The Crisis of Rhetoric: Renewing Political Speech and Speechwriting

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: History and Cultures


The British public distrust politicians and the way they talk. Surveys show not only that the public think politicians are liars who do not share their best interests, but also that their speech alienates citizens from their politicians and from politics. This is one reason that many people are attracted to new kinds of 'populist' politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage: they seem to speak to the people and make their case in a seemingly straightforward, every-day and 'authentic' way. At the same time, political argument in the UK has become more sectarian and angry and the 2016 EU referendum campaign was marred by the misuse of statistics on all sides, misleading inferences and hard-to-verify claims. We think that this is a problem. A people needs to be able to debate and argue well about the political challenges it faces, and an effective government must be able to win the respect of a public and ensure that it understands something of what government is doing and why. British Politics may never have the kind of 'inspirational' speech we associate with some American politicians but it can and should have speech that please, proves and persuades (as ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians and orators advised).

We see contemporary British politics as experiencing a crisis of rhetoric - that is, a crisis of the ancient art of political argument and oratory. The network we will bring together for this project will combine and consolidate the best research into political rhetoric: studies of ancient Greece and Rome (where many rhetorical techniques still used today were studied and systematised), historical studies of UK politics, contemporary political theory, media studies, and linguistics. The network will also build on PI's and Co-I's existing links in the political community (politicians, speechwriters and political journalists) to engage these groups in discussion about the current state of political oratory and rhetoric in the UK. Together we can understand and help remedy the crisis of British political speech.

In the first workshop political speechwriters, politicians and journalists will explain their views of current British political speech. From them, academic researchers will learn more about the challenges faced when political actors try to explain themselves accurately, clearly and fairly while also being persuasive. These insights will directly inform the discussions in the following workshops.

The second workshop explores the various concepts different scholars use when researching rhetoric in order to understand how best to combine the insights of our different fields, to think clearly about the state of speech in our current political culture, and to communicate these insights to the practitioners.

The third workshop looks at the ways in which, through rhetoric, political actors try to create a sense of identification, trust and respect between them and their (potential) supporters. This discussion compares practices of different historical periods with British political speech today.

A fourth workshop focuses on the ways in which - in the complex, contested and public contexts of politics - politicians and other political debaters present reasons for thinking in a certain way and try to get others to share them. The comparative historical perspective from workshop three will again be applied to highlight what is distinctive about current political practice.

A fifth workshop centres on the influence of media on the shape and experience of political argument, and the ways in which old and new media are a challenge to, and an opportunity for improving, our culture of debate.

The final workshop presents findings to practitioners. Their comments will feed directly into the outputs of the network, including a report with practical suggestions for the media, politicians and the public for improving our culture of reasoned and persuasive public debate.

Planned Impact

The network will have impact on three main groups: politicians at national, regional and local level; political advisers and civil servants involved in speechwriting; journalists, political reporters, and media organisations reporting on political activity or staging public political debates. That impact will consist of an enhancement of understanding and, we hope, help change attitudes by informing practitioners and increasing their awareness of empirical, critical and normative research into rhetoric. This will in turn enhance their professional capability. In addition, we aim to have an impact on public understanding of and discussion about the nature and qualities of public political speech and debate.

PI and Co-I already have links with the political community (politicians, speechwriters and political journalists) through their respective research networks. We know from these links that there is great interest in the political community in reflecting upon rhetorical activity and in using and learning from academic knowledge and understanding. In order to involve these in the network, a 'user group' will have direct and continued involvement with the network throughout the project. This group will feed into the planning of the workshops, discussions and outputs. They will be centrally involved in the first workshop where they will be invited to share their knowledge and experience of current speech practices and to reflect on the crisis of rhetoric. This will inform the more academic discussions on aspects of the crisis of rhetoric at workshops 2-5. The user group will participate directly in these or indirectly through feedback in response to interim findings communicated via email and the website. In the final workshop, the sixth, the user group will be invited to engage in the concluding discussion of the network's findings and to advise on how we can best communicate these to other potential beneficiaries. This will inform our design of outputs aimed at non-academic audiences. In addition to the direct involvement of users in the network we will also seek to reach our target audiences via the project outputs.

Firstly, we will produce and make available for free download from the project website a report summarising our findings and making recommendations to practitioners. The report will be launched at an event in Parliament to which we will invite our user group, politicians from all parties, political advisers, political reporters and members of think tanks. We will use the launch as an opportunity to extend our reach into the user community and also to publicise the findings through press releases from media offices of the home institutions of the PI and Co-I. We will actively seek opportunities to publicise the report by, for example, articles in newspapers and radio broadcasts (Co-I has prior experience).

Secondly, the PI and Co-I (advised by the project team and user group) will write a short book aimed at a public audience. This book will describe and explain the crisis of political communication and present, in an accessible way, how this might be understood in light of classical rhetoric and contemporary political theory and political science. The book will be aimed at a wider audience than is usual for academic work with the goal of enabling reflection on the quality of our rhetorical culture by, for example, members of political parties at local and regional levels, other activists and interested members of the public.

In these ways, the network will enable academic engagement with non-academic audiences involved in making and circulating political speech. Our work will contribute to the enrichment of rhetorical culture, improve public understanding and discussion of good public speech, and foster a better informed and better understood approach to public political debate.


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