The Statesman and The Champion of Common Sense

‘Super Thursday’ is over with all their elections and now all attention is on the EU referendum on 23 June. On Monday 9 May, David Cameron and Boris Johnson offered their first major speeches in the final stretch of the debate about the EU. The news were full of reports about the speeches and aired the more humorous or powerful soundbites but none provided the full speeches. Yet, these were well worth reading. Of course for their clear expressions of the Remain vs the Leave campaign, but also for the rhetorical devices used and the parallels they offered with one of history’s greatest orators: the Roman statesman Cicero.

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Cameron’s speech was that of a statesman, combining sweeping statements on Britishness with more mundane observations on the economy, security and Britain’s role in the world. Johnson’s speech, by contrast, seemed aimed to chime with a more common-sense approach, even if Johnson shared a number of rhetorical devices with Cameron – and with Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was a close equivalent to the Prime Minister in the year of his consulship in 63 BC. In that year, he – as Cameron – was also facing what he presented as a major danger to the state, namely a plot against the state led by a fellow senator called Lucius Sergius Catilina. In nationalistic terms and playing on fear, Cicero would warn his fellow senators and the Roman people against the conspirators and their evil scheming, which compares surprisingly easily with Cameron’s warning against leaving the EU.

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Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome.

When Cameron told his audience and the British public at large that ‘our history teaches us’ and went on to reference Caesar, the Napoleonic Wars and the Berlin Wall (and later many others), he was using an age-old rhetorical device of finding historical examples which could add support to the argument put forward. Cicero was a master of such precedents and in his speeches against Catiline, he used the examples of Tiberius Gracchus, Spurius Maelius and other so-called traitors to illustrate the undisputed outcome of plotting against the state. Johnson also used such references, either to challenge the Remain campaign or to ridicule what he called their ‘Peace-in-Europe’ argument. This argument Johnson summarised: ‘that if Britain leaves the EU, there will be a return to slaughter on Flanders Fields.’ He also used a historical example to support his own argument for freedom: ‘we will be vindicated by history; and we will win for exactly the same reason that the Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon – because they are fighting for an outdated absolutist ideology, and we are fighting for freedom.’ Historical examples are wonderfully flexible and can be used to conjure up almost any image or association in the audience if chosen and deployed well.

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Painting of Pheidippides as he gave word of the Greek victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon to the people of Athens. Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869 © Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons.


Another strong element in Cameron’s and Johnson’s speeches was their depiction or use of the character of the British people and the British nation. Cameron was very direct in his use of adjectives to designate the Brits: defiant, brave, indefatigable, successful, thriving, ambitious, resilient, independent-minded, tolerant, generous, inventive, obstinately practical, rigorously down to earth, natural debunkers, with a cast of mind rooted in common sense and, especially proud (an adjective used eight times in the speech alongside the twelve time uses of ‘nation’). Johnson instead tried to speak to that set of character traits in his common-sense approach: ‘There is simply no common political culture in Europe; no common media, no common sense of humour or satire; and – this is important – no awareness of each other’s politics, so that the European Union as a whole has no common sense of the two things you need for a democracy to work efficiently. (…) That is why there is such cavalier waste and theft of EU funds: because it is everybody’s money, it is nobody’s money.’ Nobody would dream of arguing against either position. Of course, the British are all those things which Cameron says, and of course Johnson is right, too. Yet, both are using the argument about or appeal to what they present is a truly British character to flatter any British listener. Cicero did something quite similar in his first Catilinarian speech: ‘what I say applies equally to those Roman equestrians, fine and honourable men that they are, and to the rest of the citizens, men of great courage…’ (in Dominic Berry’s fine translation, Oxford University Press, 2006). Flattery works, even when the flattered know that they are being flattered.

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‘Cicero Denounces Catiline’, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882-1888.

The persona of a statesman, adopted by both Cameron and Cicero, did not lend itself so well to humour as did that of Johnson’s championship of common sense. Hilarious metaphors such as ‘because negotiating on behalf of the EU is like trying to ride a vast pantomime horse, with 28 people blindly pulling in different directions,’ is immediately funny if not also tragic if you think it true. Hyperbole (overstatement), too, was frequent in Johnson’s speech and aided mainly by a ridicule of pro-EU rhetoric of progress: ‘Now when the single market dawned, we were told that it was going to be a great dynamo of job and wealth creation… We were told that it was going to send exports whizzing ever faster across borders… We were told that goods would start pinging around the EEC as if in some supercharged cyclotron’ (note also the anaphora of starting his sentences with ‘we were told…’ – similar to Cicero’s emphasis of ‘nihil’ (‘nothing’) at the beginning of his first Catilinarian speech). Johnson even used French words (‘les reseaux telematiques’) to show his complete mastery of all things European whilst at the same time making fun of the language spoken in that city made to symbolise all that is bad about the EU: Brussels.

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Finally, both Cameron and Johnson claimed that the other side did not have the answers to what they presented as the most crucial questions in the debate. Cameron stated: ‘and yet they can’t even answer the most basic questions’, while Johnson proclaimed: ‘the answer is that the Remain campaign have no answers to any of these questions’. Of course, they made their choice of questions carefully, but it still shows that pointing the finger at the opposition’s shortcomings is still predicted to work. Cicero’s antagonist, Catilina, did not have the chance to voice his opinions but if he had, he would perhaps have argued that Cicero’s frequent use of rhetorical questions was overdone and also asking the wrong questions.

Read the full speeches of David Cameron and Boris Johnson.



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