The rhetorical culture of the British House of Commons, 1918-1940

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


The interwar years were a time of political and economic turbulence, but in Britain they were also marked by considerable institutional stability. Extremism, in the form of communism and fascism, failed to gain much of a foothold, and electoral and parliamentary politics continued in a recognisable form. This is not to say that nothing changed. Indeed, these were the first years of full democracy in the country: the franchise was extended to all men and some women in 1918, women finally receiving the vote on equal terms in 1928. Meanwhile, Labour replaced the Liberals as the main party of Opposition, and formed a government for the first time in 1924; whereas the Conservatives recovered from their pre-war doldrums to dominate politics until the collapse of Neville Chamberlain's government in 1940. This research explores how the theme of stability amidst change played out in a crucial arena of British politics - the House of Commons. It examines how the rhetorical culture of the Commons - that is to say, the formal and informal conventions surrounding habits of parliamentary speech - evolved over time and how it related to British political culture more generally.
Historians have generally assumed - rightly - that all three main parties were committed to parliamentary methods. What they have overlooked is that the types of behaviour that constituted 'parliamentary methods' were open to widely varying interpretations and were highly contested as part of partisan politics. Thus the Conservatives - who had themselves often engaged in disruptive tactics when in Opposition - portrayed the 'rowdyism' of radical socialist MPs as proof that Labour was unfit to govern. Those MPs, however, saw their actions as a proper means of drawing attention to the plight of the unemployed. Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, by contrast, sought to steer his followers towards less controversial methods, precisely in order to counter Conservative charges of unconstitutionalism. Liberals, meanwhile, presented themselves as the only ones who were genuinely committed to parliament: the other parties, they argued, wished to ride roughshod over parliament's prerogatives in order to establish elective dictatorship by the vested interests they represented.
Therefore, apparently mundane issues of parliamentary deportment and language intersected with, and were representative of, much wider political debates. As such, the question of rhetorical culture is related to other important issues that have preoccupied historians, such as how politicians sought to manipulate 'national values' to their own advantage, and how political debate was represented in the media. This, of course, was a time at which parliamentary proceedings were not broadcast and at which the BBC, in its early years, sought to avoid 'controversy' in its reporting of politics. There was however extensive coverage of the Commons in the newspapers, both in terms of verbatim reporting of speeches and in shorter reports by sketch-writers. It is thus possible to gain a sense of the Commons atmosphere and, equally importantly, to discover how celebrated episodes (such as the seizure of the mace by a Labour MP in 1930) were debated outside parliament. There is also a vast range of other sources - many of which I have already examined - that can be used to cast light on the conventions that governed parliamentary speech. These include diaries, memoirs and cartoons, as well contemporary works describing the routines and customs of the Commons. Few of these sources were neutral: their descriptions of what occurred were ideologically loaded, and sought to advance some kind of agenda. Treated carefully, though, they can yield important insights into what political actors felt was at stake in arguments about the correct forms of behaviour. It is hoped that this research will make an important contribution to revising our understanding of this crucial period.

Planned Impact

The 2009 MPs' expenses scandal brought the issue of public trust in parliament into sharp relief. The role of the House of Commons, however, has long been the subject of public concern, especially in relation to the perceived presidentialisation of British politics and the growth in the power of the Executive. Furthermore, media commentators often complain that the standard of Commons rhetoric has declined, with high-class oratory being replaced by management-speak. For the purposes of informed public debate, then, it is important to consider whether or not such a decline has taken place and, if so, what its historical origins may have been. It is hoped that if, in addition, the proposed research can encourage a sounder critical appreciation of rhetoric, it may succeed in providing some citizens with tools that may be useful to them as they assess modern parliamentary speech. The private sector may also be a potential beneficiary of the research, which could suggest methods for improving commercial communications strategies, with attendant benefits for economic competitiveness.
There are a number of potential pathways for the dissemination of the results of the project to non-academic users and the wider public.
The nascent British speechwriting industry can be targeted, as can the communications industry more broadly.
Politicians and public servants can be targeted via the media.
Members of the public with an interest in public speaking can be targeted, via relevant clubs and associations.
The voting public in general can be targeted, via the media and via aspects of the project's publication strategy.
The Pathways to Impact document details ways in which these different audiences will be addressed during the lifetime of the project.
In summary, the planned research help meet the need for informed discussion about the quality of modern political discourse, and will potentially contribute towards a better practical understanding of the rhetorical arts amongst public servants and business people.


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Description This research explores the rhetorical culture of the House of commons in the interwar years, that is to say it investigates habits and norms of parliamentary speech and the ways that contemporaries argued about them. It draws on recent work in political science/discourse analysis, which has considered the modern House of Commons as a 'community of practice', in which newcomers adopt the socio-cultural habits of the institution (including its rhetorical norms) through 'situated learning'. This work explores these insight historically with regard to the interwar period, with particular reference to the impact of a large body of newcomers with distinct class characteristics, i.e. the 1920s influx of Labour MPs, as well as a small body of women. It argues, however, that the process did not simply involve the adjustment of newcomers to a static rhetorical culture; the culture itself changed, not least because rhetorical practice, although subject to formal rules, was highly contested because of its links to other values, which were also often articulated by people who were not themselves MPs. Hence the importance of considering debates about parliamentary practice that took place outside parliament as well as within it.
Exploitation Route This research feeds in to the growing body of work on British political rhetoric. It will be helpful to others because it outlines a potential agenda and methodology for looking at cultures of public speaking at other times and places.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The two key articles that arose from the research have been made available via Gold Open Access and I have tweeted them. I was asked to submit evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and constitutional reform, and my evidence was cited in its report on the Role and Powers of the Prime Minister, published in June 2014.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services