Does political rhetoric win votes?

Politicians, whose careers may flourish thanks to skills of persuasion within their own ranks, overestimate the firepower of debating prowess in the wider world

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Soon after I arrived at university, I wasted money that I didn’t really have on joining the so-called Union Society. This wasn’t, of course, the proper students’ union. That went about its underfunded business from a tumbledown and rat-infested terraced house nearby. Instead, from within its neo-Gothic Hammer House of Horror HQ, this body ran a debating club. Allegedly, it served as a training ground and launch pad for the leaders of tomorrow.

Well, one or two of the prematurely pompous and conceited bores I saw perform did in the fullness of time become government ministers. Pompous and conceited bores they remained. The best and brightest person I knew who rose to head this august playpen became not a politician but a novelist who has spread more enlightened enjoyment than a full House of whip-scourged lobby fodder. I would probably have heard sharper debates had I spent the cash on real ale in the nearby pubs.

In a culture whose adversarial genes stretch back to the Viking invention of trial by jury, a belief in political argument as gladiatorial ordeal dies hard. Indeed, media excitement over the prospect of Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage locked eyeball to eyeball in radio and TV debates on EU membership suggests that it has not died at all. Each leader of a minority party has enough faith in the value of the mano-a-mano slugfest to treat the forthcoming bouts as a fast track to vindication. Farage hopes to cement Ukip’s place among the heavyweights prior to the European polls in May – an ambition flattered by a new Ofcom ruling that his party must have equal billing with the established trio in pre-election coverage. As for Clegg, he cherishes his own “I agree with Nick” spell in the spotlight of incurious public approval during the TV debates of 2010. So the dates with Nick Ferrari (LBC) and David Dimbleby (BBC) promise a spike in attention after years of flatlining.

Both leaders may well be victims of a widespread, but self-sustaining, delusion. Clegg has hard psephological proof that his nifty verbal shuffles in 2010 – not so much landing killer punches as tempting his opponents to exhaust themselves – paid only a meagre divided. On the day, his party’s popular vote went up just one point (22 to 23 per cent). Its tally of seats fell (62 to 57). Applause for a good rhetorical show does not easily translate into long-term allegiance. Those who believe that John F Kennedy’s telegenic charm saw off the dark jowls and shifty eyes of Richard Nixon in the network debates of 1960 give insufficient credit to the mafia-connected party machine that fixed the Illinois and Texas votes for him.

Politicians, whose careers may flourish thanks to skills of persuasion within their own ranks, overestimate the firepower of debating prowess in the wider world. The cult of Prime Minister’s Questions – like so much in British life, a modern repro job gussied up as an antique tradition – illustrates this disconnect. It chucks a weekly ration of red meat to the commentariat. Otherwise, it makes no odds and breaks no bones. So nerdy Americans love to catch it on TV? They watch “monster truck crash” shows (a closely related genre) as well.

This devotion to gladiatorial oratory represents the triumph of hope over experience. Every era seems to have looked back fondly on a lost golden age of silver-tongued debate. Take our own House of Commons, now bereft of the heroic speakers who once graced it. “‘A great debate’ now commonly stands for an unusually long debate.” Too true. “The decay of parliamentary oratory” has reached the point where “there is no present hope of its revival”. Besides, “The want of respect for the House of Commons is a growing as well as a real evil.” Hear, hear. I agree with The Spectator – of 20 April 1901.

As professional communicators, all politicians need to believe that words change minds and that rhetoric makes history. Arguably, it does – but not according to the instrumental model that imagines a silver bullet of eloquence at one end and a slain foe, or a saved friend, at the other. Champion debating may indeed win wars – in the sense of turning a long-term intellectual tide – but it loses plenty of battles. So gabby parliamentarians should shiver the next time someone dubs them a “modern Demosthenes”. The ancient Demosthenes was an all-round loser. His verbal onslaughts against the might of Philip of Macedon – hence our word “philippics” – did nothing to stop the father’s ascent. Then the son – Alexander the Great – also rose. Captured in 322BC by an agent of Antipater (one of Alexander’s successors), Demosthenes took poison. His beloved Athens languished. Alexander’s Hellenistic empire bloomed.

Perhaps, O admirer of honey-tongued law-makers, you prefer Cicero. Really? The sleaziest red-top attack dog would die of shame rather than publish the sort of below-the-belt jibes that were his stock in trade. No, he didn’t much care for Mark Antony’s populist stunts after Julius Caesar’s murder in 44BC. (He didn’t much care for anyone except his own sainted self.) So he begins by calling his rival a common rent boy (“a public prostitute, with a regular price for your wickedness, and that not a low one”) who graduated to become a full-time catamite: “No boy bought for the gratification of passion was ever so wholly in the power of his master as you were in Curio’s.” That’s just for starters. “But let us say no more of your profligacy and debauchery,” Cicero tells Antony, before going on to unleash another dozen vicious and vehement “philippics”. Were they effective? Only in a boomerang way. Antony allied with Octavius and hunted the orator down. After Cicero’s execution, Antony insisted that his hands – the hands that had lovingly sharpened those barbs – should be severed and put on display in the Roman forum. Such was the golden age of rhetoric. A cut-and-thrust debate meant something then.

Back at Westminster, probably no parliamentarian has won such fervent plaudits for his oratory as Edmund Burke. His peak performance came when, in 1788, he revived the ancient procedure of “impeachment” to try Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, for corruption in Westminster Hall. Listen to Burke’s indictment at full throttle: “I impeach Warren Hastings, Esquire, of high crimes and misdemeanours… I impeach him in the name of all the Commons of Great Britain, whose national character he has dishonoured. I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights and liberties he has subverted; whose properties he has destroyed; whose country he has laid waste and desolate. I impeach him in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.”

Has Westminster ever heard nobler words? Two questions, though: were they true, and did they work? Hastings was certainly corrupt, but not uncommonly so. He and his East India Company staff had gone native to govern with a respect and sympathy for Indian ways that the “enlightened” heirs of Burke could never match. Hastings cared infinitely more for the “people of India” than his high-minded accuser ever did. Above all, for all his soaring eloquence, Burke failed. After a drawn-out, ambiguous trial, Hastings was acquitted on most counts. Those gleaming arrows rusted before they reached their target.

Two centuries later, the speechifying dazzle of Michael Foot hardly stopped him from leading Labour to its worst defeat. Indeed, the member for Ebbw Vale’s Ciceronian magniloquence arguably led him to net the perfect own goal. In April 1982, he gave megaphonic support for Margaret Thatcher in her resistance to the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, “to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world”. Foot paved the parliamentary way for a military victory that, a year later, would crush him to dust at the polls.

As for Winston Churchill, national orator-in-chief, his wartime speeches may have echoed round the world. Their morale-boosting domestic impact remains subject to debate. Richard Toye’s recent book The Roar of the Lion suggests that the bulldog premier’s wartime addresses did not have the unifying, galvanising effect often claimed. That thesis has met with stout opposition from other historians. Still, Toye certainly shows that sceptical radio listeners could and did scoff. A few concluded that their “finest hour” was the PM’s drunkest hour. Even in the depths of crisis, one voter’s chariot of fire was another’s bag of wind.

Survey modern trends in politics – the fall of ideologies and the rise of technocratic elites – and you might assume that the age of oratory has passed. However, modernity advances crab-wise. When multi-platform media began to transmit the theatre of politics 24/7 across every format, they injected adrenalin into the old arts of rhetoric. Yet great debaters still preach to the choir more than they convert the heathen. Most likely, Clegg vs Farage will comfort both sides but strengthen neither. It may already be all over bar the shouting.

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