Ewan Crawford on political speechmaking and constructing national identity

imgres-4.jpgThe Network for Oratory and Politics presented its final speaker in its seminar series on ‘Audiences of Political Oratory’ on 2 March 2016. Dr Ewan Crawford, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of the West of Scotland, spoke to us about national identity construction and political speechmaking in the UK.

Ewan Crawford is uniquely qualified to discuss this topic as a former senior broadcast journalist on BBC Scotland, former Private Secretary to the then leader of the SNP (2000-2004), former Senior Special Adviser (constitution and government strategy) and speechwriter to the First Minister Alex Salmond in the lead up to the Independence Referendum in 2014, and an academic researching the representation of nationalism. The theme of his talk was also highly topic with the SNP warming up to the Scottish Parliamentary election in May 2016 and the UK preparing for the EU referendum in June 2016.

images.jpgEwan Crawford started out by introducing himself and his approach to speechmaking, which was more about practice and imitation than about rhetorical theory. As Drew Smith was talking about at the previous seminar, political set speeches are rare today but the party leader’s party conference speech remains. We heard what such as speech should do, according to Ewan Crawford: set a political course for the future, provide a core message in a couple of sentences, create a good audience reaction in the hall (delegates and journalists), have core soundbites aimed at the evening news, and provide a consistency in the message. To illustrate this, we saw a clip from Alex Salmond’s speech at the last SNP party conference before the Independence Referendum.

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Ewan Crawford underlined to us Salmond’s repeated usage of first person plural pronouns: ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’ as a rhetorical strategy to make the audience part of the vision. This is what some classical scholars term ‘the rhetoric of inclusion’, and the modern political scientist Michael Billig terms ‘banal nationalism’. Ewan Crawford argued that Salmond was not questioning the idea of Scotland as a nation, but simply emphasising this fact through his rhetoric. The real argument in Salmond’s speech was about the benefits that independence would arguably bring to Scotland.

The overall point in Ewan Crawford’s talk was that this form of rhetoric is used across the political spectrum and on both sides of the question regarding the independence of Scotland. He illustrated this by showing examples of Jim Murphy (Scottish Labour leader 2014-15) and David Cameron. This broadening out the discussion of national identity to the coming referendum on EU and national identity in the UK vis-à-vis EU. Showing another video, this time from Cameron’s launch of the EU referendum, Ewan Crawford illustrated that Cameron also used ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our’ to create a sense of national identity. But he also showed that Cameron would rather speak of patriotism than nationalism. Some of us were thinking that ‘nationalism’ smacks of the British National Party (BNP) in England, which obviously has an entirely different agenda from SNP.

The final example to round off the paper was Gordon Brown’s 2008 Labour leader conference speech. In this speech, Brown spoke about the NHS with similar use of inclusive rhetoric without acknowledging the fact that he could not speak for the entire UK as Scotland has a separate health policy and a separate form of the NHS. The reason Ewan Crawford suggested was that acknowledging this fact would have gone against the tradition of party leader speeches which aim to offer a vision for the entire UK.

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National identity is a hot topic and the discussion after Ewan Crawford’s paper was lively and touched upon current politics (in Scotland, the UK and Catalonia/Spain), rhetorical devices for persuasion, and the role of the speechwriter in the political decision-making process.

A recording of Ewan Crawford’s talk can be found here.

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