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.

SK leaflet

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


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