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.
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.