I’ve been asked to take part in an initiative led by university academics into whether there is a crisis in political speech. The group wants to encourage a better understanding of the theory, history, use and reception of political rhetoric in this country.
I’m not sure what I think about this. One rhetorical way to deal with this is to write down my thoughts.
Ever since I read the Heath brothers book Switch, How to Change when Change is Hard, I’ve been reluctant to get into the business of analysing social trends.
We can put huge amounts of energy into describing why the world isn’t how we’d like it to be, but the only question that matters, to me at least, is: how can we improve things?
One of my favourite rhetoricians is Jay Heinrichs. He reminds us how Aristotle says it’s important not to get into arguments about the past. This goes for arguments with your wife as much as statements of the quality of rhetoric in previous eras.
According to the Heath brothers, the most effective way to change things is to find out where people are doing something right and encourage that.
So I’ll take Mr Heinrichs advice, and I’ll focus the argument on the future. And I’ll use the Heath brothers’ strategy, and draw attention to what’s positive out there.
The first positive sign is the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn is an old-school politician who can address a public meeting. He’s been doing it most of his political life. Despite being disliked by many of his own MPs, he defied expectations and won over 40% of the popular vote at the General Election in 2017. He recently made a political speech at the Glastonbury Music Festival in front of a huge crowd. That’s never been done before.
By contrast, Theresa May, a poor public speaker, is seen to have frittered away her unassailable lead in opinion polls because she spouted platitudes about ‘strong and stable Government’.
A second positive sign is that the Oxford Union (although not so much the Cambridge Union) continues to shape our national politics.
25-30 years ago, you could have listened to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Ed Vaizey or Daniel Hannan speak at the Oxford Union. They may be saying the same things as they were when they were in short trousers, but they do so with some panache. They started practising early, and they have risen to prominence since.
The British political system traditionally selects its brightest and best from a very small pool.
Those who learnt the skills at a young age are using them. And those who didn’t presumably find it hard to compete.
The problem with recruiting from a small pool is that you need a supply to both sides. But Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall (who were not active in the Union) don’t seem to match the abilities of their Conservative contemporaries.
Most of them underestimated Jeremy Corbyn because he didn’t emerge from that system.
If there is a crisis, it’s because those politicians who can make the best speeches aren’t necessarily in the pragmatic and moderate tradition many of us feel comfortable with.
But I would prefer to see any crisis of political rhetoric as reflection of a crisis in our political culture.
Rhetoric is ‘the art of communication’ – the skill of writing and speaking well.
30 years ago, the only people who could widely diffuse their opinions were the newspaper columnists, now anyone with a blog and a twitter account can disseminate their ideas.
30 years ago, if you wanted to study the best orators, you had to have access to archives of television clips, now you can see the world’s finest speeches on YouTube.
30 years ago, you only got to practise public speaking in places like the the university Unions, now you can join Toastmasters International or make TED talks or speak at the thousands of conferences and networking meetings that take place.
Since the opportunities are available, many more people want to influence public opinion through Tweets, blogposts, speeches, Facebook posts and YouTube videos.
If those people don’t have any knowledge of rhetoric and how it works, they will be at a disadvantage. I’m reminded of Max Atkinson’s story about the politician who wanted to make inspiring speeches, ‘but didn’t want to use any rhetoric’. Good luck with that.
The new media are very disruptive. This means different people will emerge as political leaders.
In fact, we’ve already got one: Donald Trump. He has many faults. But one important virtue: he’s willing to communicate with his audience. His rivals might not like it, but clearly his voters do.
Brian Jenner is the organiser of the European Speechwriter Network conference in Leuven, Belgium on 26 & 27 October 2017. To buy tickets click here.