The Crisis of Rhetoric: Renewing Political Speech and Speechwriting

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

Abstract

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.

Publications

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Finlayson A (2019) 7. Rethinking Political Communication in The Political Quarterly

 
Description Address to European Speechwriter Network Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The Co-I (Finlayson) addressed the European Speechwriter Network Conference - an audience of 80-100 speechwriters from the public and private sector across Europe. He talked about some aspects of the project and about the importance of good speech for democratic politics. Attendees said they found the presentation helpful and interesting and that it inspired to them to think about the political value of their work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/europeanspeechwriters/episodes/2018-04-17T14_54_39-07_00
 
Description Address to The English Association 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact An address to The English Association, at their colloquium "English in the World 1: From the Outside". The talk concerned research and teaching in Rhetoric, and the relationship between these and English Studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.ies.sas.ac.uk/events/conferences/english-world-1-outside
 
Description Interview for BBC radio programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Principal Investigator and Co-Investigator were interviewed for a BBC World Service radio series called 'The Why Factor' for a programme on 'Rhetoric' to provide expert knowledge about rhetoric in general and about ancient rhetoric and current political speech.

As a BBC World Service programme, this activity has the potential for a very large reach, although it is difficult to predict precise reach and precise impact in the audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/w3cswrkl
 
Description Podcast of Public Lecture - "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The activity is the downloadable podcast of the public lecture "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" was delivered as the inaugural lecture of the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London. The lecture discussed a wide range of aspects of British political and rhetorical culture, past and present, focusing in particular on the decline in rhetorical culture in the 20th century and the ways in which, in the 21st, online rhetorics have come to the fore. The attendance was around 100, the lecture lasted for about 50 minutes and there was lively discussion and debate for another 70-80 minutes. Attendees described the evening as very informative and thought-provoking.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2018/11/alan-finlayson-the-changing-rhetorical-culture-of-british-p...
 
Description Public Lecture - "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The public lecture "The Changing Rhetorical Culture of British Politics: From Parliament and PEBs to Twitter and Youtube" was delivered as the inaugural lecture of the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck College, University of London. The lecture discussed a wide range of aspects of British political and rhetorical culture, past and present, focusing in particular on the decline in rhetorical culture in the 20th century and the ways in which, in the 21st, online rhetorics have come to the fore. The attendance was around 100, the lecture lasted for about 50 minutes and there was lively discussion and debate for another 70-80 minutes. Attendees described the evening as very informative and thought-provoking. The lecture was recorded and made available online. This is reported on separately.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.csbppl.com/events/the-changing-rhetorical-culture-of-british-politics-from-parliament-and...
 
Description Workshop (Glasgow) on 'Ethos and identification' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop 3: Ethos and identification. In this workshop, academics from a number of disciplines (Ancient History, Political Theory, Political Science, Modern Languages, Health) discussed a fundamental theme of rhetorical theory, namely 'ethos'. The aim was to share ideas and practices across disciplines and to reflect on the findings of workshops 1 and 2, in light of the current state of political speech in Britain and beyond.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/cor/index.aspx
 
Description Workshop (Queen Mary University of London) on 'The state of political speech' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop 1: The State of Political Speech
The first workshop concerned the perspective of political speech practitioners on the state of political speech today. Speakers included a former MP, a political journalist and former speechwriter to PM Tony Blair, a speechwriter for a current government minister, a civil service speechwriter in the Houses of Parliament, professional (non-political) speechwriters, and a retired member of staff from Commons Hansard. The discussion was recorded in a summary on the project website and the findings fed into the following workshops.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/cor/index.aspx
 
Description Workshop (University of Birmingham) on 'Concepts' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop 2: Concepts. In this workshop, we aimed to strengthen the understanding across academic disciplines working on political speech while reflecting on workshop 1 and the current crisis of political speech. Speakers included academics from Linguistics, Political Theory, Classics and History.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/cor/index.aspx
 
Description Workshop (University of Birmingham) on 'Reasons and reasoning' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop 4: Reasons and reasoning. In this workshop, we aimed to understand the use of logical argument in political speech by engaging academics from another wide field of disciplines: Classics, History, Modern Languages, Political Theory, Political Science, Rhetoric. We also reflected on the discussions in workshops 1-3 and the impact of project findings on the practitioners of political speech: politicians, speechwriters, political reporters and their audience(s).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/cor/index.aspx
 
Description Workshop (University of East Anglia) on 'Media rhetoric' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Workshop 5: Media Rhetoric. This workshop saw participants from academic disciplines (Rhetoric, Political Theory, Classics, Media communication) and the media itself (BBC) discuss the ways in which modern mass media mediate political speech and political messages. We also reflected on the discussions in workshops 1-4 and considered ways in which to recommend good practice to political speechwriters and the people they write for.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/cor/index.aspx
 
Description Youth Speakers Corner: Latitude Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact At the Latitude Festival, from 12th-15th July we delivered a number of workshops and talks on political speech, including "Youth Speakers Corner" sessions for young people - teaching them how to write a great speech and how to deliver it. Workshop numbers were small - 10-15, with larger audiences for the delivery of the final speeches. Participants said they found the work very interesting and that it had helped them think more deeply about how political speech works and about how to do it well.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.latitudefestival.com/news/tomorrows-world