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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.

Paul Marotta
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England is now a more expensive place to study than the US. Why?

Is a university education in this country really worth £44,000, and how does our system compare to higher education funding elsewhere?

England has long sneered at American universities and their exorbitant fees. It cannot do so any longer: England is now a more expensive country to study than the US, and is easily the most expensive of eight Anglophone countries – the four UK nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – analysed in a new Sutton Trust report. English students graduating from last year left university with an average of £44,000 in debt £15,000 more than Americans studying at for-profit universities across the pond.

Why do English students have it so much worse than other students in the UK? There are two answers. The first is the government's decision in 2010 to shift much of the cost of university from the general taxpayer to the beneficiaries: the students themselves. The second answer is devolution. The devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have made political choices to differentiate themselves from Westminster by prioritising keeping fees down – even when, as in Scotland, the effect is to benefit middle-class students at the expense of disadvantaged ones. Students in Wales who study in England are eligible for generous grants, meaning they pay less than £4,000 a year rather than up to £9,000. Those studying in Northern Ireland have their fees capped at £3,925. 

Even England's £9,000 fees are puny set against those at elite American universities. In 2016/17 annual, tuition fees at Harvard are $59,550 and, when all else is accounted for, Harvard reckon each year costs students $88,600. But such exorbitant numbers are not the real story. About 60% of Harvard students receive the Harvard Scholarship: a microcosm of how US students benefit from a culture of graduates giving endowents to their old universities that is still lacking in England. Scholarships and bursaries at universities in the US are far more generous than in other countries. And those who go to public universities within their own state pay far less: those graduating after four years leave with an average debt of only US$27,100 [£19,100]. This is why the average debt of US graduates is now considerably less than in England. But those who berate that even America now has a more benign system for students than England should not be so hasty. The majority of US loans are not income contingent, meaning that low earners who are already struggling still have to pay.

Governments throughout the world are grappling with how to fund send an increasing proportion of students to university in an era of austerity. In the last two decades at least 14 countries in the OECD, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, have implemented major reforms to fees, according to the Sutton Trust. In general these reforms have led to students paying a greater share of the cost of their tuition. 

So in a sense what has happened in England is merely an extreme example of an international trend. And the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, which have been hiked up twice since, has been managed better than most acknowledge: indeed, the proportion of disadvantaged students at university has actually risen by one-fifth since tuition fees rose to £9,000.

But, with the poorest students in England now graduating with £50,000 in debt, more students will be driven to ask whether a university education is really worth it. For a small but significant minority, it isn’t. A recent IFS report found that male graduates from 23 low performing institutions – though it sadly declined to name them - earn less, on average, than those who do not go to university, and end up with huge debt to boot.

No matter how expensive a university education has become, not having one is even more expensive. Throughout the world demand for university education continues to soar; in England the average graduate premium is £200,000 over a lifetime. Yet too many dunce universities are saddling students with debt without giving them anything in return.    

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.