A Rhetorical Review of PMQs

Summer recess is over so parliament is back and with it comes Prime Minister’s Questions! To many people, PMQs seems like one of the crazy side effects of democracy. Politicians jeering, waving papers and making snide comments whilst devolving into a tribal state of savagery. This anthropological debacle is chaired by the speaker, who like a toothless beast has to control the chamber with nothing but howls. It is worthy enough to be a David Attenborough documentary.

Despite the lunacy of PMQs it offers many examples of both good and bad public speaking. It’s not technically a speech, it’s not technically a debate but it’s sort of a bit of both. MPs often just make a statement and force it into the form of a question. For example, ‘Wouldn’t the Prime Minister agree that [ENTER GENERIC STATEMENT HERE]’.

The first question that stood out was Ruth Smeeth’s. She said…

 “This summer a third of all parents across the country went without a meal to ensure that they could feed their children during the school holidays. In Stoke-on-Trent amazing volunteers came together to provide over 10,000 meals for local kids. I’m very proud of my constituents, but I’m disgusted at this government who have done nothing and turned a blind eye. How many kids have to go hungry, how many parents have to go without food before this Prime Minister will do her job and act?”

This is a very emotive question and uses a lot of pathos. It is very difficult to talk about families and hunger and not have an emotive impact on your audience. The way she asked her question at the end then emphasised the emotive appeal. But she didn’t just use pathos. She also had an effective contrast between ‘I’m proud’ and ‘I’m disgusted’. This sort of contrast is called antithesis.

Ruth Smeeth wasn’t the only person to use antithesis in today’s PMQs, the Prime Minister, Theresa May attacked Jeremy Corbyn by saying “We believe in sound money, he believes in higher debt. We believe in making our economy strong so we can invest in our public services. Labour’s approach is reckless ours is balanced.”. This entire part of her response was to basically say he is X I am Y (with an implied ‘isn’t Y better’)! Ruth’s use of antithesis was to strengthen her emotive appeal whilst Theresa May’s use was to attack Jeremy Corbyn (attacking your opponent’s ethos is also known as ad hominem).

Theresa May also used an ascending tricolon of anaphora. This is when you repeat the beginning of a clause three times. She said: “We will continue to balance the need to protect jobs, the need to protect public sector workers and the need to ensure that we are also protecting and being fair to those who are paying for it, including public sector workers.” Using a tricolon enhances your message whilst anaphora allows you to repeat your important points – in this instance the need to protect.

Another powerfully emotive question was asked by Luciana Berger who said…

“A few weeks ago, the utterly shaming lack of mental health provision in this country was condemned by our most senior family court judge as he sought a bed for a desperately ill teenage girl. The 17-year-old had been restrained no fewer than 117 times in a place not fit to care for her. Does the Prime Minister agree with me in echoing the words of Sir James Munby: the continued failure to tackle our nations mental health crisis means the state will have blood on its hands?”.

This is a very powerful question on a very emotive subject. Using a narrative always helps strengthen emotive impact. Luciana also enhances her argument by bolstering the authority of James Munby by calling him ‘our most senior family court judge’. Invoking authority like this to strengthen your argument is a use of ethos.

As you can see, despite the boisterous and sometimes juvenile nature of PMQs there are still lots of examples of powerful and emotive uses of rhetoric.

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