Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.