This EU Referendum Is Of Existential Importance. So Why Is The Campaign Rhetoric So Unequal To The Occasion?

David Cameron - EU Referendum - European Union - Brexit - Speech - Rhetoric

The age of glib soundbites and dumbed-down, instantly shareable viral social media memes is perfectly suited to the Remain campaign’s strategy of sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt as widely as possible. But if we still lived in the age of great political speeches, the Brexiteers would be winning this EU referendum by a landslide

Because I’m an oddball, sometimes I like to spend time reading or listening to great political speeches from the past – particularly those from American politics.

Two of the more obvious such speeches – JFK’s “We Choose To Go To The Moon” and Theodore Roosevelt’s “Dare Mighty Things” – have been forcing themselves repeatedly to the forefront of my mind lately, though until tonight I was unsure why.

Then this evening I stumbled on this 2011 article by Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. Though the article’s discussion of social media shows its age, it makes for an interesting read today:

One way to change minds about the current crisis is through information. We all know this, and we all know about the marvellous changes in technology that allow for the spreading of messages that are not necessarily popular with gatekeepers and establishments. But there’s something new happening in the realm of political communication that must be noted. Speeches are back. They have been rescued and restored as a political force by the Internet.

In the past quarter-century or so, the speech as a vehicle of sustained political argument was killed by television and radio. Rhetoric was reduced to the TV producer’s 10-second soundbite, the correspondent’s eight-second insert. The makers of speeches (even the ones capable of sustained argument) saw what was happening and promptly gave up. Why give your brain and soul to a serious, substantive statement when it will all be reduced to a snip of sound? They turned their speeches into soundbite after soundbite, applause line after applause line, and a great political tradition was traduced.

But the Internet is changing all that. It is restoring rhetoric as a force. When Gov. Mitch Daniels made his big speech – a serious, substantive one – two weeks ago, Drudge had the transcript and video up in a few hours. Gov. Chris Christie’s big speech was quickly on the net in its entirety. All the CPAC speeches were up. TED conference speeches are all over the net, as are people making speeches at town-hall meetings. I get links to full speeches every day in my inbox and you probably do too.

People in politics think it’s all Facebook and Twitter now, but it’s not. Not everything is fractured and in pieces, some things are becoming more whole. People hunger for serious, fleshed-out ideas about what is happening in our country. We all know it’s a pivotal time.

Look what happened a year ago to a Wisconsin businessman named Ron Johnson. He was thinking of running for the Senate against an incumbent, Democratic heavy-hitter Russ Feingold. He started making speeches talking about his conception of freedom. They were serious, sober, and not sound-bitey at all. A conservative radio host named Charlie Sykes got hold of a speech Mr. Johnson gave at a Lincoln Day dinner in Oshkosh. He liked it and read it aloud on his show for 20 minutes. A speech! The audience listened and loved it. A man called in and said, “Yes, yes, yes!” Another said, “I have to agree with everything that guy said.” Mr. Johnson decided to run because of that reaction, and in November he won. This week he said, “The reason I’m a U.S. senator is because Charlie Sykes did that.” But the reason Mr. Sykes did it is that Mr. Johnson made a serious speech.

A funny thing about politicians is that they’re all obsessed with “messaging” and “breaking through” and “getting people to listen.” They’re convinced that some special kind of cleverness is needed, that some magical communications formula exists and can be harnessed if only discovered. They should settle down, survey the technological field and get serious. They should give pertinent, truthful, sophisticated and sober-minded speeches. Everyone will listen. They’ll be all over the interwebs.

What a strange idea: the internet restoring rhetoric as an important part of our political debate. While this positive trend may have flared briefly in America for a time as Noonan indicates, we have certainly seen no comparable renaissance of political speechwriting here in Britain. Sure, Nigel Farage can deliver a withering put-down in the European Parliament and the SNP’s Mhairi Black can make sentimental lefties go all misty-eyed, but as a rule, for at least the past thirty years, political speeches in Britain have been pedestrian and utterly forgettable.

This is rather odd. Britain is currently engaged in an existential debate over whether we leave or remain in the European Union, the seriousness of this one issue dwarfing any mere general election, as the prime minister himself has opined. Surely the speeches made by our politicians should therefore reflect the gravity of the decision before us. But does our rhetoric meet the level and tone required of such a debate? Hardly.

As an ardent Brexiteer, one of the main problems I encounter when debating the issue with people – particularly online – is that abstract concepts such as democracy and self-determination are much harder to put into words or summarise with a glib but memorable phrase, while the fearmongering rhetoric of the Remain campaign naturally lends itself to viral sharing. It is much easier to (falsely and hysterically) declare that pensioners will be £32,000 worse off or that 100,000 marriages in London will fail because of Brexit than to explain the intangible importance of living in a properly free society – and almost inevitably the person attempting to argue the side of self-governance ends up sounding ponderous and vague in contrast with the swivel-eyed certainties uttered by Remainers.

And when eurosceptics try to dial up the rhetorical heat, too often it comes off badly. While UKIP-ish phrases like “we want our country back” are certainly memorable, they also have a distinctly nativist twang which alienates a good many people even as it fires up true believers. It is the same story with these key phrases, repeated over and over again by the official Vote Leave campaign, from their daily emails to the phrases of key surrogates:

We send £350 million a week to the EU – enough to build a new hospital every week

250,000 EU migrants a year come to the UK and five new countries are in the queue to join – including Albania, Serbia, and Turkey – it’s out of control and damages the NHS

It’s safer to take back control and spend our money on our priorities

This is apparently the best that the cream of Britain’s eurosceptic talent can do – an utterly unbelievable pledge about diverting 100% of our current EU contributions, including the rebate, to building new hospitals, and an unconnected pivot from the NHS to it being “safer” to spend money on our priorities. One can just about see what Vote Leave is trying to do, but it is an amateurish, almost childlike attempt at political messaging.

Meanwhile, here is the slicker effort from Britain Stronger in Europe:

Britain is stronger, safer and better off in Europe than we would be out on our own.

Join the campaign to remain in Europe – and let’s secure a stronger Britain that delivers opportunity now and for future generations

Never mind that it is based on a lie. A lie repeated identically and often enough can be incredibly effective, as it is with Vote Leave’s misrepresentation that leaving the political organisation known as the EU means leaving the continent of Europe. There is also more of a positive message here – where Vote Leave talk about Brexit being “safer”, suggesting danger and a defensive attitude, Stronger In talk about “deliver[ing] opportunity now and for future generations”, exuding positivity for today and for tomorrow as well.

Only when the message delivery window is longer than a quick email or a short social media meme does the Brexit side begin to redress the balance. Put aside their dubious and counterproductive tactics for a moment, but Vote Leave spokespeople like Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan (even Nigel Farage) can paint an extremely attractive picture of Britain outside the European Union in a speech, particularly when they aren’t butchering the idea of how to go about achieving their goal.

Even more pertinently, look at the Flexcit plan for leaving the European Union, which is increasingly being seized upon by key influencers who despair of Vote Leave’s amateurism and lack of a clear, risk-minimising Brexit plan. Flexcit itself is a 400 page document, while the summary pamphlet clocks in at a still substantial 40+ pages. At a recent TED-style talk in central London, Dr. Richard North (Flexcit’s primary author) took an hour to lay out the ideas and reasoning behind it. Though the Leave Alliance network of committed bloggers (full disclosure: I am one of them) do a sterling job of breaking down and simplifying the concepts so as to sell them more effectively to key influencers and the public, Flexcit will never be an easily-shared, one page meme on Facebook. Nor should it be. Serious and weighty issues require serious responses.

But increasingly it appears that the Leave camp will be punished at the ballot box for the fact that its core argument about democracy and self-determination cannot be boiled down to a single positive phrase or graphic in the same way as the establishment-backed Remain campaign can churn out endless content, together with slick but abhorrent messages from professional agencies:

Operation Black Vote - OBV - A vote is a vote - EU Referendum - European Union

Of course Vote Leave are guilty of shameless fearmongering too, never more so than with this dreadful fearmongering ad about Turkey joining the EU:

Vote Leave - Turkey Joining EU

But whether it is raising fears of knuckle-dragging, Brexit supporting skinheads or the armies of Turkish immigrants who will apparently all decamp to Britain en masse at the first opportunity, both are seen as highly effective tools by their respective campaigns, and both rely on communicating a primitive, fear-based message not with rich rhetoric but with a short, sharp visual, the better to hold our limited attention spans.

In many ways, it is a tragedy for the Brexit cause that this opportunity to extricate ourselves from an unwanted supranational government of Europe has come about when the internet has taken off and the average person’s idea of profound political engagement is liking and sharing the latest snide Huffington Post article with their friends on Facebook. When the debate over whether or not Britain should join Europe raged in the late 1960s and early 70s, the art of making serious (if not quite great) speeches was still just about alive – Hugh Gaitskell’s famous address to the Labour Party conference warning against joining the EEC stands as one such example of memorable oratory, culminating in the famous “thousand years of history” quote:

We must be clear about this; it does mean, if this is the idea, the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: “Let it end.” But, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.

But when the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

In this debate, our elected leaders should be role models in setting the tone of the debate. Of course they are not, because our professional political class are very much part of the problem – the main reason why Brexit should only be the first step in a broader process of constitutional reform and democratic renewal in Britain.

But here we are, a country administered by followers rather than leaders, watched over by a childish and corrupted press who would rather giggle about the referendum’s personal dramas than fulfil their democratic function. And too little time before the referendum to hope that anything much will change.

All of which is bad for Brexiteers. After all, this is an age when scaremongering claims and assertions about the supposed cost of Brexit can be “quantified”, slapped on a smug little infographic and shared ten thousand times before breakfast, while the importance of self-determination an democracy – the ability of the people to influence the decisions which affect them and dismiss those with power – is almost impossible to boil down to a single eye-catching number, despite being the most precious benefit of all.

Without honest political leaders to establish a narrative and bigger picture – and without a robust media to report – it is effectively left to well-intentioned citizens to hold the grown-up debate amongst themselves, citizens who (for all their pluck) often struggle to cut through the noise of the vapid official campaign.

What’s most galling about all of this is the fact that there are many people alive today who have living memory of hearing great political rhetoric deployed in service of consequential issues – if not in Britain, at least in America:

The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself.

We Choose To Go To The Moon.

The Great Society.

I Have A Dream.

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You.

Robert Kennedy’s speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Tear Down This Wall.

And even Britain has managed to offer worthy efforts, including:

We Shall Fight On The Beaches.

The Few.

The Winds Of Change.

The Lady’s Not For Turning.

The Grotesque Chaos Of A Labour Council.

What words uttered by our contemporary politicians during this EU referendum will be long remembered or quoted fifty years from now?

My prediction: not a damn one. But at least there will be a great treasure trove of vapid tweets and misleading infographics for historians to pick through as they wonder why Britain signed away her freedom.


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Top Image: Guardian

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3 thoughts on “This EU Referendum Is Of Existential Importance. So Why Is The Campaign Rhetoric So Unequal To The Occasion?

  1. bellevue May 29, 2016 / 2:46 PM

    This post would make a splendid speech! You really do have a way with words, Sam.

    Its a shame these musings cannot reach a far larger audience…….. but you are doing a fantastic job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper May 30, 2016 / 12:57 AM

      You’re too kind! Many thanks. In idle moments I dream of being a political speechwriter – a sort of modern day British version of Ted Sorensen. But I have a tendency to waffle and overwrite, so I’m not sure how good I would be. Still, it’s nice to dream sometimes!


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