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Why Rhetoric?

Introduction | Why care about political speech and rhetoric? | Rhetoric in British Politics | The Importance of Rhetoric | Some Research Questions


Press conferences, official statements, Parliamentary debates, televised addresses, platform speeches at demonstrations, chants, cheers and jeers: British politicians and activists deliver a lot of speech. Yet there is little systematic research into the place, form or function of such speeches within British political life.

BritishPoliticalSpeech.Org will change that. It will make available to scholars of all kinds an ever-expanding record of British political speech, and provide a focal point for researchers and practitioners of all kinds.

Why care about political speech and rhetoric?

Rhetoric has a bad name. It is often thought to refer to speech that, if it isn't wholly untrue, is at least misleading or perhaps simply vacuous.

A lot of political speech certainly is full of clichés and other stock phrases: ‘Let me just say this…’, or ‘And so I say to you’. It is certainly easy to mock - as Peter Sellers and Rowan Atkinson both demonstrate brilliantly in these clips: 




But not all political speech is like this, and none of it has to be. Sometimes a speech, and a turn of phrase it employs, can name a whole situation in such a memorable and effective way that it contributes to historical change. That was the case with the famous speech by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in 1960, when he explained to the South African Parliament that African peoples had a right to self-government and that ‘the winds of change’ were blowing across the continent (opens in a new browser window):













A political speech can be so powerful in expressing a vision that it is not only a comment on a historical moment, but itself historically momentous. This speech, for instance, needs no introduction:



It is right for us to be thoughtful about political speeches, and to be cautious so as not to get carried away. But powerful political oratory is not just demagoguery, one person hypnotising a crowd. It is a collective experience in which speaker and audience both share, as in this famous moment from Barack Obama’s campaign to win the nomination of his party:



Rhetoric in British Politics


in the United Kingdom we might think that we do not much care for the sorts of grand rhetorical moment that characterise, say, American politics. We do not have a State of the Union Address or an Inauguration Speech. But British Politics is full of established and even ritualised opportunities for rhetorical set-pieces. For instance, there are declarations of political victory, such as this, from a newly elected, Margaret Thatcher arriving at Downing Street in 1979 (opens in a new browser window):


And here are Prime Minister Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg declaring their coalition government open (2010):


The British Parliament (the very name means ‘speaking place’) is not simply a building. It is a series of rules and procedures making possible various kinds of rhetorical moment (and, importantly, making others impossible). Its most famous ritual is Prime Minister’s Questions but it also makes possible all sorts of other rhetorical occasion. For instance, there are statements from leaders such as this one, where Margaret Thatcher explains her attitude towards the Euro:


And there are forthright and memorable speeches from the back benches such as the famous resignation speech of Robin Cook, in which he criticised the decision of the Blair government to wage war on Iraq: 



Another rhetorical ritual of British Politics is the Party Conference speech. Every year, and sometimes twice in a year, party members and activists gather together to debate policy and affirm their party culture. A central moment of such occasions (and the one most widely reported) is the leader's speech. It is an opportunity for authority to be constructed and manifested in front of an audience of followers in the hall as well as the representatives of mass media and their audiences. Margaret Thatcher memorably described the leader's speech to conference as a moment of ‘poetry’ to ‘inspire the party faithful as well as ease the worries of the doubters’. Here, as an example, is Tony Blair delivering his last speech as leader to a Labour Party conference:



Although political communication is today dominated by print and broadcast media as well as online and mobile technologies, the speech remains a fundamental medium of political communication in Britain. The rhetoric of television news reporting, op-ed columns and blogs is important and can be influential. But the speech retains a potency and intimacy that gives it the power to reshape the feelings and opinions of those who are present to hear it. If we are to understand how British politics works, and if we are to support and strengthen British democracy, then one of the things we need to do is appreciate the place within it of such political rhetoric.


The Importance of Rhetoric

The scholarly study of political rhetoric can tell us much about how politics works and how people think politically. We can learn about the different reasons people provide in political argument and see if these change over time, or if some kinds of argument are more often found in association with one ideology or political position rather than another.

Some political theorists and philosophers have been suspicious of political rhetoric because it does not confine itself to reasons that can be classified as logical or rational in form. Rhetoric also appeals to the emotions (arousing in us a sense of pity, compassion, anger, fear and so forth). It may also use what are called arguments from ‘ethos’: that is, a rhetorician will try to communicate a sense of their character (for instance their honesty or their down-to-earth reasonableness) and hope that this character provides justification for their general political claims. These kinds of appeal can be problematic. But if people are not emotionally motivated then political community can lack vitality, becoming mired in apathy. And because in representative democracies we elect officials rather than vote on every single issue, character is a necessary concern.

Furthermore, appeals to reason are not un-rhetorical. At the centre of many political conflicts there lies disagreement over what our actual situation is. Are we reasoning about war, terrorism or crime? Are we experiencing an economic downturn, a slump or a recession? Is a policy a threat to freedom or a contribution to equality? Very often the art of political speech lies in the presentation of a particular ‘way of seeing’ the situation or phenomena at issue, of understanding or defining uncertain circumstances about which we must make reasonable judgements. Because politics is like this, it is important that there be good rhetoricians, presenting different sorts of argument, and good rhetoric that drives debates onward, and also – very importantly – audiences that can participate in questioning and judgement, and that can, when they choose, take up the argument and take it where they want it to go.

In democracies we should not force people to agree with us by threatening or bribing them. Instead, we should give them reasons. And that is what rhetoric is about: the finding of good reasons for people to think and feel something, and of the best and most convincing way to communicate these to them. That is why rhetoric is a fundamental component of political life in a free society, and one that (when exercised well) should be celebrated. 

Some Research Questions

The research that led to this website was motivated by so me particular research questions. We wanted to find out how political speeches in Britain had changed over time, for instance, from the time when Arthur Henderson was challenging the National Government in 1931 (opens in a new browser window)




…to the time when Neil Kinnock was challenging the Militant Tendency:


We decided to focus, at least at first, on leader's speeches to their party conferences. We hoped that this selection would make it easier to compare the speeches over time since, in principle, they would be the same kind of speech and we wouldn't have selected them in line with our own presuppositions.  


We have sought to address questions such as the following: 


• How have the goals of conference speeches changed over time?

• Has the target audience of the speeches changed over time?

• Is there evidence of change in rhetorical argumentative techniques?

• Over time are the speeches more or less rational, more or less emotional?

• George Lakoff argues that in the United States political conceptions are shaped

  by fundamental metaphors of ‘the nation as a family’. Is there evidence of any such

  fundamental metaphor in British political speech?

• Are Parties noticeably distinguished by reliance on different kinds of appeal and

  different kinds of figurative formulation?

• Do changes in communicative technologies explain changes in these speeches?


These were our questions. Other scholars will have other questions. We hope that this site will help them to ask them, and to answer them.

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