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.

NOP Workshop Panel .png

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.


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

  1. Thanks for this, especially as I was unable to attend what sounds like a fascinating seminar.

    A small point: the promised link to Churchill’s Zurich speech (‘link to the original text of the Zurich oration can be found here’) is not there.


    Neil Foxlee


    On Mon, Jul 11, 2016 at 11:25 AM, Network for Oratory and Politics wrote:

    > networkfororatoryandpolitics posted: “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 hos” >


  2. A warm thank to all the speakers and the promoters of the Workshop for this valuable moment of reflection on such crucial political issues of our times, and also for the contextualization in a wider historical perspective that took in very serious consideration the pivotal link between the Greek-Roman political culture and its modern-contemporary developments.

    Pulchrum est bene facere rei publicae, etiam bene dicere haud absurdum est.



    Liked by 1 person

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