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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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When will Brexit actually happen? An Article 50 timeline

Knowing the precise date of "Brexit Day" depends on the outcome of numerous untested laws

It’s the question on the lips of every Leaver - what is the date Brexit will finally happen? Article 50 is set to be triggered no later than March 2017. But reaping the changes of a full removal from the Union could take a lot longer. From rewriting legislation to negotiating the diverse interests of the European Union, Brexit is going to involve a lot of waiting.

Will it still actually happen?

There are a few things that could trip up an exit from the EU, however unlikely that might seem. The House of Lords, who have already started their voting process on Article 50 could potentially block the bill, but is more likely to threaten to block the bill in an attempt to leverage amendments - such as the position of EU citizens in the UK. Amendments that the House of Commons unilaterally failed to pass.

Julia Rampen writes about every Remainer’s dream - some sort of backdoor challenge that The People’s Challenge, a campaign group, believe exist. According to the founders, it is entirely reasonable to revoke Article 50 at the end of negotiations, if Brexit is not a done deal.

Okay, so if it does happen, when?

Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that she wants to trigger Article 50, a clause of The Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, which gives a country two years to decide the terms of the departure. This puts Brexit approximately happening in Spring 2019, providing all the negotiations are complete in that estimated time period.

But in effect, this only means Brexit will begin in Spring 2019. The results of leaving the EU, such as all the changes to laws that were once determined by the Union, will take years. As for the economic promises made by the Leave campaign, they may take even longer (if they even exist). This leaving process will begin with The Great Repeal Bill - an as of yet unpublished bill created in order to help a transition from EU laws to UK laws. This bill essentially states that the authority of EU laws will be revoked, and “where practical” will be transposed to domestic laws, able to therefore be adapted as appropriate for the UK.

A telling part of the Government's briefing on The Great Repeal bill is the quote that adapting EU laws for domestic use “may require major swathes of the statute book to be assessed to determine which laws will be able to function after Brexit day” (Brexit Day not being a national holiday of mourning, but the day the UK officially leaves the European Union). This is where the core issue lies, that in theory we could have left the EU by 2019, but in practice, the changes that will invoke won’t be in play for years.

The main ambiguity with Brexit lies in the fact that these are relatively new and untested laws. Since it was written in 2009, Article 50 has never been invoked, so the estimation of a two year negotiation period is largely a theoretical one. Various MPs such as Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, have noted that the process would likely exceed the two year framework - something that could be dangerous for the prosperity of the UK.