Is There a Crisis in Political Rhetoric?

Is there a crisis in political rhetoric? The more you think about this questions the more you realise just how gargantuan the can of worms you just opened is. Simply knowing how to strategically approach this questions is a mission within itself, and that was the focus of the recent workshop hosted by the Network of Oratory and Politics which took place at Queen Mary University in London on Wednesday 13th September.

The speakers included some big names such as Philip Collins (Journalist and former speechwriter for Tony Blair), Gabriel Milland (Partner at Public First), Brian Jenner (Director of the European Speechwriter Network), Tony McNulty (Former Government Minister), and me (that Guy from the Cambridge Speechwriter)!

It was clear from the discussion that many people agreed there is a chronic distrust of politicians from the public. We discussed whether this is commonplace throughout history or whether it is a new phenomenon isolated to current political rhetoric. We also discussed whether this current crisis in political rhetoric (if it exists) is it a result of the way politicians are speaking or are there external factors such as the development of the media.

A significant part of the conversation focused on whether the use of a speechwriter impacts the authenticity of a speech. It is commonly believed that if a speech was written by someone other than the speaker it must be disingenuous or ‘fake’ to an extent. This is, of course, quite simply not true. In many cases a speechwriter simply provides the words which are used for communicating a message, the message itself is still genuine and ‘real’. On several occasions, I have written speeches for clients which have touched on very personal matters. If I hadn’t been chosen to write these speeches the speakers wouldn’t have been able to carry their message as far as they did, or indeed as effectively. Some of these messages were incredibly important and needed to be heard.

Here is a slightly different angle. Some people like to get paintings commissioned to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays or special occasions. Were you to do this, you would probably commission a professional portrait painter. Say it’s your 20th anniversary so you’re getting a painting made. I don’t think that anyone would say that you love your partner less because you didn’t paint the painting yourself. If anything, a poorly painted portrait (which is the only quality I’d ever be able to produce on my own) would be an insult. The same thinking should be applied to speeches. Speechwriting is a complicated art, and having a professional who specialises in the art doesn’t impact authenticity.

As well as authenticity people spoke about how rhetoric can’t be as passionate as it was in the past because people don’t have as much suffering, and suffering leads to heartfelt speeches.

There has definitely been a shift away from emotive speaking (especially in the UK), however, in the right places you can still find some superb speeches. For example, Johnny Mercer’s maiden speech from 2015 sounds like something that would have been worth of Martin Luther King. Mercer said…

“It is very difficult for those of us who have not experienced it, to truly grasp the bottomless well of grief, of losing a child, husband, brother or sister in war, as a result of a grave decision made in this house. This, Mr speaker, is the greatest sacrifice on the alter of this nation’s continuing freedom.” Johnny Mercer MP

Even in Prime Minister’s Questions we see some very emotive statements.

I think these examples demonstrate that there are still some rhetorically charged and brilliant speeches in British politics. One of the points raised during the discussion was whether or not politicians at the top are struggling to hold together weakly bound governments, and as a result are hesitating to speak as passionately as they could.

And, of course, we also spoke about Trump and how his speaking style sits within the traditional roots of rhetoric. The media choose to circulate Trump’s more ridiculous moments, however, if you listen to his speeches in full, some of them are a lot better than you might expect. There are some very strong examples of rhetoric in his speeches and it would be foolish to say otherwise. It makes me question whether a speech is successful because it is rhetorical, or is it rhetorical because it is successful?

After an entire day of discussing rhetoric with some of Britain’s leading thinkers on the subject, I am still unsure as to whether I believe that there is a crisis in political rhetoric. It was also clear that even the people in the room had different ideas of that ‘political rhetoric’ means. To properly discuss whether or not there is a crisis in political rhetoric a lot more thought needs to go into the definition of the terms as well as proving whether the crisis is caused by political rhetoric, or whether political rhetoric is simply the victim taking the blame for the role of other factors. Whatever the answer, the workshop was well both intellectually fascinating and thought-provoking and I would like to thank the Network for Oratory and Politics for facilitating the event and also for inviting me to speak on their panel.

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