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Great Speeches

Breakthrough lessons in rhetoric – Anarchy in the UK

Rhetoric in the EU Referendum
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Philip Collins is a columnist on The Times and the chair of the Trustees at the think tank Demos. Until 2007 he was the chief speech writer to the Prime Minister Tony Blair. Before that he has worked as a director of a think tank, in investment banking and in academia. He is the author of The Art of Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say.

In this article he outlines the rhetorical approaches taken to the UK’s recent European Union referendum. The political campaigns for the 6 months up to the vote on 23rd June 2016, split the country. The ‘Remain’ side (in favour of UK staying inside the European Union) fought a campaign based on the economic consequences of leaving the EU. The ‘Brexit’ campaign (in favour of the UK’s exit from the European Union) was built around the fears of growing immigration to the UK, the increasing costs of EU membership and the importance of ‘sovereignty’, freedom and democracy. It seemed all the way through the campaign period that the Brexit messaging was clearer, stronger and more successful in engaging with the electorate, but all the while it was felt that the Remain side would win. They didn’t win.

The vote was won, unexpectedly, by the ‘Brexit’ side by 52 to 48% of the vote. It led to the immediate resignation of the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and huge political and economic turmoil for the UK. Philip’s article gives a great insight into the challenges of creating memorable messages for political speeches and, of course, for other less high-profile and controversial issues.  The key lessons? That the strongest, clearest, most relevant ‘Big Idea’ will be remembered by the audience when everything else has been forgotten. Whether that ‘Big Idea’ is objectively true, or means the same thing to each audience member is much less important. Or at least it was in this controversial campaign.

My favourite image in any speech on which I worked for Tony Blair came in a speech about the European Union. It was an image which, as it has turned out, might have been useful for the defeated Remain campaign.

It was back in 2005, Britain was then due to take over the Presidency of the European Union, and the protocol was that the outgoing President, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, would hand over to Mr Blair, with a few pleasantries. However, a few weeks earlier, the EU had failed to reach a conclusion over its budget and Mr Juncker blamed the British in general and Mr Blair in particular. Instead of the usual bromides, Mr Juncker then delivered a blistering attack.

I had been preparing a dull speech, full of the diplomatic niceties and observing all the protocols. When we heard the speech that Mr Juncker had given Mr Blair it was clear that my competent worthiness would no longer do. We started again on a speech that gave a full account of Britain’s commitment to the EU but spared nobody about the mess the institution had allowed itself to get into. The speech was an appreciation of the social market and an account of the legislation that had been passed in Britain to create our own version but it sought, at the same time, to marry that social concern with a dynamic market economy.

The main point of the speech, what Aristotle would call “the topic” was that there was no such thing as the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism. Britain was a major player in Europe and it was grafting job creation onto the social model. It reads still as one of the best cases for British membership of the EU that I recall. It was, I think, still the best case and I don’t think anyone has matched it yet in this campaign.

The speech also contained a warning that there was a dangerous gap between the people and the elites in Europe which the politicians were ignoring. It ended with the biblical phrase, from the sacking of Jericho, my favourite image:

The people are sounding the trumpets on the city walls.

Are we listening? I don’t think we were at the time and I don’t think the people were listening in the referendum campaign either. At least not to the side advocating Remain. The case for Remain did not change much in the 41 years since the last referendum on the subject in 1975. One of the stalwarts of that campaign had this to say:

At a time of uncertainty in world affairs, Europe gives us a far better chance of peace and security and if we wish our children to continue to enjoy the benefits of peace, our best course of action is to stay in Europe… It is still true, in the most literal sense of the term, that Britain’s business is in the world… To take a gamble of leaving Europe would be reckless in the extreme… It’s a gamble where we have little to win, but a lot to lose.

Outside of the Community, we should have to bargain for ourselves, squeezed between the world trading giants. Inside the Community we have the strength of the trading power that we need by being a member of the world’s most commercially strong trading group. This trade bloc comprises, let it be remembered, our closest neighbours and our largest customers… And it would mean that Britain’s trade with Western Europe—still our fastest growing market—would be conducted on terms and regulated by rules in which it had had no say.  Is it little wonder that there is not one leading British company that wishes us to leave Europe?…

To leave such a Community would not merely be a leap in the dark, it would be like a leap overboard from a secure ship into dark and uncharted waters”.

It is amazing how much of the recent argument was contained in that speech which was delivered by, soon to be UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in 1975, and she was never known as a Europhile. There were, though, some telling differences. The main burden of the speech, at a time when the Second World War was a clearer memory for many UK citizens, was peace and security rather than the economy and there was nothing at all about immigration.


In the 2016 campaign, each side had two main arguments which took almost all of the rhetorical burden

The Remain side rested a lot on the economy and on security. The Leave side concentrated on sovereignty and immigration. Ultimately, the latter two prevailed, largely because they are vague enough to take a lot of weight. Let’s take the two remain arguments first.


It’s hard to make numbers sound interesting

The case for Britain remaining within the EU was primarily economic. Millions of jobs would be lost, said campaigners, as manufacturers moved to lower-cost EU countries. Britain’s large, foreign-owned car industry would be particularly at risk. This was routinely supported by figures which presented a rhetorical problem. It is notoriously hard to make numbers sound interesting. In this case the task was to make the numbers sound scary, which never really worked.

For example, what does it mean to hear that the EU is the UK’s main trading partner, worth more than £400bn a year, or 52% of the total trade in goods and services? It sounds a lot but it is also curiously abstract. It certainly did not work even when the cost was translated, in a common rhetorical trick, into a household budget or a job total. The precise numbers were 3 million jobs and £450 a year for every household but neither number ever took hold. By contrast, the just as fallacious idea that the EU costs £350 million a week was cited by many voters as an important fact.


Good rhetoric does not exaggerate

That story of risk was accompanied by another, about the risk to diplomatic weight and security that attached to leaving the European Union. Speeches in the remain campaign made a lot of the diminished influence that the UK would have in Brussels, Berlin and Paris after leaving the EU. There was a lot about being ignored by Washington and finding it onerous to do trade deals with India and China. The UK, it was said, risks becoming a maverick, isolated state if it leaves.

The argument went on that this would lead directly to a security threat. The aggression of Russia, terrorism and cross-border crime are all examples of threats that are better tackled at the European level, through sanctions, sharing intelligence about terrorists or arresting criminals using the European Arrest Warrant.

It was interesting, however, that this argument could not be pushed very far. The case that former UK Prime Minister Ted Heath made on UK entry into the EU in 1973, repeated by Margaret Thatcher in 1975, rested very heavily on the memory of war. When David Cameron tried to conjure the spectre of war in this campaign he was mocked for doing so.

One of the rules of good rhetoric is not to exaggerate a caseIt has to be plausible and the claim that leaving the EU brought war closer just did not seem plausible.

Note that both of these rhetorical manoeuvres, the economic and the diplomatic, are essentially negative in nature. There was little attempt to make a case for the European Union as such. The EU as a peacekeeper is one such attempt which failed as soon as the words had escaped from Mr Cameron’s lips.

No serious attempt was ever made to argue that membership of the EU has improved life for the average Briton through aviation reforms that secured a significant drop in the cost of airfares or through the abolition of mobile phone roaming charges across member states. Though these might be thought small examples in themselves, they could have been used as indicative stories or images to tell the tale of how co-operation in a major entity works for everyone. No genuine attempt was ever made.


A ‘Big Idea’ in a slogan was the rhetorical advantage

That left the terrain free for the cases that were, ultimately, successful. The Leave side had two arguments which they put constantly and one rhetorical advantage which they used ruthlessly. The two arguments were sovereignty and immigration and the rhetorical advantage was a slogan – take back control – that summarised their arguments in a simple, in fact in a simplistic, way. The winning ‘Big Idea’ came out of the  2 arguments resonating most with the electorate throughout the campaign.

Rhetoric in the EU Referendum

Boris Johnson steals the show with his artfully vague message

Rhetoric in the EU Referendum

David Cameron fails to ignite

The first argument was about power and sovereignty. The case was easy to make and it was well made that the EU is undemocratic, and undermines national governments. It is committed, the argument goes, to ‘ever closer union’. Treaties have consistently shifted more power to Brussels and away from member states. This was supplemented by the regular claim by the Vote Leave side that the nineteen Eurozone countries constitute a majority in the EU and routinely outvote Britain. They also made a great deal of the supremacy of EU law over British law.

Those arguments meant a lot to some of the campaigners. Daniel Hannan, for example, one of the Leave campaign’s leaders, always brings to mind Disraeli’s brilliant dismissal of Gladstone as “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. It is not, though, in the florid account of national sovereignty that you find the real rhetorical flourish of the victorious campaign.

The real victory was won on the question of immigration. When asked why they voted Leave many voters said explicitly that they wanted immigration cut. Lots of those who cited sovereignty said, when pressed on the issue, that it was immigration on which they wanted control.


The rhetorical lesson is that vagueness can work

When you use a precise-sounding but vague notion such as “take back control” you permit people to make of it what they will. It works as a slogan but only as a rallying cry. When, later, you come to give the slogan content it can mean anything.

For most people what it means is cutting immigration and, for at least some of the Leave campaigners, this was their strongest suit. The argument was, again, simple. If Britain left the EU it would be able to take full control of its borders. Migration numbers would reduce, there would be greater job opportunities for British workers and wages would therefore go up. The pressure on schools, hospitals and other public services would be easier.

The conclusions are questionable but the case resonated because there was and is a large section of the population for whom globalisation is more of a curse than a blessing. It was also clear, and this became crucial, that campaigners for Remain had no answer to this question. They had literally nothing to say about immigration at all.


“It’s just rhetoric” but it’s pretty important

As it turned out, the people were sounding the trumpets on the city walls and this was the music they were playing. Those who advocated exit are now in government trying to keep up the harmony.

The campaign, and its result, leaves me with one fear, which is itself rooted in the history of rhetoric. In his play, The CloudsAristophanes is the first writer to make the connection between rhetoric and duplicity. That has now become a commonplace. We often hear people say, disparagingly, “it’s just rhetoric”.

The rhetorical victory of this campaign was won over the immigration issue more than any other. If that promise is not redeemed, if the people conclude that the promise was “just rhetoric”, the esteem in which politics is held, which is low anyway, will fall further. Political speech is powerful, sometimes for good and sometimes, unfortunately, for ill.


Editor’s PS

Trump vs Clinton is shaping up to be as thrilling for the US watchers and as dangerous for the campaign speechwriters as the ‘Brexit’ debate has been divisive and difficult for the UKs ‘finest’. Out of the anger and heat will emerge the campaign slogans for each candidate. Those ‘Big Ideas’ that resonate most powerfully with the potential voters will be decisive in the outcome of the election. Will it be Trump or Clinton to do what ‘Brexit’ did and turn a simple slogan into millions and millions votes? For surely the measure of any kind of sales pitch is to turn an idea into reality. To move people to action.

Philip Collins

Philip Collins

Philip Collins is a columnist on The Times and the chair of the Trustees at the think tank Demos. Until 2007 he was the chief speech writer to the Prime Minister Tony Blair. Before that he has worked as a director of a think tank, in investment banking and in academia. He is the author of The Art of Presentations: The Secrets of Making People Remember What You Say.
1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Oliver

    16th August 2016 at 1:31 am

    “One of the rules of good rhetoric is not to exaggerate a case. It has to be plausible and the claim that leaving the EU brought war closer just did not seem plausible.”

    That’s a strange statement in this context, given that the Leave side used hyperbole and exaggeration routinely. The alleged effects of immigration were plain false, as were the alleged payments to the EU.

    I also do not agree with the claim that the Remain side had nothing to say on immigration. Maybe not the official campaigners, but plenty of arguments were presented out of academia – both in terms of effects on the public sector, but also on British science. Of course, after Gove gave the official excuse to ignore expertise of any kind (“The people have had enough of experts”) there was no reason to acknowledge those warnings. And this is the true danger of the situation: If style really trumps substance completely and utterly, then the people can be brought to do practically anything. And Europe knows very, very, well where that can end.

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