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?

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Where are the orators?

The present state of British politics is pretty parlous. There are major issues to be confronted, but in seeking to articulate answers and give a lead politicians are not notable for their capacity to articulate what needs be to be done.  It is not just a question of ideas, but also how they are articulated.

At the end of last year, I gave the inaugural lecture to mark the creation of the Network for the Interface of Politics and the Classics.  Delivered in the Liverpool Victoria Gallery and Museum (pictured), I sought to demonstrate the relevance of the classics to contemporary politics.

As ever in political science, one starts with Aristotle.  At the time that he was teaching, understanding the use of speech in order to persuade – in Aristotle’s words, ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’ – was known as rhetoric. The word, in terms of its roots, covers both the art of persuasion and the content of the speech constructed in order to persuade.  Aristotle recognised the value of rhetoric and saw it is a counterpoint to dialectic, and not, like Plato, as an enemy.  Many appear to follow in Plato’s footsteps, seeing rhetoric in a negative light, as a means of manipulation, contrasted with attempts to reveal the objective truth.

I argued that the classics, and especially Aristotle’s work, are useful both analytically and, of particular relevance today, prescriptively.  They provide a framework for understanding contemporary political discourse and, of especial significance, have a role to play in countering popular distrust of Parliament.  Here I deal with the types of oratory identified by Aristotle.  In later posts, I will identify notable orators, deal with modes of persuasion, and summarise my thesis as to how it may help in countering distrust of Parliament.

Types of oratory

Aristotle divided oratory into ceremonial (what he termed epideictic), forensic, and deliberative.  One can relate each to being especially appropriate to a particular forum.  The ceremonial can be seen as a feature of the public platform, orating to an audience – as Aristotle puts it, ‘onlookers’ – rather than engaging in debate with a specified opponent, be it opposing counsel or political adversaries.  Aristotle saw the ceremonial as essentially conveying praise or blame, used for example at a wedding, funeral or inaugural address.  I deploy it in a somewhat broader sense, as also being used to make an argument, to persuade an audience, but where those attending are there to listen and not engage in a verbal discourse.

The other two types involve engaging with alternatives, in effect putting a case against an opposing case, and have been a feature, though not exclusively, of law courts and political arena respectively.  I take the two types as constituting debate; both involve engaging with those expressing opposing views, whereas ceremonial oratory sees the orator standing alone, which could be in a debating chamber, but where the person speaking is delivering a set-piece oration.  One can see occasions where an event is not confined to any one type.  A formal speech may be followed by a deliberative engagement, but that is different to a debate in which each side puts its case.

As Richard Toye has noted, how a speech is delivered matters.  Some orators are effective in crafting their orations, through words or performance or, typically both, so as to influence the minds or emotions of their audience in a way that favours the speaker.  The effect on the mind may be to induce admiration rather than agreement, but it has an effect.  The most effective orator, one could argue, would induce both admiration and agreement, agreement that may result in action.  Some speakers may have the effect of inducing boredom or ridicule, so would not be seen to be achieving the desired goal.

Exceptionally, there are politicians who can engage, or have engaged, effectively in ceremonial, forensic and deliberative oratory.  That they are exceptions is not that surprising, given that each requires different skills.  Some can labour over crafting fine speeches and deliver them effectively, but lack the mental capacity, or formal training, to engage in deliberative or forensic debate.  Some speakers may be quick witted, and able to engage in deliberative debate in a parliamentary chamber, but not good at crafting a series of logical and well-crafted sentences that deliver a clear and sustained message, in a way that sways the audience.  A legislative chamber may provide an arena for ceremonial and deliberative oratory, but members may not be good at both.  Some are adept at none of the three.

What is notable is how few politicians today master any type of oratory.  One could argue that political discourse is the poorer because of a dearth of orators.  The Sophists recognised that rhetoric could be taught.  Though politicians today, not least party leaders, may be trained in how to project themselves in public, they are not taught the art of oratory.  They may be more adept at the soundbite, and looking good, than the flowing persuasive speech.  British politics is the worse for it.

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Debating Private Members’ Bills

Sir Christopher Chope, the MP for Christchurch, has attracted widespread criticism for his action last Friday in blocking a Private Member’s Bill to protect girls from female genital mutilation.  In the Commons, Private Members’ Bills that have not been allocated time for debate, or run out of time, are listed at the end of a Friday sitting and if any MP shouts ‘object’ to a Bill, it cannot proceed.  Sir Christopher has a practice of variously (though not always) objecting to Bills that have not been debated.

As the BBC reported ‘Sir Christopher argued his aim was to stop badly thought-out legislation.  He said he had not been objecting to the substance of the issue, but wanted to see all legislation properly debated.’  I have sympathy with that argument.  However, it depends what is meant by ‘properly debated’.  I can understand if a Bill has not been debated at all.  But that does not apply in this case.  This was a Bill – the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [HL] 2017-19 – that had already been debated and passed by the House of Lords (hence the HL in the title).  Among those who spoke in support on Second Reading were two leading lawyers – former Supreme Court Justice Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws – and it was supported by the Government.  The minister, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, said:

‘I turn to the Bill, which seeks to amend a small and, we believe, unintentional gap in the law. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, there has been an oversight.  He explained that the purpose of the Bill is to amend Section 8(4) of the Children Act 1989 to bring proceedings for FGMPOs within the definition of “family proceedings” for the purpose of the 1989 Act.  The effect of bringing FGMPO proceedings within this definition would be that a number of powers under the Children Act 1989 would be opened up to the family courts in those proceedings, such as the power to make a care or supervision order.

The Government are pleased to be able to support the Bill at Second Reading. There are a few minor and technical amendments that we believe are appropriate and we will of course discuss them with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and other interested noble Lords before the Bill returns to your Lordships’ House for its next stage.’

Some amendments were agreed at committee stage and the Bill was passed by the House.

The Bill thus does not fall in the category of a Private Member’s Bill that would have gone through Parliament undebated, had it not been for Sir Christopher’s objection.  The Bill was debated, without any constraints on proceedings, in the Lords.  Given that, I would argue that any objection in the Commons should have been on grounds of principle and not process.  As far as I am aware, no parliamentarian has any objection of principle.

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Enhancing Degree Apprenticeships

I chair the Higher Education Commission, which draws members from business, academe, and Parliament, and which holds inquiries designed to enhance higher education.  I co-chair each inquiry.  Our latest report, on degree apprenticeships, was published on Tuesday and launched in a packed Jubilee Room of the Palace of Westminster.

The report recognizes the value of degree apprenticeships, not only to students but to the UK’s economic recovery, but shows the extent to which the delivery is hampered by a lack of coherence and co-ordination.  The standards for the degrees are often not fit for purpose and the process of approval slow.  There is a dearth of providers: of 51 approved degree apprenticeship standards, 43% have no providers able to deliver to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) who are non-levy payers.  There are also degree apprenticeship ‘cold spots’ in areas of severe educational and economic disadvantage.  Students in these areas tend to have to travel substantial distances for the nearest provider, whereas students in more affluent areas do not.

As we conclude, degree apprenticeships have the potential both to improve social mobility and increase economic productivity, but to realise the potential various changes are necessary.  We advance recommendations designed to ensure that the policy objectives are met.

It was clear from the response at the launch that the report has identified a significant problem as well as put forward valuable proposals to address it.  More details can be found here, including a link to the full report.

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‘Dear MP/peer..’ From letters to e-mails…

As regular readers know, at the start of each year I table a parliamentary question asking how many items of correspondence were received in the Palace of Westminster in the previous year (and, of these, what proportion was received in the House of Lords).  I have just received the answer to the one for 2018. The data demonstrate a clear trend.  There has been a notable decline over time, with marked reductions in some years, but with the volume of correspondence in each year being smaller than in the previous year. In 2005, there were over 4.7 million items of correspondence. This past year, it was just over 1.5 million, in other words a third of what it was thirteen years before.

Interestingly, the proportion of mail estimated to be received in the Lords as a proportion of the total has increased in recent years. Whereas it was 20% (down to 15% in 2008), it was 25% from 2009 to 2015, and since has been put at 30%. Perhaps writers consider it more appropriate to write to us by letter than e-mail, or it could be because not all peers have e-mail.

The figures for 2005 onwards are (with the percentage going to the Lords in parenthesis):

2005  4,733,000 (estimate) (20%)

2006 4,789,935  (no % given for the Lords)

2007  4,199,853 (20%)

2008  4,135,144 (15%)

2009  3,540,080 (25%)

2010  3,082,187 (25%)

2011  2,691,576 (25%)

2012  2,544,019 (25%)

2013  2,490,256 (25%)

2014  2,234,763 (25%)

2015  2,200,504 (25%)

2016  1,652,317 (30%)

2017  1,633,770 (30%)

2018 1,519,939 (30%)

The figures exclude parcels, courier items, and internal mail.

No data are kept on the volume of e-mails flowing into the Palace, so it is not possible definitively to show the extent to which e-mail correspondence has more than compensated for the decline in snail mail, but parliamentary in-boxes are now being swamped with briefings, appeals to support this or that Bill, and missives on a range of issues. My impression is that e-mails from people who discern conspiracy theories of one sort or another have also increased. The problem is one of sifting the important from the not-so-important.

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Caption competition – the winner…

There were some splendid entries for the caption competition and, as ever, I was spoilt for choice.  The entry that was most geared to the subject of the lecture – the classics and Parliament – was Neil M with ‘Judicial, deliberative and epideictic.  Oh, sorry, I didn’t realise it was a rhetorical question’.  My scholarly readers will be smiling with knowing approval.  The entry by Nicholas Hackett – ‘Stay with me, I still have 520 pages of Brexit to explain’ – was perhaps a little too close for comfort.  (Think Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’).  The entry by colin MacArthur – ‘trust me I have done an Escape Room challenge before, I know how to get us out of here in record time’ – may well have won if I knew what the Escape Room was.  (I have it on good authority, namely the aforementioned Colin MacArthur, that I am not keeping up with modern culture.)   Likewise, with Mark Shephard and ‘As a Harry Potter fan, Lord Norton attempts to escape the encircling mob by disapparating’, may have done better had I actually been a Harry Potter fan and knew what disapparating was.

The entries that met the ‘laugh out loud’ test most successfully were those that focused on the hand movements.  The one that had the edge – not for the first time – was the first entry submitted.  The winner, also not for the first time, is Gary Weatherhead, with:

‘And with plenty of practice, you may eventually be able to solve the Rubik’s cube in under ten seconds, without even looking’.

I appreciate you may need to be of a certain age to appreciate why this is funny.  If Gary Weatherhead cares to get in touch, a publication will be on its way.

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New Year caption competition

I thought some readers would appreciate a New Year caption competition, so here is the first of 2019.  It shows me speaking to some students after I gave the inaugural lecture, on Parliament and the Classics, at the Victoria Gallery, Liverpool, last year, to mark the creation of the Network for the Interface of Classics and Politics.  I thought it would be an appropriate picture given that in subsequent posts I shall be writing about the relevance of the classics – especially Artistotle’s analysis of oratory – to contemporary politics.

As usual, the winner will be the reader who provides the most witty and apt caption for the picture.  The prize will be one of my recent publications.

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