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Laurie Penny: Nick Clegg's rhetorical triumph in the 2010 TV debates

The TV debates show the importance of ancient rhetorical skills.

The TV debates show the importance of ancient rhetorical skills.

Britain's first televised leaders' debate has irrevocably altered both the terms and the style of British politics. The debate, which was broadcast last night a mere fifty years after American audiences first got the chance to watch their prospective leaders tear each other into elegant shreds on air, shone a spotlight on the languishing art of British political rhetoric, with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg trouncing his opponents in the tradition of our most dazzling Enlightenment speakers.

Public rhetorical prowess provides statespeople with a platform to showcase their most refined leadership skills whilst minimising their respective personality disorders. Scorn was inevitably poured upon our leaders' decision to stoop to addressing voters directly: the notion was too populist, too "presidential" for refined British commentators to countenance. But US-style populism has been an energising force in British politics, and can be so again: in the late 18th century Edmund Burke, Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox pioneered a rigorous, performative form of parliamentary debate that transformed British democracy and carried their rhetoric to the frontline of revolutionary politics in Europe and America.

American politicians were the first to realise the power of televised public speaking, and great moments in American rhetoric and oratory - from Kennedy's decimation of Nixon in 1960, to Martin Luther King's Civil Rights rally speeches, to Obama's 2008 victory proclamation - have come to define half a century of sweeping political change in the United States. American politicians are schooled to understand that they will be expected to be stylistically and rhetorically as well as ideologically accountable to their constituents. By contrast, the continued resistance of Westminster to any semblance of vulgar political theatre has contributed to Britons' understanding of politics as arcane and secretive.

Ironically, it is American television that has reenergised the notion of rhetoric and oratory as exciting artforms in Britain. Years before Obama declaimed his way into the White House, NBC's The West Wing had become a central rhetorical text in the Westminster village. Working for a think tank in 2008, I was delighted to observe British parliamentarians nerdily obsessing over which of Aaron Sorkin's fictional speechmakers they might resemble: serious and scholarly Toby, squeaky-clean Sam or Martin Sheen's barnstorming President Bartlett. The West Wing primed American audiences for an election in which rhetoric and oratory would be transformative tools, and Britons within and outside Westminster began to ache for a comparable forum of public political performance.

That longing was more powerfully felt after the expenses scandal of 2009 exposed the depth of occlusion and subterfuge at the heart of British politics. Suddenly, it is no longer enough for our statespeople to game the system behind closed doors: we have begun to demand that they at least perform for us.

The vituperative cut-and-thrust of Whitehall discussion, based on the rhetorical standards of Burke and Pitt, could quickly transform such performance into public art once televised debate becomes an accepted part of the political pageant. This first debate had its raw edges, with clunky use of colour-coded ties and anxious posturing over tired, identikit moral stances on crime and immigration. The party leaders, untested in this format, were too wary of making mistakes to take the risk of attacking their opponents on the issues of ideology and policy that distinguish one nice suit from another. But Nick Clegg risked and gained the most, setting the bar for a return of studied rhetoric and oratory to the British political arena.

In electoral debates, the political issues at stake take second place to mastery of the format, and Clegg understood this instinctually. Aristotelian formations were embedded into his populist dialectic, and Clegg also used those favourite constructions of neo-Sorkinite American progressive oratory, the tricolon and the repeated refrain, answering one question with no less than five imprecations not to let "the youngsters of today become the hardened criminals of tomorrow." Throughout his performance, Clegg's eyes were fixed on the viewers at home, the only audience who mattered. Burke would not have been wholly disappointed.

Brown and Cameron's panicked attempts to mimic Clegg's studied personability fell flat, and both front-runners seemed to shy away from the camera. Cameron fought to control his naturally plummy speech-patterns, whilst Brown's jowly inability to muster any facial expression whatsoever cost him public confidence. These things matter. It has become a cliché to speak of how Nixon's sweaty, unshaven appearance cost him the first US televised debate against Kennedy-but an awareness of spectacle demonstrates at least the appearance of respect for the electorate, an attribute which British politicians are justly scrambling to re-learn.

The ancient arts of rhetoric and oratory are exhilarating because they remind us that politics is a game that can be played and won. The advent of televised debating offends antique British political sensibilities precisely because it reintroduces an element of uncertainty into the game. For too long, Westminster has relied on an assumption that the game of politics can be fixed. Requiring our prospective leaders to address us directly and skilfully is no less than the public deserve.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and feminist activist from London. Her blog, Penny Red, was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize. Her book "Generation Square" will be published later this year by Zero.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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