Blumenberg, Wirklichkeiten in denen wir leben, Stuttgart 1981, p. 117). Given that the UK government is now under compulsion to act, rhetoric and, particularly, ethos, are more important than ever.

Given that the political debate centres on questions of ethos and leadership, it is appropriate to reflect on the qualities which we look for in a political leader. Much of the current media coverage is debating who would be a stronger leader.

But is ‘strength’ really the most important quality for a leader? What about wisdom, courage, moral integrity, dignity, vision, or the ability to keep a cool head in a time of crisis? Or perhaps it is Machiavellian cunning which is required? It could be argued that the word ‘strength’, which has featured so much in recent media debates, has rather uncomfortable political associations. Arguably, it does not imply a democratic leader, but an autocratic one. Given the current rise in right-wing populism, and the current threat to liberal democracy in many European countries, it is disconcerting to hear journalists repeating the mantra that what is required is a ‘strong’ leader. If the debate is about leadership, then it should also be about what kind of leadership. At the same time, the debate needs to be widened so that it becomes a more informed and educated debate, not just on leadership and personal qualities, but also on the best leader to deal with the consequences of Brexit and other aspects of domestic and foreign policy. Ethos is indeed important, but does this mean that we should neglect debates about specific policies?


Winter Workshop ‘Speechwriting in Practice’: A Participant’s Perspective

Just a few weeks ago I was delighted to have received an invitation in my inbox for this workshop run by the Network for Oratory and Politics. As postgraduate students of the University of Glasgow, we are very fortunate to be invited to many events allowing us to share in the wisdom of many high-profile academics and professionals, but this one stood out for me – as a postgraduate student of Political Communication, and someone hoping to secure funding as PhD candidate in the same field, with a huge personal interest in the quality of communication between political leaders and the public – you could say this really was my ‘cup of tea’. I responded immediately and was extremely pleased to receive confirmation of my place.

In preparation for the workshop we were sent, in advance, two speeches to familiarise ourselves with:

1) JK Rowling’s Commencement Speech, Harvard University: ‘The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination’ 

2) President Obama’s Selma Marches Anniversary Speech 

Both very rousing and inspirational speeches and, on reflection, a solid indicator of what we should expect from the day.


Sara Lodge, Univeristy of St Andrews

Thinking about the workshop itself, the session was structured logically and professionally. The first speaker, Sara Lodge – a former speechwriter for Kofi Anan, now Senior Lecturer in English at St Andrews University – introduced us to the importance of preparation. She explained how what sets a speech apart from a talk or a sales pitch was the challenge of involving the audience. She stressed how successful speeches work by joining together the audience and the speaker. Something she said that stuck in my head was that: ‘We read as individuals, but we hear as one.” – very true, and thought-provoking. Sara’s analogies of speech structure as a musical concerto, building with intensity until it reaches the crescendo really resonated with me. It became very clear to me that the use of language in this manner – to celebrate or commemorate, signify a moment of change, or in Sara’s words: “to invoke the sublime, the ever-enduring possibilities of the human spirit” – demonstrates just how poetic, inspiring and powerful speeches have the potential to be. She suggested that a professional speechwriter may spend up to one hour researching for each minute of the speech they are writing, ensuring they are confident with the historical context of the occasion as well as the people involved. To know the audience means that a connection can be made, bridges can be built by recognising shared values and experiences, and by being consistent and confident throughout the speech. She formulated it as winning the audience by acknowledgement, reassuring them, and arousing their interest. What I took away from Sara’s presentation was that structure in a successful speech is key, and that together with genuine audience involvement –  where the orator speaks with, and for, the audience, not at them – contributes to a sincere collective expression of togetherness, in other words the ideal speech conditions.


Rob Godman, Columbia Univeristy, New York

After Sara’s presentation we split into groups of two and were given a practical task. We had a choice of five scenarios for which to write a brief speech for. We spent half an hour working on this before the second presentation, this time from Rob Goodman, a visiting PhD candidate from Columbia University, but also an experienced political speechwriter having worked in the recent past for US Representative and House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and former US Senator Chris Dodd. Drawing upon his personal experience Rob introduced the concept of the rhetorical commonplace. He explained that commonplaces exist in cultural vocabulary, and that what sets them apart from clichés, which tend to stop thinking, is that commonplaces link pre-existing beliefs to new purposes and goals. The art of rhetorical persuasion channels what the audience already believes but takes them on a journey building upon those beliefs via persuasion. Connection can be achieved by conjuring up concrete images in the minds of the audience. He made reference to Aristotle’s notion of ethos, and how by presenting oneself in a consistent light the speaker may carry out the task displaying comfort, ease and confidence which, in turn, gives the audience the same comfort and confidence in the speaker’s words. Reinforcing exactly what Sara had said about how crucial audience involvement is.


Rodger Evans, Scottish Parliament

The last speaker was Rodger Evans, an award-winning speechwriter for the Scottish Parliament and former music journalist. Rodger gave us tips for delivery including ‘the power of the pause’, when to raise and lower our voices to emphasise certain points and also how speech can be considered an art-form alongside music and poetry. Much aware of time-constraints we were then given a further half an hour to work on our practical exercises, my group’s task being to introduce Muhammad Ali to a college audience in light of his sacrifices of reputation and career in protest against the Vietnam War and fight for civil rights, which led to his conviction for draft evasion. When working on this task you could feel the enthusiasm and creativity in the room, for me it was the most enjoyable part of the day.

The final part of the session saw each pair present their speech to the group, applying the skills we had learnt that day in a practical, meaningful way. All of the speeches were of a surprisingly high standard and the feedback received on each from our team of workshop leaders highlighted how well every group had done at grasping the core elements of what makes a successful speech in terms of both design and delivery.

What I take away from this workshop is an appreciation of how speechwriting skills are crucial across disciplines, there was student representation not only from Politics, but also Law and Criminology at both Masters and PhD level. I believe that I can speak on behalf of all the workshop delegates to say how grateful we are to the Network of Oratory and Politics, and the funders, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, for making this workshop possible, especially considering that many of us in attendance would not have been in a position to finance such training ourselves. This workshop has changed my perceptions about the art of speechwriting and delivery, at a time when most of us are deep in theory writing assignments, a break to engage in something so practical and meaningful was very welcome. I’ve come away full of hope about how we, as humans, in what may seem an isolated world at times can come together and connect with our emotions, share our hopes for the future and engage in purposeful political involvement. My new awareness of how much the speechwriter and speaker have considered their audience as the integral component in the design of their speech gives me hope for the future of democratic involvement and popular empowerment, and the more people that understand this, the more accessible politics can be for all. Thank you very much.

Trudi Hamer

Postgraduate student MSc Political Communication

University of Glasgow

Postgraduate Workshop: ‘Speechwriting in Practice’

Three experienced speechwriters and 25 postgraduate students from a range of academic disciplines met on 2 December 2016 at the University of Glasgow for a workshop on speechwriting, organised by the Network for Oratory and Politics.

The aim of the workshop was to train the postgraduates in the art of speechwriting through introductory talks by professional speechwriters and the exercise to writing a speech for delivery. In the final session, the students delivered a set of remarkably persuasive and eloquent speeches which proves that the oratorical tradition of speaking well is alive and flourishing.


Sara Lodge leads the workshop

Sara Lodge (Senior Lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews and former speechwriter for the Secretary-General at the United Nations in New York) opened the workshop by speaking about the necessary preparatory steps in writing a good speech. Sara Lodge talked about the importance of knowing the audience and occasion for a speech, capturing the uniqueness of the moment, and soliciting feedback from others to avoid any mishaps. She illustrated her points with reference to J K Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard University (June 2008), and made the postgraduates find the speech’s structure, high point and rhetorical devices.


J K Rowling at the Harvard Commencement

In the coffee break, the postgraduates were giving a set of five speech ‘scenarios’ from a speaker attempting to persuade Virginia Woolf not to kill herself, a presenter at a Better Parenting conference using Marge Simpson as a role model, a biographer of Walt Disney addressing an animation convention about the forthcoming biography and a civil rights activist introducing Mohamed Ali at a college event. Over coffee, the students divided into groups to decide which scenario to develop into a speech in light of Sara Lodge’s advice.


Speeches in development…

The next session was led by Rob Goodman (former speechwriter for US Representative and House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and former US Senator Chris Dodd, currently Ph.d. student at Columbia University, NY), who talked about the writing part of speechwriting – whether for oneself or another speaker. He illustrated his talk with Barack Obama’s speech about the Selma march and the ways in which the rich imagery in the speech tapped into the cultural vocabulary of Americans and, in the process, altered it to include dissent and protest about civic injustice in the ideal of American patriotism.

Having received these further tips about rhetorical commonplaces and the rhetorical power of imagery, the postgraduates continued their work on the speech scenarios over a sandwich lunch. There was lively discussion and hard work on ideas and formulations, creating an anticipation of good speeches to come.

Rob Workshop.png

Rob Goodman leads a session on Barak Obama’s ‘Selma Speech.’

In the third session, Rodger Evans (speechwriter in the Scottish Parliament) summarised the tips and advice from the previous sessions and added his suggestions for good delivery of speeches: pace, passion and power of pause as well as musicality in language, energy, diction, pitch and nerves, and the need to practice a speech before delivery. Rodger, funny and poetic as in earlier NOP events, created the perfect platform for the postgraduates’ final push towards the delivery of their speeches.


Speechwriting in practice…

In the final session, we heard an amazing array of eight persuasive, eloquent, funny, dramatic, powerful, moving and inspiring speeches about Virginia Woolf, Marge Simpson, Walt Disney and Mohamed Ali. And in true Strictly Come Dancing-style, the three session leaders gave their feedback after each speech. It was a truly inspirational end to an excellent workshop, motivating us all to prepare and deliver better and better speeches.

Workshop speaker.png

Classical Rhetoric, Schools and Citizenship

On 7 November 2016, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson (University of Oxford) gave a lecture in Glasgow on how classical rhetoric can enrich school learners’ development of speaking and writing skills. Dr Holmes-Henderson is a member of the Classics in Communities project.


Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson

Dr Holmes-Henderson argued that an introduction to classical rhetoric can help school pupils to develop literacy, critical literacy and critical thinking skills, which are conducive to articulate self-expression. Classical rhetoric involves deconstructing and constructing communication; skills which prepare young people for learning, life and work. The ability to present their views, with carefully considered reasons, prepares school learners to become engaged, active and participative citizens.

In classical rhetoric, the refutatio (refutation) is the part of the speech devoted to answering the counterarguments of your opponent. Dr Holmes-Henderson pointed out that in order to answer an opponent’s arguments, we have to learn ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ – this is a quotation from Robert Burns’s Scots poem ‘To a Louse’ (1786). This approach helps cultivate ‘responsible citizenship’, as to respond to criticism, people have to put themselves in their opponent’s position. This requires the suspension of one’s own argumentative position and promotes identification and engagement with the views of others. In the context of school, this could help pupils to see each other’s points of view. And this is particularly relevant with reference to the Scottish government’s Curriculum for Excellence. Classical rhetoric can help to achieve the purposes of the curriculum, namely to develop key capacities including ‘confident individuals’, ‘successful learners’, ‘responsible citizens’ and ‘effective contributors’:

Dr Holmes-Henderson’s key argument is that classical rhetoric builds communicative competence and enables young people ‘to have their say’, a central feature of Scottish democracy.

She made the point that a good speaker uses ethos (character, credibility) and pathos (emotion) as well as logos (logical arrangement of words) in order to persuade the audience. Schoolchildren often think that communication is about logos (the words themselves), and they are not aware of the other two. Teenagers are actually experts in pathos because they know how to manipulate their parents; however, learning about classical rhetoric will help them to learn that an effective speaker uses all three elements together in order to persuade.

According to Dr Holmes-Henderson, the key benefit for school learners is that classical rhetoric can provide a structured approach to thinking about contentious issues. Quintilian has two rhetorical exercises which could be applied in modern schools:

suasoriae – imagine yourself as a figure from history or mythology and present an argument outlining your choice of action in a dilemma

controversiae – fictional law cases, in which you had to ‘act’ either for the defence or the prosecution

Dr Holmes-Henderson explains that debating these imaginary or historical scenarios in the classroom creates a cultural and historic distance which can help build rhetorical competence and prevent an argument from getting overheated. The construction of a scenario can offer a protective buffer which prevents discussions from descending into slander. In this way, school learners (and citizens) with opposing views get the opportunity to explain and justify the foundations of their beliefs in an effort to transform opinions. When learners are sufficiently confident with rhetorical theory, they can graduate to arguments concerning controversial contemporary issues. If performed well, this exercise can encourage democratic deliberation, which aims ultimately to allow all sides to reach new and acceptable positions for collective action. What better preparation for citizenship could there be?

Dr Holmes-Henderson concluded that rhetoric has many benefits for 21st-century education: it provides a structure for argumentation; a framework for self-representation; and it boosts critical skills, such as the ability to ‘read between the lines’.

Anyone interested in further reading on this topic can consult Dr Holmes-Henderson’s essay in the book Democracy and Decency (2016).

Alan Finlayson on Performance Rites: Rhetoric, Public Speech and Democratic Politics Today

On 20 October 2016, The Network for Oratory and Politics launched its new presence at the University of Birmingham with a public lecture by Professor Alan Finlayson (University of East Anglia). The lecture formed part of the Network’s autumn seminar series on ‘The creation of speech: from brainstorm to delivery’. An international expert on modern British political speech and oratorical culture, Alan Finlayson analysed the role of oratorical performance in modern political debate.


Alan Finlayson, University of East Anglia



Bust of Cicero, Vatican Museums, Rome

Aware of the presence of Classicists in the lecture theatre, Alan Finlayson started off with the Roman statesman and orator, Cicero. He argued that Cicero would have seen many parallels to his own society had he seen the current political situation: Empire going down, politicians performing politics, and the phenomenon of excessive or dramatic political performers whose ‘shows’ sometimes overshadow their content.

Deeply anchored in theories about political actors from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to modern political philosophers and scientists Jason Brennan and Jeffrey E. Green, Finlayson argued that political spectacles are nothing new, here to stay, and not a bad thing in themselves, in spite of modern worries about political spectacles as hostile to democracy. Moving on to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Finlayson used the example of the Roman general Coriolanus to show that lacking the ability to deliver speeches meant that Coriolanus could not play the role of leader and his people therefore not the role of the people. The performance of public speech was – and is – a crucial factor for leadership.


Frontispiece and title page of 18th century edition of Coriolanus, where Coriolanus is depicted as addressing a public audience.

The oratorical performance as indicator of leadership is indeed an established ritual which we see played out today in the Queen’s Speech (she has to give it but she is told what to say), the US President’s inaugural speech, UK party leaders’ speeches at party conferences, and the Prime Minister’s Questions each Wednesday in the House of Commons. All of these are necessary, by tradition or law, but nevertheless complicated speech occasions which are rituals to a greater extent than speech event.


Prime Minister Theresa May addressing the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The importance of these occasions, as Alan Finlayson explained, is that these spectacles allow politicians and their audiences to dramatise political conflicts without the restrictions of rational discussion. These dramatisations can then create a narrative in which the audience or community can take part and mirror themselves. Finlayson exemplified this with Barack Obama’s commemorative speech at the 150th anniversary to abolish slavery in the US, in which Obama’s reference to the concept of ‘the original sin’ created a narrative about the abolishment of slavery and later Civil Rights Movement with which most Americans could identify and sympathise.

Finlayson’s point was that we need to allow these public occasions for speech to flourish in order for such narratives to be created and disseminated for the wider purpose of playing out political conflicts in front of a public audience. Yet, such places for public speech are disappearing in a concrete and a figurative sense: there are fewer politicians who simply stand up to speak to a public audience and modern media have changed the spectacles into so-called TV debates, which are staged to maximise the entertainment value rather than a truly political debate. Another problem in current politics is that we expect politicians to be ‘candid’ or ‘authentic’ but by continually recording their performances in front of different audiences, the media makes it impossible for politicians to tailor performances to their audiences while keeping their public persona consistent. Finally, Finlayson argued, the complex fragmentation of political audiences and diverging identities result in a ‘de-fusion’ of political performances. All these problems, Finlayson diagnosed as a crisis of rhetoric. One major solution to this problem is to have better performers and better stages for political speech to provide mirrors in which the people can find themselves and a shared identity.

The public lecture was followed by a lively discussion of the gender in political performances, the role of ritual and authenticity, and the possible ways out of the crisis of rhetoric.



Figuring the audience, addressing the nation: political speechwriting on national identity

On Monday 4th July, the Network for Oratory and Politics had the pleasure of welcoming a panel of experts and fifty guests to our Summer 2016 workshop ‘Figuring the audience, addressing the nation: political speechwriting on national identity.’ It was hosted by the Institute for Advanced Studies, University College London.


University College London

We were joined by Professor Richard Toye (University of Exeter), Andrew Grice (Political Editor at The Independent), Dr Andrew Crines (University of Liverpool) and Dr Judi Atkins (University of Coventry) for what was an exciting day of topical debate on subjects which gave diverse and hugely engaging perspectives past and present on political oratory and the rhetoric of ‘Britishness.’

The workshop was scheduled over six months ago. Little then could we have imagined just how pertinent and challenging the discussion on construction and conceptions of national identity would become in the wake of the EU Referendum vote (23rd June 2016). Naturally then, papers and conversation percolated fascinatingly and highly topically around the subject of the European Union, from its foundation to the beginnings of its dissolution – or at least British dissolution from it – and the impact Brexit will have has upon regional, national and international identities.


Professor Richard Toye (University of Exeter)

Professor Richard Toye gave the first paper entitled ‘Churchill’s European Rhetoric Reconsidered: the Zurich speech seventy years on’ in which he explored transhistorical receptions of Churchill’s famed 1946 invocation of the ‘United States of Europe’ (1946) (link to the original text of the Zurich oration can be found here) which shed much interesting light onto the recent events surrounding Britain’s shifting attitudes towards European ‘unity.’The timing of this talk lent focus both to the privileging of Churchill in both Leave and Remain speeches and to scrutiny of the resonance of the Zurich speech with contemporary events.

Citing the post-war context in which Churchill’s undoubtable euro-positivity emerged, Toye commented that the frequency with which Boris Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric called upon Churchill as a signifier of pro-British and anti-European sensibility was somewhat of a misnomer and could not justifiably be used by Johnson as any sort of trump card. Indeed, although it is Churchill himself who is celebrated as bringing the notion of a United States of Europe into common parlance in Britain, Toye revealed that the phrase had actually been in use for almost a century before Churchill himself spoke the words. Indeed, Victor-Hugo, amongst others, is said to have used the phrase. Perhaps it is the ambiguity of the notion, which has recently rendered it problematic.


Winston Churchill

Images of Churchill’s carefully crafted speeches typed out on paper, with their ad-libs scribbled in in Churchill’s own hand, provoked a stimulating discussion about the poetics of Churchill’s writing and how the form, structure and layout of the typed page – with its spaced out couplets and broad margins – actually aided Churchill’s oratorical performance, famous as he was for the use of the meaningful caesura. Moreover, it was abundantly clear that the phrase ‘United States of Europe’ had been added at the last minute; it was not a carefully considered policy declaration.


Andrew Grice (The Independent)

For the second speech of the day, we welcomed Andrew Grice who had hopped over from Westminster to talk to us from his position of considerable, perhaps unmatched, insight as the most senior UK political lobby correspondent, about the referendum campaign rhetoric, the mechanics of Brexit, and the effect of it on political life, constitutional debate and the role of the media. The title of his talk, ‘The EU Referendum Campaign – The Rhetoric and The Reality’ (fixed long before the event) felt prophetic. He said:

‘We certainly had a lot of rhetoric in the EU referendum — and now we are certainly experiencing the reality of what Brexit means.’

Grice’s talk took us through some of the central and most revealing tropes in the speeches of both Remain and Leave campaigns. Apart from the consistent eulogising of Immigration, Sovereignty and Economy, two potent rhetorical strands were pointed out. The first; the climate of anti-intellectualism promoted in particular by Michael Gove on the Leave side: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts,” which, Grice said played into the anti-politicians, anti-establishment feeling amongst voters and perhaps diluted the impact of the torrent of reports predicting a great economic downside if we voted for Brexit. The second heralded the cleverest piece of rhetoric in the campaign in toto, the Leave imperative turned slogan ‘Let’s Take Back Control.’


Leave campaigner Boris Johnson in-front of the campaign slogan.

Interestingly Grice pointed out that this was a far from carefully crafted soundbite, but was actually an ad hoc invention of Gove’s at a point when his back was up against the wall during a Sky interview when he was asked what Brexit meant to him.  Ironically, it was to become the soundbite that caught the Zeitgeist. In Grice’s analysis, the pledge to “Take Back Control” worked on several levels – it applied to regaining control of the UK legal system, UK courts, and the ‘£350 million a week’ but the words that were always mentioned after it, Grice stressed, were “our borders.”

The role of slogans and images in the Brexit campaign raised further interesting questions about the nature of ‘oratory,’ or perhaps the now conspicuous paucity of oratory in the social-media age which operates in soundbites and statements in 140 characters. Grice floated the notion of the rhetoric of the image, referring specifically to the ‘Breaking Point’ image of the so-called European immigrants erected by Nigel Farage in the final week before the referendum. The value of this image, said Grice, lay in its ability to engender fear of the Other. As it turned out, the ‘migrants’ depicted in the poster were not European economic migrants, but were, in fact, middle-eastern migrants/refugees, far from our shores at the Turkish border. Yet, reactions suggested that the visual impact of the un-British Other seemed to override the fact that it represented total misinformation.


Former UKIP leaver Nigel Farage and the now infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

In the oratory on both sides of the Brexit campaign, fear attained real currency. Grice noted that there were two ‘Project Fears’ in both Leave and Remain camps, but the fear that rang loudest and truest for much of the UK population was concerned with immigration. In a brief comparison to the 2014 Independence Referendum in Scotland, Grice commented upon the more accurate realities, be they political or economic, debated, not least ‘a genuine debate about national identity.’ Fear of the Other, as the rise in xenophobic hate-crime in the UK seems to evidence, was made present in the Leave campaign as a direct challenge to Sovereignty of country and perhaps of self – but it was not a stance which all on team Leave would claim. As much post-Brexit analysis has concluded, it was ‘THE FACTS,’ so vehemently claimed by both sides, which turned out to be missing.


Dr Andrew Crines, (University of Liverpool)

The long arc of history reached back three decades from contemporary politics in Dr Andrew Crines’ (University of Liverpool) paper on ‘The Eurosceptic Rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher’ which cast the former Prime Minister’s increasingly Eurosceptic stance during her tenure as her legacy to the Conservative Party born out in the ‘blue on blue’ Brexit debates. Before Thatcher, debates about British integration with Europe had been constantly debated and discussions were at their most dynamic in 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Indeed, as Crine’s explained, in the history of Anglo-European relations, this was certainly a time of radical contradictions – not least in the mind and the words of Margaret Thatcher herself.

Thatcher’s uncompromising and often provocative rhetoric regarding European integration is probably best remembered through three famous public statements: “I want my money back!”; “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level”; and “No, no, no!”. The first a summation of her negotiating strategy during the five-year struggle with her continental counterparts about Britain’s contributions to the European Community’s budget, from which she was to emerge victorious in 1984. The second, Crine’s explained, was the most trenchant sentence in her Bruges speech of 1988 about the future of the European Community. The third represented her adamant rejection in October 1990 of propositions to increase the powers of the European Parliament and the European Commission.


Margaret Thatcher during her Bruges speech, 1988.

Enlivening us to the, rather bombastic, and certainly memorable oratorical moments of Margaret Thatcher in her European speeches, Crine’s emphasised the strength of Thatcher’s belief in British exceptionalism in the European Project. But despite her words giving the impression that she was an aggressive critic of European integration, her position was rather more complex. Thatcher’s dedication to the idea of a completed Single Market, to the ultimate benefit of the British economy, was essential to this and one for which she readily made concessions. The push through of the Single European Act, perhaps Thatcher’s greatest contribution to the European Community, triggered simplified decision making for the European Council leading to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 by which time Thatcher had realised that the desire for ‘Thatcherism on a European scale,’ was not shared by the commission president, or indeed other member states. It was then that her scepticism crystalised entirely.


Margaret thatcher and Jaque Delors – against whom she launched the infamous ‘No, no, no!’ tirade.

Crine’s paper was, in the context of current Brexit debate, extremely timely – particularly where members of the Conservative party had been quibbling over the Iron Lady’s hypothetical opinion on Brexit. Much like Churchill, the symbolism and imagined opinion of the former Prime Minister, was contested in Tory Leave and Remain camps. Crines was of the opinion that the doubt palpable in Thatcher’s rhetoric, set the tone for greater doubts and opposition to the EU, perhaps beginning the march towards an ‘inevitable’ referendum.


Dr Judi Atkins (Coventry University)

In the workshop’s final paper, Dr Judy Atkins took us from Thatcherite semiotics to Cameron’s signifiers exploring the peculiar relationship formed in Cameron’s rhetoric between the myth of Magna Carta and British national identity. In her paper, ‘“Our Island Story”: David Cameron’s Narrative of Britain and British Identity,’ Dr Atkins explored Cameron’s use of myth, metaphor and history in his speech to articulate a vision of Britishness, taking as its focus the Magna Carta used by Cameron as a signifier around which an idea common citizen identity can be organised. In an era in which the token of Britishness is becoming increasingly unstable, stemming from such changes as globalisation, multiculturalism and the erosion of traditional social ties, Atkins identified an engagement with political rhetoric as essential to theorising how political actors self-reflexively use such symbols – from national flags to foundation mytho-philosophies – as tools in the armoury of identity construction for state and populis.


The Magna Carta (British Library)

For David Cameron, the Magna Carta is the historic symbol to which he has most often appealed and, whilst it certainly has a place in the narrative of ‘Our Island’s Story’, British identity and belonging, Atkins suggested that Cameron’s predilection for this symbol is set apart by it epideictic character (one part of Aristotle’s trio of rhetorical styles often termed ‘praise and blame rhetoric’, as opposed to ‘deliberative’ and ‘forensic’ rhetoric). In Atkins’ analysis, Cameron deploys the Magna Carta as a golden thread of Britishness wrought through the ages, symbolising liberty, egalitarianism and the privilege of the rule of law.

The Magna Carta articulates also British exceptionalism in the same fashion as The American Dream, ubiquitous in American public speech and political ideology. The Magna Carta as a signifier is therefore designed to laud values of a constitutional liberty that excludes those who do not share such values. But whilst the idea of the Magna Carta for the esoteric listener may well establish both ethos and pathos of Cameron as a speaker and indeed, as leader, the logos of this exercise falls short precisely because the story is too obscure to serve its purpose – constructing a unifying narrative of belonging.

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What we were left with then was a significant parallel between the rhetorical creation of an abstract other by Cameron – those not raised in the moral shadow of the Magna Carta – and the very concrete Other – the immigrant – played upon so effectively by the Leave campaign as we had discussed in Andrew Grice’s discussion. This lead us in general discussion to scrutinise the epideictic aspect of national identity as a whole, speculating that perhaps in rhetorical terms the construction of ‘what we are not’ rather than ‘what we are’ has a more positive, even primal, impact on where we see ourselves in an increasingly globalising world. As Grice noted, negative campaigning is so often deployed by politicians, because its negativity resonates with the audience.

Click here for Andrew Grice’s speech on Google docs and here for a link to Dr Judi Atkin’s paper.

Read another blog about the event for the UCL European Institute here.

EU Referendum: The Great Debate

Tuesday 21 June 20:00-22:00

Four women and two men took the stage at the BBC’s Great Debate, the biggest live debate of the EU Referendum campaign. This was a diverse field: a working-class Muslim man, a lesbian woman, a single mum, a grandmother, and two people who were born abroad – who were incidentally both campaigning for Leave. These people were of course the current Mayor of London (Sadiq Khan), the leader of the Scottish Conservative party (Ruth Davidson), the General Secretary of the TUC (Frances O’Grady), the Minister of State for Energy (Andrea Leadsom), an MP of 19 years (Gisela Stuart), and the former Mayor of London (Boris Johnson). People with authority and expertise, but also intended to appeal to a diverse audience.


Frances O’Grady, Remain.

So how did they do it? The six debaters were all very different performers, with Boris Johnson being the best known by the general audience and with a style familiar now from 6 years of David Cameron’s leadership (“Look…”). But many rhetorical techniques were employed here, from Ruth Davidson’s emphatic attempts to create doubt through anaphoric repetition (“They haven’t told us… they haven’t told us… they haven’t told us… they haven’t told us”) to powerful metaphors of slavery as used by Gisela Stuart, describing Britain as being “shackled” to a failing eurozone. Humour also played a role on both sides, as Andrea Leadsom suggested that the 28 states couldn’t even organise a takeaway, and Sadiq Khan self-deprecatingly saying “when you’re 5’6 you don’t often say that size matters”, but when you are talking about trade agreements, he argued, it does. Even props were used, as Sadiq Khan held up a Leave leaflet with a map labelling Syria and Iraq.

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The ‘Great Debate’ speakers with Sadiq Kahn holding a Leave leaflet. BBC

Two things that particularly stood out throughout the night were the use of quotations from both sides, and the use (or abuse) of slogans. In addressing the first topic, the economy, both sides repeatedly used quotes and examples from the other side to prove their own point. Although Remain often quoted “experts”, it was arguably Boris Johnson who used this tool best by referring to household names such as Tata Steel, Tate & Lyle, James Dyson and JCB. Ruth Davidson pulled a Remain trump card, though, when she quoted Obama saying Britain would “go to the back of the queue” in trade deals with the US. The important thing here is that these name-checks are memorable and meaningful for the audience, which has a much greater impact in this kind of fast-moving debate.


Boris Johnson, Leave.

Slogans played an equally important role – we might also call these soundbites. Although soundbites seem like a modern phenomenon, designed for Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, in fact short, memorable quotations played an equally if not more important role in societies before widespread literacy. Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom notably ended almost every intervention with “take back control. Vote Leave on Thursday” – reminiscent of the ancient orator Cato who apparently finished every speech with “Carthage must be destroyed”. The Remain side do not have such a catchy, powerful and positive slogan to sum up their arguments, but a few key phrases did emerge over the night, such as Ruth Davidson’s “if you don’t know, don’t go”, and Sadiq Khan’s memorable attack on Leave’s discussions of immigration as “Project Hate”.

As we saw 18 months ago with the Scottish Independence Referendum, the argument for change is often easier to make, and the Remain side have suffered from the accusations of Project Fear. Still, what we saw in this Great Debate were six consummate performers and, for the first time perhaps, some of the passion on the Remain side as well as Leave.



By Jennifer Hilder

Jeremy Corbyn and the Value of Scepticism

Sky News Debate 20/07/2016

In the final run up towards EU referendum day as the Leave/Remain campaigns reach their rhetorical apex, a voice criticised for its conspicuous absence from mainstream Brexit debates made itself heard in a Sky news referendum special. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was on Monday June 20th interviewed by Faisal Islam and a live studio audience of under 35’s (one third Leave voters, one third Remain and the rest undecided) in Sky’s London studio and asked to state his case for Remain.


Jeremy Corbyn on Sky News EU Referendum Special.

The performance was very much what one has come to expect of Corbyn in any public appearance: his words unrehearsed, without the soundbite snippets we have become used to in political oratory and especially during the Brexit debate. Corbyn’s oratory is as pared back as his ‘look.’ Tie-less Corbyn’s rhetorical (and sartorial) style evokes the sense of a roundtable discussion rather than a debate chamber. It’s a style that worked for him during his campaign to become Labour leader, but one which has been challenged by the tradition and formulae of Parliament and, memorably in the case of the tie by the Prime Minister, but in this debate it served him favourably not least by positioning the interchange as an ideological ‘show and tell’ of his opinions on continued EU membership rather than facing the ire and argument of the audience as in recent Brexit TV debates.

For a programme intended to aid the decision of the undecided, Corbyn wasn’t persuading so much as explaining his stance on the major issues, namely the Brexit big three Sovereignty, Immigration and Economy, the NHS and European humanitarian crises were also extensively discussed, and answers were peppered with memorable idioms such as ‘we cannot combat humanitarian crises from behind national frontiers.’  Indeed, that was but one of Corbyn’s subtle inversions of Leave rhetoric: where Johnson and Gove talk nationalism, he talked internationalism, borders were framed as restrictive not protective, the stability of control rendered in Corbyn’s words precarious, isolating, dangerous. But perhaps the biggest difference in the Labour leader’s delivery compared to the in/out big political hitters – whether Johnson or Cameron, Harman or Stuart – was his apparent lack of passion. Not passion in the sense of conviction, (like him or loathe him), Corbyn’s indefatigable, principled ethos remained very much in-tact – sic. ‘My head doesn’t get turned’ – what was most striking and, arguably, most effective about the frame of his argument was his lack of enthusiasm for the institution he was supposedly defending. He said:


‘I am not a lover of the European Union, I think [voting to Remain] is a rational decision and we should stay in order to improve it…’


In the British media, the jury’s out as to whether this was a rhetorical ploy on behalf of the Labour leader or a dose of his ‘straight, talking, honest politics.’ Nevertheless, whichever way you look at it, Corbyn’s readmission of his seven-to-seven-and-a-half out of ten desire to stay in Europe was a true demonstration of the value of scepticism in political debate. Both audience and Twittersphere was abuzz with a sometime perplexed agreement with Corbyn from across party lines – variations on the phrase ‘I’m a Tory but I agree with Corbyn….’  ricocheted around social media a total of 170 times within just five minutes of his comment. Just like Bertrand Russell’s Sceptic, Corbyn’s lack of oratorical flourish instead allows him to ‘hold [his opinions] calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly,’ quite aptly summing up Corbyn’s lack of hyperbole. Indeed, Russell’s sceptic does so in full knowledge of the potential for his own unpopularity – yet another parallel to Corbyn’s sceptical stance.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 11.41.45It is true that Corbyn has always been a eurosceptic. He voted against Common Market membership in the 1975 referendum and against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 along with most Labour MP’s and he has said that he arrived at the decision to remain this time ‘after a lot of process.’ Corbyn is not a proselytiser either for the EU or his own point of view, but wearing the mantle of the rational sceptic has proved popular – perhaps because it chimes with the scepticism of the voting population on both sides – but popular enough to sway public opinion and so late in the game?

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s vote, like a true sceptic, Corbyn absolved himself of the blame for a possible Brexit, that democratic responsibility, he says, is for the people and we must all work with that choice.

You can see the full Sky debate here.


By Seren Nolan

Question Time: the battle of rhetoric between Leave and Remain

On 15 and 19 June 2016, David Dimbleby hosted two special editions of Question Time on BBC1: one on the Case for Leave with Justice Secretary Michael Gove (Conservatives) and one on the Case for Remain with Prime Minister David Cameron (also Conservatives). Seen together, these two programmes showed the two leaders of the two sides within the Conservative party and therefore illustrated that this EU Referendum started as an intra-Conservatives debate.

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Leave: Michael Gove, MP and Remain: Prime Minister David Cameron.

The two-part set up could have been influenced by the tragic murder of Jo Cox (MP for Labour who was murdered on Thursday the 16th of June), but apart from a brief comment by Cameron at the start of this programme, Jo Cox was never mentioned directly.

The format of the two programmes was evidently negotiated so as not to directly confront the two Conservative MPs, although a direct confrontation would have allowed for a proper debate between the arguments on the two sides. Instead, the ‘debate’ was apparently between the MP and the audience. The audiences in Nottingham and Milton Keynes respectively were seemingly composed of people from all segments of society and of both convinced Brexiteers, Remainers and those crucial undecided voters who will make the difference on Thursday the 23rd of June. David Dimbleby led the debate with a combination of own probing questions as well as prepared and unprepared questions from the audience. In other words, a staged debate of the kind we have become so used to from the 2015 General Election, but perhaps not as direct a debate as one could have wished for in order to lay bare the arguments rather than the rhetoric on either side.

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‘BBC Question Time’ host David Dimbleby

Indeed, watching Gove and Cameron seemed like a rerun of already well-rehearsed and well-used arguments for Leave and Remain. Gove returned again and again to his mantra about ‘taking back control’ of Britain’s future, that is, not just ‘taking control’, but taking it back to where it originated and where it, according to Gove, belongs, namely in the British Parliament.

Cameron also brought out his usual phrases of Britain being ‘stronger within the EU’, although he had dropped the ‘within a reformed Europe’ we heard constantly a few months ago. Cameron also kept coming back to the economic argument for staying in – the best card on his hand, no doubt, but not one that so far has convinced the majority to vote for Remain. Interestingly, Cameron was directly challenged by a member of the audience on his failure – up to now – to persuade the waverers in spite of his strong economic case for Remain, and he promised to do his best in the next four days.

And therefore, the two ‘debates’ did less to help the undecided as it further cemented the two blocks which keep speaking but not to speak to each other’s supporters: Gove did not persuade Remainers that Britain would be stronger and richer on its own, while Cameron did not put forward a convincing case for tackling the Brexiteers’ strongest complaint: immigration.

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Looking more closely at the rhetoric on either side, Cameron had been coached to tone down his statistics and to use easily-understood similes to illustrate his arguments: When confronted with the Leave campaign’s argument ‘don’t listen to the experts’, Cameron used a simile about getting into a car and wanting to know from experts that it was safe. He even repeated the car simile later and added two further similes about building a house or building a bridge – this house-building image seemed perhaps less useful in a country where a lot of houses are often built and repaired not by British-born ‘experts’ but by better-skilled EU migrants. Of course, Cameron could have intended this indirect praise of EU migration, but perhaps not.

Gove did not use similes and instead stuck to his phrases and to his attitude of ‘speaking common sense’ as a son of an Aberdeen worker. Using this argument of ethos – the argument from character – he portrayed himself as someone who knew what the common man and woman are thinking, clearly opposed to the elitist Cameron and indeed the majority of the party of which Gove is a member. Cameron did not play on his ethos to the same extent. There was no direct use of his position as Prime Minister although some of the questions reflected his power as PM to call an election or decide to resign his post.

Neither of the two used emotional appeal (pathos) explicitly or to any great extent, although Gove tried to speak to the patriotic sense of Britishness as opposed to European identity. Both wanted to bring their arguments (logos) rather than their personalities (ethos) or passion against/for the EU across and this seemed a very clear choice to speak to the minds rather than the hearts of the British voters.

There are still a few days left in which to win over the undecided, but by sticking to the now well-known rhetoric, it doesn’t look as if the arguments will make a major impact. We need new arguments and a different rhetoric to change minds.

You can watch the full Question Time episode here.


By Henriette van der Blom