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

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