Great orators

If we look at history, we can identify politicians who were renowned for their capacity for all three types of oratory – ceremonial, forensic and deliberative – listed in my previous post.  In the United States, a good example at the start of the 19th Century was lawyer and politician Daniel Webster.  He debated in the US Senate, not least with John Calhoun.  He brought more than 150 pleas before the US Supreme Court.  He was a noted ceremonial orator, delivering great public speeches.  In 1957, a Senate committee named him as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators.

In the United Kingdom, a good example at the start of the 20th Century is another lawyer and politician, F. E. Smith (pictured).  He was a great platform speaker, but he could equally use the floor of the House of Commons for a great speech.  According to Sir Peter Tapsell, ‘his maiden speech in the House of Commons was the most sensationally successful ever delivered in 600 years of parliamentary history’.  Smith could debate in the House as well as in the courtroom, where he could engage in forensic oratory – he was an outstanding lawyer, later Lord Chancellor – but also spar with judges who he deemed not his equal, which was most of them.  He could eviscerate a witness, but also challenge and win an argument with the judge.

The point to stress is that these are the exceptions.  It is rare to find someone who excels in all three.  There are politicians who are noted for excelling in two, primarily ceremonial and deliberative oratory.  Lord Randolph Churchill is an eminent example in the latter half of the 19th Century.  He was, as his great grandson, Nicholas Soames, noted, ‘the most brilliant and audacious platform speaker and a parliamentary debater’.  In the latter half of the 20th Century, two politicians who were both ceremonial and deliberative orators were Enoch Powell and Michael Foot (pictured).  They could craft great speeches, appealing to the emotion or logic, but also relish engaging with others, with the cut and thrust of interventions.  Foot was a discursive speaker, whereas Powell was more structured.

We then come to those who excelled in one form of oratory. An outstanding example is Winston Churchill, Lord Randolph’s son.  He was, demonstrably, a great ceremonial orator, but he was not a good debater.  He was not gifted in either deliberative or forensic oratory.  Again to quote Nicholas Soames, ‘For him, every speech, however brief, had to be carefully prepared – an agonising process for everyone involved.’  He could not adapt a speech to the mood of the House and was dependent on his script.  In 1904, he was giving a speech in the Commons, which he had memorised, when his memory let him down and, unable to speak off the cuff, he sat down.  There is obviously no doubt that Churchill was a great ceremonial orator. His speeches and ringing phrases endure.  He was exceptional in his oratorical skills, but they were specific skills appropriate to a certain platform.

Of politicians alive today, are there any who would qualify as great orators?  Michael (now Lord) Heseltine would probably qualify as a ceremonial speaker (he was especially good on the conference platform) and William (now Lord) Hague as a deliberative orator.  Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg both draw crowds when they speak – I shall look at them in my forthcoming post on modes of persuasion – but are there any others?

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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5 Responses to Great orators

  1. tizres says:

    I suggest that both Michael Gove and Rory Stewart have demonstrated the art of oratory when given the chance. Mr Gove’s wind-up in January’s no-confidence debate is worth noting though Mr Stewart’s reply to replacing the lion with the hedgehog as a national symbol was a particular tour de force:

  2. Are there others? In the words of Cicero, the world’s greatest orator in history: “Where there’s life, there’s hope!”
    Kind regards,

  3. maude elwes says:

    A great orator who also had the common sense to view the future of British life from an understanding of the best interests of its citizens.

  4. Pingback: Effective prime ministerial leadership? | The Norton View

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