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.