By Andrew Crines
The House of Commons represents one of the main arenas where our politicians seek to make a name for themselves. Be that in the feisty engagements at PMQs, or more generally through the normal deliberative debates, noteworthy MPs have used the Chamber to orate effectively when pursuing a particular line.
Needless to say, Hilary Benn’s recent speech in the Commons concerning air strikes in Syria has received commendations for its delivery. It was a dramatic display – described as epideictic oratory – in which he not only captured the mood of some in the House, but also changed it. In terms of his rhetoric, this was highly emotional. Indeed, emotion is one of the core rhetorical devices which effective speakers use to push their case. In the case of Benn, it was a combination of fear of inaction, nostalgia for the role Labour has historically played on the international stage, and through his body language. He was able to present a sense of urgency. In concert with each other, each enabled Benn’s oratory to resonate not only within the Chamber, but as the speech travelled, it gained plaudits from spectators, commentators, and political critics alike. This is despite the fact that the content of the speech overly conflated internationalism with intervention.
More generally, the Commons is a confrontational chamber, thus moments of consensus are rare. However, when those moments occur the atmosphere can become electrified by commanding oration. For example, Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech in 1990. His disagreements with Thatcher over how to approach discussions over Europe, and the decline of trust between the two compelled him to deliver the most devastating speech of his political career. His assassination of Thatcher’s style made her position increasingly untenable. To do so he invoked iconic figures of historic significance by arguing:
I find Winston Churchill’s perception a good deal more convincing, and more encouraging for the interests of our nation, than the nightmare image sometimes conjured up by my Right Honourable Friend, who seems sometimes to look out upon a continent that is positively teeming with ill- intentioned people, scheming, in her words, to ‘extinguish democracy’, to ‘dissolve our national identities’, and to lead us ‘through the back-door into a federal Europe’.
It was a devastating moment. But his most memorable line drew from the world of cricket, in which he compared Thatcher’s style as “sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” Although Howe’s reputation for effective speeches is virtually none, on this occasion he was able to use the arena of the Chamber to devastating effect, and by doing so contributing to a political climate which saw the end of Thatcher’s leadership.
Looking further back, another noteworthy speech was given by Michael Foot during the confidence motion in 1979. Unlike Howe, Foot was a master of the Commons and could often be something of a highlight during debates. On the occasion of the confidence motion, Foot used his most striking and defensive oratorical skills to put on a dramatic, emotional performance. His key targets were the leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher (although he argued “She can look after herself”), the leader of the Liberal Party, David Steel and the nationalists who had facilitated the vote of no confidence. To defend the Labour government, he questioned how the backroom deals between Thatcher and Steel were organised. For example,
I do not want to misconstrue anything, but did she send for him or did he send for her—or did they just do it by billet-doux? Cupid has already been unmasked. This is the first time I have ever seen a Chief Whip who could blush. He has every right to blush. Anybody who was responsible for arranging this most grisly of assignations has a lot to answer for.
It was an amusing line which had both sides of the Chamber roaring with laughter. In addressing his comments to Thatcher, he continued the affable style of delivery by arguing:
I have never in this House or elsewhere, so far as I know, said anything discourteous to her, and I do not intend to do so. I do not believe that is the way in which politics should be conducted. That does not mean that we cannot exchange occasional pleasantries. What the right hon. Lady has done today is to lead her troops into battle snugly concealed behind a Scottish nationalist shield, with the boy David holding her hand.
This line again caused the House to erupt into a chorus of laughter, as he belittled the nationalists and the Liberals by arguing they were simply safeguarding the Conservatives desire to unseat the Labour government. Foot’s oratory resonated throughout the Chamber as all MPs enjoyed the performance. Even Thatcher is said to have found the speech highly entertaining. But as Ian Paisley noted, “the greatest speeches do not always end in the greatest victories”, as was seen by Thatcher’s success in securing the majority required to unseat the Labour government.
Needless to say there are countless other examples of effective Parliamentary oratory. For example, in 1942, Aneurin Bevan adopted the role of de facto opposition speaker to the National Government and its conduct of the war. Indeed, in a speech which gained considerable note from across the Chamber, he argued “First, the main strategy of the war has been wrong; second, the wrong weapons have been produced; and third, those weapons are being managed by men who are not trained in the use of them and who have not studied the use of modern weapons.” Also, Harold Macmillan’s ‘Declaration of Intent’ “to support the Government’s proposal to initiate negotiations on the Common Market” in August 1961. Needless to say, there are many others. Enoch Powell’s speech in 1959 against the cruelty of British soldiers at the Hola camp in Kenya; the 1981 budget speech; the Falklands War speeches in 1982.
Commanding oratory has been a key driver of debates in the Commons, and continues to be so. Indeed, as Hilary Benn’s speech shows, the power to move through words can still change the direction of political debates, despite the onset of social media and the assumed dominance of the soundbite. It is as fundamental a part of effective leadership as many others, and a skill which requires further scholastic attention.
Andrew Crines is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool. His research interests include oratory and rhetoric in British party politics, and his most recent book is The Rhetoric and Oratory of Margaret Thatcher (due in 2016 through Palgrave). He is on Twitter: @Andrew Crines.