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16 September 2020

What our leaders have to learn about the art of persuasion

When trying to get the public on side, ministers should remember patriotism is the basis of progress.

By Ian Leslie

When Matt Hancock told young people not to kill their grandmothers I thought back, as I often have during the Covid-19 crisis, to Chernobyl (the HBO series). There is a scene in it which anyone interested in political communication should study. It takes place a few days after the reactor exploded, when the nature of the catastrophe is still revealing itself.

Horrific as the explosion was, the scientists have realised that things may be about to get a lot worse. Water thrown at the reactor by firefighters has collected underneath the core; if it combines with the melting nuclear fuel, a thermal explosion will result, killing millions. The water must be cleared out urgently – but whoever does it will expose themselves to doses of nuclear radiation likely to prove fatal.

Valery Legasov, the scientist tasked with mitigating the disaster, rises to address a room of workers. He is watched by Boris Shcherbina, the dour party official sent to oversee him. They need three volunteers. Legasov explains the task and says the volunteers will receive a yearly stipend of 400 roubles. He is met with stony silence; the men know this is dangerous, and they won’t be bought.

Then Shcherbina gets to his feet. “You’ll do it because it must be done. You’ll do it because if you don’t millions will die. This is what has always set our people apart: a thousand years of sacrifice in our veins.” One after the other, men stand up.

The scene is a short masterclass in Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, which the Greek philosopher expounded in his treatise on Rhetoric around the fourth century BCE.

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Legasov relies on logos – the appeal to reason (in this case, self-interest). In turn, the men respond rationally, concluding that 400 roubles isn’t much good if you’re dead. Shcherbina overrides their resistance by using pathos – the appeal to emotion. He speaks to their sense of fellow feeling and patriotic duty.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic reached the UK at the start of the year, the Conservative government has switched between these two modes of persuasion while rarely achieving either.

At times, ministers told us to stay at home or socially distance because it is in our interests to do so; at others, that we had a responsibility to those we care about. In the early months of the pandemic, we were advised not to wear masks on the basis they were unlikely to protect us; now we are told that by wearing them we protect others (which was always the reason to do so anyway).

At times, the tone has been technocratic, at others emotional, although when the government tries to talk human it can make an Alan Partridge-style hash of it (“don’t kill your gran”).

This uncertainty is embodied, of course, in the Prime Minister. Boris Johnson has, tonally speaking, been disjointed and haphazard. He is sometimes breezy (“squash the sombrero”); sometimes earnestly technocratic, pointing at graphs and muttering about the R number; sometimes blustery, wheeling through platitudes about national greatness.

Whatever their flaws, predecessors such as David Cameron and Tony Blair had an ability to fix the nation with a glare and declare the situation grave. Johnson finds it hard to do this with conviction, because his public persona is constructed around the principle that nothing should be taken too seriously.

The one moment Johnson did deploy real emotion was in the address he made following his return from hospital after catching coronavirus in April. That short speech wasn’t only the best one he has given; it was one of the most moving that any prime minister has given. In it, he successfully fused his natural jocularity (“the utterly brilliant doctors…several of them for some reason called Nick”) with a heartfelt vote of gratitude to the hospital staff who saved his life. He connected his own experience to the greatness of the NHS and a national effort “powered by love” to defeat the virus.

That moment might have led to a deepening of Johnson’s relationship to voters if he had used it to evolve his rhetorical style. Instead, he soon reverted to his customary bumble, as if this glimpse into his soul had been a faux pas best forgotten about.

This may be because it is harder than ever for any British politician to make convincingly emotional appeals to patriotic duty. With at least one part of the United Kingdom – Scotland – seemingly keen to go its own way, and with an electorate split across cultural and generational fault lines, there are fewer ways than ever to communicate that we are all in this together.

You might say this is a good thing. Shcherbina was effectively convincing men to go to their deaths (albeit in order to save many more lives). Like all emotional appeals, patriotism can be a tool of manipulation, which is what moved the English poet Wilfred Owen to call it “the old lie”. It may be a balm to those in distress during difficult times, but it can also be used to comfort those who ought to feel afflicted by their country’s inequities.

At its best, however, pride in a country is a leveller; a universal basic status afforded to all, regardless of wealth or position. It creates solidarity among strangers, probably the most valuable resource to which any country can have access, and not just in a crisis. Patriotism can form a basis for social progress, which is why the left makes a mistake when it abandons it.

After all, if you don’t care about your country, why strive to change it? As the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Achieving Our Country (1998): “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

The winter ahead may be a long one, as the virus threatens a newly devastating resurgence. Our patience with government restrictions, and with each other, may be sorely tested. Our leaders will have to find a way of appealing to hearts as well as heads if they want people to stand up and be counted.

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