A trainspotter’s guide to political speeches, great and terribleby Sam Leith / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
Above, Aristotle identified the elements of a good speech
The party conference season is upon us: Tories at Manchester, Labour in Liverpool, and the Lib Dems gladdening Birmingham with their yellow pennants and insane optimism. What can we expect? Speeches, of course. Some of them “keynote,” even.Such speeches can make or break a leader’s career, and political trainspotters will, naturally, be all over them. However for trainspotters of another stripe—ones like me—the action is not over policy, but rhetoric. Here are some notes on what to look for.
Aristotle said there were three appeals that rhetoric could make: ethos, pathos and logos. These are, roughly: establishing the credibility of the speaker; stirring the audience’s emotions; and appealing to logic and reason. Any speech blends all three. But in political rhetoric, at a rally or a conference, the ethos appeal is uppermost, while logos and pathos are secondary. You argue for policy in parliament and in cabinet. At conference, you rally your troops and, in the media age, reach beyond them to the undecided.
So it’s about self-presentation: a shaping of speaker and immediate audience, along with a wider implied audience, into a whole. A conference speech seeks to turn, and a great conference speech succeeds in turning, “me and you” into “we.” Hence the workmanlike peroration of David Cameron’s spring conference speech: “Today let the same confidence ring out from this hall and this party… we believe in the British people and our power together to build a better future. Together we’ll create the businesses, we’ll create the jobs, we’ll create the opportunities, we’ll light the spark of enterprise, we’ll fire our economy, we’ll drive our country forward, and together we will do it.”
Note here the typical outward movement from “hall” to “party” to “people” and from “jobs” to “opportunities” to “enterprise” to “economy” to “country” and finally to “it,” whatever that may be: from the small, local and concrete to the large, national and abstract. This is where a personal narrative—yucky term, I know—is made emblematic of a national narrative: Margaret Thatcher’s grocer’s shop and housewife economics; Gordon Brown’s manse (“these are my values—the values I grew up with in an ordinary family in an ordinary town”); or Tony Blair’s questionable anecdotes about his childhood love of football.
What was the worst failure of ethos in a leader’s speech to his party in living memory? You’d have to…