The ‘Challengers’ Debate’ from a Classicist’s point of view


The BBC election debate on 16 April 2015 featured the leaders of the five parties around the UK who are not currently in Parliament, but have a chance of getting seats.

The politicians did not appear in toga candida (‘in the white toga’) as their Roman Republican counterparts would have, but in clothing of different hues, and their discussion was equally colourful.


The ‘Challengers’

Because there were several party leaders presenting themselves to a tight schedule, there was not the chance to make proper speeches, as politicians in ancient Rome would have delivered, but it was more a case of quick reactions, brief sound-bites, pointed phrases and witty answers.

The debate had been billed as ‘four against one’ since Labour leader Ed Miliband was naturally the most prominent of the five, which also included UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and the Welsh Plaid Cymru. A key point was the absence of the leaders of the governing parties, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. So at the end Ed Miliband issued a direct challenge David Cameron, saying: ‘If you believe this election is about leadership then debate me one-on-one.’


If there were to be a one-on-one debate, there would be a greater chance of delivering something like proper speeches. However, Ed Miliband could also make a speech about his own party and against his rivals without their cooperation: in Republican Rome political orators like Marcus Tullius Cicero sometimes wrote invectives against opponents or defences of their own activities in the shape of speeches without ever delivering them. This was possible because the ‘speech’ was the form for political discussion and campaigning. This is no longer the case, of course, although the public still admires impressive speakers such as US-President Barack Obama.

Still, the culture of the sound-bite and debate requires rhetorical skills of their own. As Nicola Sturgeon was called a ‘formidable debater’ in advance, this was clearly acknowledged. However, perhaps because of the format of the debate, for a large part of the debate the party leaders resorted to presenting themselves as alternatives to the current government in different ways, for instance by claiming to be ‘bold’ and ‘progressive’, and they accused each other of ‘lying’ and ‘exploiting people’s fears’.

While in the Roman Republic candidates did not stand for election on the basis of a party manifesto, mainly because there were no political parties in the modern sense, they did give the electorate a sense of their programmes in their inaugural speeches after the election. For instance, when Cicero was elected to the position of consul, to the highest office in the Roman Republic, somewhat comparable to a British Prime Minister, he told the electorate in his first speech that he had taken over the state in a situation of crisis and unrest, but that he would ensure peace and tranquillity for everybody if they just followed his lead, tough he did not identify any specific policies.



This strategy of promising things everybody would agree with, while not revealing too many details, is reminiscent of some statements of modern politicians: the substance is similar even if the rhetoric is different. And of course, a TV debate, broadcast to millions, may require different presentation strategies than a speech only delivered to a limited audience present at the time.

Thus, while it may be more entertaining to see five party leaders clash for an hour or two than listen to a single speech by Cicero for the same amount of time, one still needs to dig deeper to get a sense of the respective policies. Now that there are party manifestos and audio-visual media, the electorate is in the comfortable position to be able to look at the policies and to see how party leaders present themselves and their ideas rhetorically.


Alex Salmond in person


Yesterday Alex Salmond was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow in recognition of his contribution to public life. After the award he gave a speech entitled ‘The Primacy of Practical Experience.’

The venue was Bute Hall, a grand neo-gothic hall with stained-glass windows. In the stained-glass windows I noticed two masters of oratory: Aristotle and John Chrysostom (circa 349-407 A.D.), the epithet means ‘golden-mouthed’ in Greek. Aristotle was a theorist of oratory; Chrysostom was a master practitioner of the art. Alex Salmond may not have a golden mouth but he certainly has a smooth tongue.


Alex Salmon, SNP at The University of Glasgow

Mr Salmond’s skill as an orator was clear from the start. He began by showing his keen awareness that his audience was composed of several different groups and constituencies: ‘Ladies, gentlemen, professors, students, hangers-on, people who’ve sneaked in through the back, members of Her Majesty’s Press Corps…’. You can see this extract from his speech here.

This raised a loud laugh, but there is a serious point here too: a good speaker must know his/her audience. He/she must know who the audience are, and what their interests are, so as to pitch the speech correctly. He/she must use an appropriate register of language and must address the specific concerns of the audience. The audience yesterday was composed mainly of students and academics. Therefore it made sense that education was one of the key themes of Mr Salmond’s address. He mentioned great inventions by Scots such as the telephone, television, and anaesthetics, and said that it was education that made these inventions possible. He added that if Robert Burns had been born in any other country he would not have been Robert Burns because someone in his social position would not have been educated. That is why he, Alex Salmond, vowed never to introduce tuition fees. At this point there was a huge burst of applause from the audience, showing that Mr Salmond had judged his audience well. He followed this up with an attack on Labour, pointing out that the UK parliament vote on tuition fees on 27 January 2004 was passed by a majority of 5, with Scottish Labour MPs voting for, and SNP voting against. Mr Salmond called this Tony Blair’s ‘Nick Clegg moment’ and added: ‘I bet many students wish there had been more SNP MPs back then in Westminster.’ The attack on Labour makes sense in strategic terms because Labour is the SNP’s main rival. Most of the votes gained by the SNP are from lost Labour votes; therefore the SNP’s main strategy at this point seems to be to present itself as the party of social justice in Scotland.


The party of social justice in Scotland?

The main argument of Mr Salmond’s speech was based on Adam Smith. Mr Salmond reminded the audience that Adam Smith considered The Wealth of Nations (1776) as a supplement to his previous work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Mr Salmond argued that Adam Smith ‘needs to be reclaimed’ from those who haven’t read The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He stressed the importance of sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and claimed that enlightened self-interest is entirely compatible with sympathy. According to Smith we should use our imagination to become aware of the suffering of others, because no society can be considered healthy if the greater part is in a desperate plight. Mr Salmond’s next reference was to Barack Obama who has said that ‘we have an empathy deficit’ as well as a budget deficit. The conclusion to Mr Salmond’s speech followed the classical structure of the peroration. Peroration is described at the beginning of the 6th book of Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory. Quintilian says it should be both stirring and ethical.


Statue of Adam Smith, University of Glasgow

Mr Salmond’s peroration managed to tick both of these boxes. He recapitulated his central argument, namely: ‘Adam Smith’s work has been claimed by many whose lack of sympathy would have repelled him’. He claimed that ‘these two books by Adam Smith provide a balance which enables us to face the modern world’. And he concluded with an emotional appeal, using the key word ‘heart’ in order to elicit an emotional response from the audience: ‘If we take this message to heart, it could secure not just the wealth but the well-being of this nation and all other nations.’ In other words, Mr Salmond did what many politicians claim to do. He claimed to have found the perfect balance between economic interests and moral interests. He claimed to have found the magic formula that will save us both from economic ruin and from moral ruin. He was rewarded by a huge round of applause. Whether or not this will convert into seats in Westminster remains to be seen.

The ITV Leaders’ Debate


Last night (Thursday 2 April 2015), the ITV Leaders’ Debate took place in the Salford Quays television studios. The seven party leaders (in alphabetical order) were:

Natalie Bennett (Green), David Cameron (Conservative), Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru). The moderator was Julie Etchingham.


The set looked like a quiz show, perhaps The Weakest Link, but this is a historic event because this is the first time that seven political parties have been represented in a live election debate. Nigel Farage kept saying that his rivals were all the same, but what was on show last night was the genuine diversity of political parties and constituencies in the UK. This was particularly clear with Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood. Here are women, voices and accents that we are not used to hearing on British television. Not only are the leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens women, they are women who are not English and do not sound English at all. They gave an impression of coming from very different places, and offering very different perspectives.

Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric identifies three types of proof used by the public speaker: ethos (character); logos (reasoning) and pathos (emotion). Let’s consider how the party leaders performed in terms of each of these three categories.

The political orator must establish his or her ethos, in other words, he or she has to assert their credibility as a person that the audience can trust. Throughout the debate, the party leaders (except perhaps Bennett) tried to emphasise their connection with the electorate by using personal or anecdotal assertions based on their own personal experiences. The assertion of ethos was particularly clear at the start. Each leader affirmed their ethos in a different way in their opening statement. Bennett affirmed her principles, aiming for the moral high ground. Cameron presented himself as a man with a plan, a plan that he said was working. Clegg tried to project a moderate image. His balance and calm was maintained until near the end of the debate when he finally lost his cool (more on this later). Farage claimed that he was more ‘in touch’ with ‘ordinary people’ and accused the other ‘Westminster parties’ of being ‘detached’. Farage attempts to come across as an ‘ordinary’ person who cuts across ‘the usual political debates’. He claimed that most of the other party leaders ‘have never had jobs’ (although he did not mention that his own previous job was as a commodity trader in the City). Farage’s favoured term was ‘ordinary (working) people’; Miliband’s term was ‘working people’, the people ‘sitting at home in front of their TV sets’. Miliband’s slogan was: ‘Britain succeeds when working people succeed’. He promised to raise the minimum wage from £6.50 to £8.00 and to end zero hours contracts. Sturgeon presented herself as representing ‘progressive politics’. Later on she stressed her working class roots: ‘I grew up in a working class family. I wouldn’t be standing here without the free education I had access to.’ This makes tactical sense because the SNP’s main rival in Scotland is Labour; therefore Sturgeon needs to present herself as a champion of social justice. (She is much better qualified to do this than Alex Salmond, whose ‘progressive’ credentials were damaged when he approved Donald Trump’s golf course back in 2008). Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) emphasised her ethos as a woman of the people: she hails from the Rhondda valley in Wales, a former mining community. There was an interesting exchange of rhetoric right at the start here between the leaders of the largest parties. Cameron’s statement concluded that ‘Britain can do so much better’. Miliband turned this phrase back on him by saying that ‘Britain can do so much better than it has done over the past five years’. In terms of personal ethos, Cameron strongly projected the confidence that comes with being Prime Minister. Miliband was clearly less confident. Both of these positions involve risks: if Miliband could be seen to lack authority, conversely, Cameron runs the risk of appearing over-confident.


The second category for the orator is logos, the use of reasoning to construct an argument. All of the speakers pursued the logic of their own position in an attempt to construct a plausible narrative. An important part of this narrative was to invoke ‘history’: each party leader proposed a different version of history, as well as a different vision of the future. ‘History’ for Cameron and Clegg means that Labour is responsible for public debt because of over-spending when it was in power. ‘History’ for Miliband means ‘the promise of Britain where each generation does better than the last’. ‘History’ for Farage means a ten-fold increase in immigration since the fifties. ‘History’ for Bennett means climate change and the extinction of animal species. ‘History’ for Wood and Sturgeon means the neglect of their constituents by successive Westminster governments. These narratives point towards some very different futures. Farage’s future involves leaving the EU and building closer ties with the Commonwealth, ‘our real allies’. The idea that the Commonwealth countries could replace the EU in terms of economic significance for the UK is, of course, absurd. The question also arises of how Farage hopes to build ties with the Commonwealth, given that he plans to cut Britain’s overseas aid budget. But logos has never been Farage’s strong point. Like most populists he appeals instead to the emotions of his audience (pathos). Cameron’s future vision, with some beautiful alliteration, involved ‘getting Britain back in the black’. He also promised to ‘finish the job that we have started’. Clegg promised that he would always ‘act fairly’ and also pledged to reduce the deficit. But their opponents countered that, based on the coalition’s previous performance, a major reduction of the budget deficit would be unlikely. Miliband called for ‘a better way, a fairer way for our country’ and asked Cameron: ‘Are we going to have fairer taxes?’. Cameron and Clegg responded by challenging his economic competence, despite the fact that Miliband set out plans to make the rich pay a ‘fairer share’, e.g. by a ‘mansion tax’ on properties worth over £2 million. Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood offered voters ‘hope’, and a future that is ‘different’ and more ‘progressive’.

All seven candidates used the key word ‘fair’ at some point. We should be aware that the word ‘fair’ obviously means very different things to different people. To some it could mean lower taxes, to others it could mean an end to austerity. The word ‘fair’ doesn’t actually say very much. It has a general appeal, but it lacks specificity. Many viewers might have wanted to ask: Fair by whose standards? Fair for who(m)? The format of the debate made it very hard to get down to specifics, and quite a lot of loose language being used.

The third type of rhetorical proof described by Aristotle is pathos (emotion). Political orators want to appeal to the emotions of their audience. Let’s start with pity. Bennett tried to move the audience to pity when she pointed out that this was a debate about human lives: the UN had asked the UK to take ‘our fair share of Syrian refugees’, but the UK had only admitted 143. Cameron responded by saying that the UK was the second largest bilateral aid donor to Syria. Miliband referred to the major incident tent erected outside the accident and emergency unit at Norfolk and Norwich hospital, calling it a scandal; Cameron countered by recalling the mortality rates at Stafford hospital: ‘what about mid-Staffs?’. Perhaps the strongest appeal to pity was by Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, who explained that Wales has some of the very worst child poverty in the European Union.

Pity is a strong emotion, but fear is arguably stronger. Cameron frequently raised concerns about the economy (a strategy which worked effectively in Scotland’s referendum last year, when it was termed ‘project fear’). His opponents, including Miliband, pointed out that there were good reasons to fear for the NHS. Farage invited pity when he claimed that ‘English taxpayers are getting a rotten deal’, and he even displayed self-pity, claiming that his challenge ‘was ignored and brushed aside for politically correct reasons.’ But these were crocodile tears. Immediately afterwards he switched to fear, and complained about foreigners with HIV living in Britain. This drew an intervention from Wood, who told Farage: ‘this scaremongering is dangerous. I think you should be ashamed of yourself’ (this drew a burst of applause from the audience). This did not stop Farage, though, who soon referred to the fact that ‘ten former communist countries’ are now members of the EU, playing on memories of the Cold War. Over the two hours, the strongest attacks on Farage were by Sturgeon and Wood. At one point Sturgeon commented: ‘There’s not anything that Nigel Farage won’t blame on foreigners’.

Towards the end of the two-hour debate, emotions started to run high. When asked to say something optimistic to the younger generation, Cameron spoke of the international status of the UK: ‘We have clout in the world, we can get things done’. At this point a member of the audience stood up and challenged him about homeless veterans on the street. This unplanned intervention caused a stir, but Cameron responded quickly: ‘She’s making a very important point’, before listing the measures he was taking to address this problem. By saying ‘she’ rather than ‘you’, Cameron was able to switch back to the audience and effectively excluded the heckler from further debate. Miliband came under criticism from potential allies. When he declared that his policy on zero hours was different because ‘I’m going to do something about it’, Wood pointed out that Welsh Labour had voted against a Plaid Cymru move to ban zero hours, and argued that Labour do not practise what they preach. This caused a stir but Miliband stood his ground and hit back against Cameron’s implied view that the economy requires zero contract hours. As for Clegg, after having been put on the spot yet again about tuition fees, he lost his cool and snapped at Miliband, calling on him to take responsibility for the Labour party’s role in the financial crisis. Miliband pointed out that ‘there was a global financial crisis.’

The closing statements highlighted the differences between the political leaders and their parties. Clegg promised to keep Britain ‘stable, strong and fair’; Wood ‘a Wales that counts.’ Farage repeated that his opponents were ‘all the same’. Sturgeon warned that austerity means that ‘ordinary people’ pay the price. Bennett borrowed the words of a Nike advert: ‘If you’re thinking about voting Green, do it.’ Miliband closed with: ‘Let’s bring the change that Britain needs.’ Cameron closed with: ‘Let’s stick to the plan, let’s not go back to square one.’ We know that politicians do not always keep their promises but it seems that there are real differences between these political parties.

You can watch the debate here.

Has politics in Scotland been changed for good?


Two of Scotland’s foremost political commentators discussed politics during and after the Scottish referendum at a preview event for Glasgow’s book festival, Aye Write! The presentation of independence by the Yes and No campaigns, as well as the current discussions of the SNP’s role in May’s General Election, show how important these rhetorical moments can be in current debates – a theme we first visited with Murray Pittock in his launch lecture.


Rhetoric Then:

The event’s chair, Brian Meechan (BBC Wales), described the two campaigns as ‘Project Fear versus Project Pollyanna’, and both commentators thought about the effect of negative and positive rhetoric. David Torrance thought that it was possible to be too negative as well as too positive, describing them as ‘equally irresponsible’. In the end, as he pointed out, even the Yes side began their own fear campaign threatening the privatisation of the NHS. Iain Macwhirter got one of the biggest rounds of applause with his reply: ‘that’s funny, because that’s exactly what’s happened!’ But he was also puzzled by Better Together’s inability to make a broad unionist argument, rather than the dry, elitist one that predominated.

For Iain Macwhirter, one specific event stood as out a turning point: George Osborne’s declaration about the pound, 12 February 2014. This was an ‘unfortunate development’ that presented the pound as not being common property, something that the rest of the UK could take away from Scotland. Iain Macwhirter went right back to the Acts of Union in 1707 to argue that Scotland and England are a partnership, in fact, and this declaration undermined the moral value of that union. The element of coercion implicit in this declaration has had a damaging relationship in the long term, and Iain Macwhirter thinks this will be the moment remembered as signalling the end of the union.

Rhetoric Now:

Asked about positive developments since the referendum, David Torrance found it hard to answer, pointing out that politics has become more tribal. In policy terms, he thinks that it has become ‘much more rhetorical’ or empty of action. Recently, he does think that Nicola Sturgeon has begun to move away from that ‘rhetorical stuff’ but we are still a long way from creating a social democracy not just talking about it.

The role of the SNP in wider UK politics drew Iain Macwhirter’s attention. The Conservative rhetoric implies that is its undemocratic for the SNP to exercise their voting rights in Westminster or to be involved in the formation of the next parliament. According to him, this suggestion that they are second class citizens is a ‘death wish’ and ‘the surest way to force Scotland out of the union’.

In all, this discussion brought out clearly the power of speech acts, rhetoric and representation. It set the tone of the referendum debate and it is still having an effect on Scotland now. Both commentators see political oratory as a tool that can have a significant effect on our political landscape, but it can also be a stand-in for real action.


Getting behind the rhetoric – Cameron and Miliband interviewed on 26 March 2015


In what had been described as the first of the TV debates leading up to the General Election, David Cameron and Ed Miliband were yesterday evening questioned by Jeremy Paxman and an audience on Sky News/Channel 4.


Of course, it was not a real TV debate. Cameron had refused a direct confrontation with Miliband because he knows that he has Prime Minister – with all the authority that office lends – had everything to lose. What Downing Street had negotiated instead was an interview with Paxman and a ‘town-hall meeting’ with an audience asking questions; this then had to be the same for the Miliband. So we had four sections of separate interviews and town-hall meetings, the latter moderated by Kay Burley.


Cameron, Burley, Paxman and Miliband

For what it was, it was not a bad replacement for a head-to-head between the leader of the sitting government and the leader of the opposition. Rhetorically, it was perhaps even more challenging because they had to negotiate two modes of questioning, whilst keeping the audience on the sofas at home in mind too.

What to wear for those two modes? Again, Miliband and Cameron had opted for the same, safe choice: what we might call the ‘statesman attire’: dark suit, white shirt and discreet blue tie. No multicoloured or patterned ties (let alone opinionated pins, eccentrically coloured socks, or relaxed blazers) to take attention away from the image of a hard-working, serious top politician who is ready to and capable of lead the country.

So how did they perform in these two modes? Clearly, both had experience of both modes and had prepared for them. When questioned by Paxman, they both refused to be pushed into corners (Miliband: ‘I am not going into hypothetical numbers’) and simply repeated their answers when Paxman repeated his questions. In the town-hall meeting, they both tried to relate to the questioner by using their first name (Cameron: ‘Thank you for your question, Matthew’) and they both tried to give a more personal angle: Cameron talked about the wonderful care received by the NHS when his young son Ivan was fatally ill, while Miliband admitted that the leadership contest between himself and his brother David had been ‘bruising’ and was not recovered but ‘recovering’. But most of all they tried with Paxman to come across as top politicians knowing their material, while with the audience they played the role of the local MP caring for real people and real issues.


Cameron and Paxmann

It was like watching ancient Roman top politicians being cross-examined first in the senate by a fellow senator and then in the popular assembly – both contexts placed specific oratorical demands on the speaker and a senator could walk straight from one meeting to the other. The challenge was – and still is for modern politicians – to manage this change of public persona in such a way that it doesn’t undermine the overall image of a trustworthy politician.

Paxman took Cameron’s campaign mantra, the ‘long-term economic plan’ offered by the Conservatives, as an invitation to grill Cameron on the issues of food banks, zero-hour contracts, state borrowing, cuts on the welfare state and VAT. Unsurprisingly, Cameron continued his now well-practiced habit of churning out statistics to evidence his statements about having rescued Britain from the economic brink at which it arguably stood in 2010. But while many interviewers have let Cameron have the last word because such numbers sound convincing, Paxman pushed Cameron by asking four times whether Cameron could live on a zero-hour contract himself, by silencing Cameron with his observation that the current government had borrowed more than the previous one had, and making the Conservative’s budget seem less well planned because Cameron could not or would not say where the 10 out of the total 12 billion pound welfare cuts would come from.

Miliband underwent a different interview tactic, but again one designed to exhibit flaws and weaker spots in Labour’s plans. Paxman started off by opening the immigration question: ‘do you think Britain is full?’ This was a question about immigration figures and a quest for promises (Miliband: ‘I will not make false promises’; Paxman: ‘you have four false promises!’), and an attempt to distinguish Miliband and Labour from Cameron and the Conservatives. What was not explicit, however, is that this is one of the major issues which could also distinguish Labour from UKIP: both are appealing to working-class people with daily-life problems, but they are at odds about the solution to these problems.


Over the course of the interview, it became clear that Paxman was trying to drill down into details of Labour’s plans should they be in government after the election, while Miliband tried with all his rhetorical power to talk about values, the ‘big picture’ and his ‘overall approach’. When asked directly about whether Labour would reduce or increase overall spending should they come to power, Miliband’s ‘likely to fall’ answer seemed vague. Clearly, Miliband doesn’t revel in the detailed number-quoting as does Cameron, but such vagueness comes across badly. On the other hand, Miliband’s expressions of values that we can all subscribe to (working for a decent salary, for example) went down well with the invited audience. Again, it was again a question of calibrating precisely to the audience at hand: the probing journalist or the broader studio audience.

Unsurprisingly, Miliband was questioned – by both studio audience and Paxman – about his perceived lack of leadership qualities. Paxman opened this question with a story about ‘a bloke on the Tube’ saying that Miliband would not be able to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, this story may be true or not, but by using the bloke on the Tube as a representative of what people generally think about Miliband’s leadership qualities, Paxman fell into a particular rhetorical mode increasingly adopted by politicians: using an anecdote about a specific person as representative of a broader trend (a mode analysed by political scientists Alan Finlayson and Judi Atkins). The benefit of this rhetorical device is that it distances the person telling the anecdote from the view expressed, whilst keeping the view credible because ‘a real person’ and, allegedly, others believe this view. Miliband’s response was to speak about being tough, being what he is, about having principles, about not caring about what newspapers write and about caring about the British people – and this drew applause from the studio audience.


The advantages of questions from studio audiences are, for the politician, the possibility to appear on a level with the people of the country, and, for the population, the possibility to gauge whether the politician is generally trustworthy. The advantage for the TV channels is that it makes good television. However, for the population, the overriding advantage of questions from a pair of experienced journalists – and let us not forget that Kay Burley came in with her own probing questions during the audience question time – is that they can dig deeper through a series of questions rather than asking just one. Having the time and opportunity to get behind the rhetoric of the ‘long-term economic plan’ and the ‘working people are £1600 worse off under David Cameron’ is the real benefit of such interviews.

Professor John Curtice: A Different Ball Game? The 2015 UK Election


Yesterday (19 March 2015) at Glasgow University there was a lecture by John Curtice,Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, entitled “A Different Ball Game? The 2015 UK Election”. He explained that the current situation implies a big difference from the traditional two-party system in the UK: right now we are looking at six parties who could potentially be decisive in forming a government. The two large parties now flanked by the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Greens and the SNP. He pointed out that the two main parties only get a two thirds share of the total votes. There are now around 80 or 90 MPs who do not belong to Labour or Conservatives. With the Tories and Labour projected to get around 285 seats each, a hung parliament looks increasingly likely. This is a situation in which no single party has a sufficient majority to govern.


Professor John Curtice

Using statistical analysis, Professor Curtice showed that two of every three voters that the Conservatives have lost since 2010 now favour UKIP. At the same time, Labour is losing supporters in Scotland to the SNP. Meanwhile, the decline in support for the Lib Dems has boosted poll ratings for the Greens.

The last two decades have seen the two largest parties competing for ‘the centre ground’ – Tony Blair once claimed that elections are won and lost ‘in the centre ground’. This phrase ‘the centre ground’ is a metaphor, a rhetorical construction. No one knows exactly what the centre ground is, just as it is hard to define exactly what ‘normality’ is. These concepts are rhetorically convenient but difficult to define: they cover up a multitude of differences.


In any case, this move towards ‘the centre’ by the big parties has opened up room for smaller parties to emerge. The small parties can now appeal to voters who feel neglected by the main political parties. As Michael Meacher MP commented in a recent blog, ‘Blair is wrong that the centre ground wins elections; not this time.’

The Labour government of 1977-79 only managed to stay in power through unofficial deals with the SNP and Ulster Unionists. Something similar may occur this year.

Nobody wants to discuss possible coalitions in detail now. The smaller parties know, from the recent experience of the Liberal Democrats, that it can damage the reputation of a small party to enter into a coalition with a larger party.

But, like it or not, deals will have to be struck. After the general election in May, no single party is set to have a majority. So: tough negotiation will be inevitable.

This means that there will also be some very interesting rhetoric in the weeks after the UK election in May, as the competing parties struggle to come to some kind of a deal.

Defining Britain – the Rhetoric of the Budget 2015



This budget was touted as the moment the election campaign began, and George Osborne had the responsibility of getting the Conservative party off to a good start. Osborne needed to create and maintain the ethos, or authority, of the party (as we discussed at our workshop) so that voters believe they are trustworthy, they make the right decisions, and they are good for Britain.

Osborne did this immediately, and he did it by defining the past, present and future on his own terms. By taking control of the historical and contemporary context, Osborne was able to manipulate the debate in the Conservative’s favour: “We took difficult decisions in the teeth of opposition and it worked.”

He repeated the phrase “Five years ago”, contrasting the (negative) situation at the end of the last Labour government with the (positive) situation “today”. Five years, five examples. One would have done, of course, but with this repetition Osborne emphasised his point that Britain is better off now that it was before the Coalition.

Moving to the future, Osborne pointed to the “critical choice” facing the electorate. But in fact, Osborne makes the choice for us: “today we make that critical choice, we choose the future.” This becomes the next refrain, what do the Conservatives choose? Economic security, jobs, the whole nation, responsibility, aspiration, families. This sets up a false dichotomy; it is not that Labour have rejected these generic descriptors. But Osborne makes these things the Conservative choice, and connects them to a Conservative future.


In his response, Ed Miliband immediately begins to undermine Osborne’s claims by re-writing the present in particular: “Never has the gap between the chancellor’s rhetoric and the reality of people’s lives been greater than it was today.” Osborne said families would be around £900 better off, Miliband says they are £1,600 worse off. Predicting the people’s reaction, Miliband says that this is “a budget they won’t believe from a government they don’t trust.”

As we can see here, a crucial part of political oratory (or any oratory) is framing the debate in a way that suits the speaker. Both Osborne and Miliband shift and blur the terms of discussion to make their points, with Miliband picking up the themes of Osborne’s statement to undermine them. But, as one commentator has already pointed out, how will Miliband’s gloomy vision of the future compare with Osborne’s?

What was your reaction to the Budget 2015? Did you find Osborne’s statistically-charged rhetoric convincing, or did you prefer Miliband’s reality check? Join the discussion on Facebook or Twitter, or see more on our website.

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Speaking to the People


Talking about ‘Speaking to the People’ also involves speaking to the people. At our second event last week, a workshop, three speakers made three speeches to a room full of students, academics and non-academics. It was a mixed audience, but we had a shared interest in political oratory. From the self-presentation of the ancient orator Cicero to a modern politician’s use of anecdotes, we traced connections and themes throughout history in a day full of fascinating discussion.

Dr Amy Russell was our first speaker, discussing ‘A World of Ciceros? Speaking to the people in Republican Rome’. Dr Russell is a Classicist from Durham University, and began by questioning the suggestion that Mary Beard made in a recent BBC article, that Roman politicians were always trying to persuade the people of something.


Dr Amy Russell Durham University

The Roman world was undoubtedly full of public speech, as Dr Russell demonstrated using Cicero’s first-hand evidence, but political success doesn’t always depend on oratorical ability. In any case, it is hard to know what a standard Roman speech was like. Clearly, some Roman speeches were improvised and they could be very good – Cicero himself praises them.

But in most cases, persuading an audience is not the main aim of Roman oratory. A Roman public meeting (a contio) is more like a modern party conference speech or a rally, talking to a group of people who have already made up their mind.

Instead, Cicero’s most powerful weapon is ethos, a subject that came up again and again during the day. Ethos is a term that comes from Aristotle’s rhetorical theory and refers to the authority of the speaker. Cicero, for example in his On the Agrarian Laws, reminds the people that he is a good speaker, discusses his political consistency, and assures them that he is acting in their interest. The key issue is not the bill, but Cicero himself. Of course, this is very reminiscent of modern politicians too.


Prof. Alan Finlayson UEA

Our next speaker, Alan Finlayson, a Professor of Political and Social Theory from the University of East Anglia, took up this idea of ethos and applied it to the party conference speeches of politicians from 1895 to today. The changes over time can tell us about changes in political life, political speech and politics more broadly.

A big difference is in the content of speeches. Since the 1990s, and especially during the 2000s, it became common for politicians to talk more about themselves and the people they have met, using personal anecdotes.

This is a problem. Political arguments work by taking generally held views and applying them to specific situations. In this way, rhetoric can act as a mirror for the audience. It lays out all the possibilities and allows the audience to decide: which part of themselves and their common beliefs do they want to emphasise most?

But when modern politicians tell these personal anecdotes, they are not representing the collective ethos. As a result, they do not have an impact on their audience so they cannot help their audience to make decisions or change the situation in reality. This compounds the crisis of trust in modern politics.


Rodger Evans, Speechwriter

Rodger Evans, our third speaker and a speechwriter in the Scottish Parliament, knows about these things first hand. In his own personal anecdote, he admits that he likes quotes, a lot, and shows it by quoting from politicians, books, songs and celebrities throughout his speech.

Evans sees speechwriters as tailors, makers of bespoke garments. Like clothes, quotes should be an adornment but they also have a utilitarian aspect – quotes must fit. Evans can’t help but imagine ethos, logos and pathos as a 70’s prog rock ensemble, but these Aristotelian ideas still apply in the modern world.

For Evans, great speechwriting should be poetic. It should say more with less, and tell a story. A speech has three simple ingredients: voice, audience, and words. And above all, a speechwriter should not bore their audience.

Evans finished with a question: do speeches matter? This was taken up in various ways by the discussion that ended the day. We discussed how to define ‘political’ rhetoric and how politicians should talk to the people. George Orwell’s influence on British ideas about plain speaking was an interesting topic, and the recent spate of actors giving speeches also featured (Martin Sheen was “wondrous” according to Evans).

We asked whether Roman politicians could be less consistent than today’s politicians, and why inconsistency was such a bad thing anyway. We also thought about modern Britain and the confusion about who has power – whether it is the people, parliament, the media or big business. Finally we thought about what creates credibility for politicians, what is ethos, and how does that differ from charisma?

All these questions are a perfect starting point for the discussions that the Network for Oratory and Politics wants to generate over the next two years. We hope you will join us.

If you are not a member of the Network, you can register for free to receive updates by emailing You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Murray Pittock on Referendum Rhetoric

By Henriette van der Blom


From Snapchat to Twitter, Professor Pittock used this lecture to argue that social media’s immediacy undermines the rhetorical techniques used by the traditional media. Although we have not yet reached the tipping point of social media’s influence, the upcoming European Referendum may prove crucial. Over 60 people attended the lecture to launch the Network for Oratory and politics, including staff and students from across University of Glasgow as well as representatives of external organisations.


Professor Murray Pittock

Professor Pittock began by harking back to Pat Kane’s speech in October 2014, where he predicted that the Referendum campaign would be fought on social media, and the outcome would be a test of social media’s growing strength.

The newspapers and traditional media still had the edge though, because of valency. An ancient rhetorical concept that is now much used in marketing, valency is the credibility or authority of who is speaking to you. For newspapers, their valency often depends on their association with particular organisations or figures and also their mass circulation.

But the valency of newspapers, and the BBC, is in decline. In response to this, they increasingly use strong and simple narratives that are “easy to remember, and deceive us most”. Pittock argues that the exaggerated headlines used for “stark overstatement” have eroded the authority of print culture, alongside the failure of the mainstream media to ask certain questions (see #askNigelFarage).

Since the 1979 referendum (with uncanny parallels to 2014, including a last minute intervention from a youthful Gordon Brown in The Glasgow Herald), the mainstream media has been used to perform ante occupatio against the Yes movement.

Ante occupatio, another ancient rhetorical technique, involves anticipating your opponent’s arguments and prevent them being made by occupying the ground yourself. For example, when George Osborne rejected a currency union with Scotland outright in February 2014, the Yes campaign was left with no space for negotiation.

Faced with social media, however, this technique wouldn’t work, and the question was used instead (see 5 Million Questions). Pittock presented the question as a “valency farm” that increases authority by constructing the question in such a way that it can never be satisfactorily answered: “What is Plan B on the currency?”

In this and other ways, social media changed the means of persuasion in the campaign. Social media is difficult to predict and even harder to control. With 288 million active Twitter users a month at the end of 2014, no conventional media can be as fast unless it is streamed live.

The speed of social media means that an opponent can no longer be anticipated; the debate changes all the time. Twitter especially “destabilises the nature of rhetorical exchange” and undermines the premises on which rhetoric relies. YouTube became a “social media rebuttal unit”, to counteract the lack of hearing the Yes campaign felt they were getting in the mainstream media.

Twitter is a particularly interesting case because it has such specific rhetorical demands, where images and hashtags drive stories and tweets help to create “statement momentum”. Twitter is defined by engagement, but the personal authority or valency of a user is always checked by the democratic medium of 140 characters. Twitter is one of the few places where the rhetorical environment creates the rhetorical conditions, and prevents ante occupatio working with any great effect.

In the Referendum, however, all this “noise” was not enough for the Yes campaign to win. Pittock looks forward to the European Referendum, albeit with trepidation, for the next round.

Discussion & Reception

The discussion that followed continued these themes, with further thoughts about the BBC and their coverage of the Referendum, as well as their approach to UKIP. Individual commentators in the BBC could still create their own celebrity personalities and increase their valency that way, however.

Questioners wondered whether the Yes campaign could have run a more aggressive campaign, or if they too could have used the ante occupatio technique, but Pittock highlighted a “lack of oxygen” for the Yes side that prevented them raising issues. Was there a silent majority on social media? Pittock thought not. In fact, there was “so much noise”, and noise that lead to real engagement.

Real engagement continued at the reception too, where conversations moved from citizenship to the role of science rhetoric, the ‘self-selecting’ nature of Twitter and the political landscape more generally.

Find out more about what happened in this event and where to find more like it here.

Nicola Sturgeon: From ‘nippy sweetie’ to natural speaker?

By Jennifer Hilder


In the past, the media have criticised Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, for being a ‘nippy sweetie’. The term is Glasgow slang for a woman who says too much, and as such she made a good choice for Successful Women at Glasgow’s lecture on the problems women face in their careers. Although her former boss Alex Salmond has a reputation for his powerful and persuasive oratory, last night Nicola Sturgeon showed that she too is a natural speaker.


Rt. Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP

From start to finish her delivery was clear and confident, with an elbow resting comfortably on the podium in a Salmond-like stance. She began by praising the University of Glasgow, a crowd-pleaser for an audience made up of current and former staff and students. Getting the audience on side, reminding us that she was part of our gang, was a promising start.

Sturgeon moved on to describing her own background and rise to First Minister. She recognised that her “ordinary working class background” makes her an example to inspire others. “If I can do it”, she says, “anyone can”. The use of personal anecdotes to illustrate and introduce her arguments helped to give her speech a human touch.


At the start of her political career, Sturgeon admitted that she tried to fit in with the “aggressive” and “adversarial” political style of the middle-aged men she was surrounded by. But she quickly discovered that what was considered “strong, assertive leadership” in men led to her being described as a “nippy sweetie”: bossy, strident and unappealing.

In case things were getting too serious, Sturgeon fed timely jokes into her talk. She decided to “be herself” rather than try to be like the middle-aged men: “Not that there’s anything wrong with middle-aged men – I’m married to one!” Again, in her discussion of implicit gender discrimination she mentioned the challenge of men and women still moving in different networks “…like golf!” Here she got another big laugh from the audience.


But Sturgeon was not afraid to switch oratorical modes and use rousing rhetoric at times. She has repeatedly supported the use of targets and quotas to end gender imbalance in boards and political life, as in this powerful tricolon: “if we want to break through, if we want to pick up the pace of change, if we want to achieve the critical mass”. Asking and answering questions was another important technique: can the SNP provide the political will to reduce the gender pay gap? “Absolutely we can!”

Whether they can or not, Scotland and the SNP certainly seem to have a clever speaker on their side who came across as genuine and approachable. Can Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman as First Minister, bring a new era of political oratory?

You can find a recording of the speech in full here.