Daniel Finkelstein wrote an interesting article in The Times recently suggesting that Barack Obama was a great deliverer of speeches but not a great speech maker. The thrust of his argument was that whilst there is always plenty of uplifting language in the President’s addresses they lack talking points and do not polarise opinion. It is impossible, Finkelstein argued, to disagree with most of Obama’s speeches when, in the main, they laud equality and peace, prosperity and fairness and above all, hope. Nobody shakes their heads at these ideals. In contrast, the likes of Churchill and Lincoln drew dividing lines in their speeches, daring the audience to disagree and aspiring to change their minds at the same time. To put the article in a nutshell would be to say that Obama’s oratory lacks rhetoric in the truest sense of the word.
It made me think when I last heard what one could genuinely classify as a great speech. It is sad to admit it, but there are very few contenders in my lifetime. Some would cite Tony Blair’s Iraq War speech and others David Cameron’s no note speech at Party Conference. I have read bombastic Thatcher speeches, the fire and brimstone of Tony Benn and Geoffrey Howe’s nuanced but deadly effective attack on Margaret Thatcher but where are our modern day Ciceros?
Cicero is arguably the most famous orator and one whose legacy is still studied by lawyers, politicians and classics students alike. Cicero believed that rhetoric, the art of dialogue to be persuasive, was by far the most important weapon in his armoury when it came to public speaking. He would often seek a single point or fact that was disputed and with that as his fulcrum begin to finely balance an entire argument on top. He often left the audience or jury with no choice – to accept the premise of his argument was to accept the argument in full.
‘No liberal man would impute a charge of unsteadiness to another for having changed his opinion.’
Surely it cannot be a lack of talent or ability that hinders our elected representatives today. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and George Galloway are all extremely gifted orators with a flair for a turn of phrase but what of the others? In the context of this discussion when did any of the above change your mind on a divisive subject or force you to contemplate what you had previously held as an unshakeable belief? The art of public speaking may no longer be taught in schools but there are plenty of lawyers, businessmen and women and actors who have the ability to command a room. We, the audience, want to believe in them.
It is perhaps unfair to go a step further than Daniel Finkelstein and say that there is a dearth of rhetoric in modern political oratory but it is a skill that seems to be slipping away from those in the public eye. What is interesting, however, is that this may be through choice. Whether that choice is a conscious one is perhaps a topic that Cicero himself would have enjoyed debating.
The common ground or the centre ground of politics is a concept that would have been alien to Cicero. In its modern day connotation it is more often the short term reflection of public opinion. It is the term most used by politicians when discussing a forthcoming general election and the need to appeal to voters. It is in this fundamental aspect of democracy that we find an ever dwindling number of Ciceros.
The House of Commons is a due reflection of the public’s wish at the time of a general election. As a consequence and, increasingly, politicians are consumed by their desire for re-election. That desire is often portrayed, even masked, as the need to continue the good work that they have begun and is cited as justification of the pursuit of a long term vision. Long term vision, however, necessitates different political philosophies. Debates that are truly grounded in passion and vision are those in which the art of rhetoric will be found. The battle for the centre ground shackles our would-be Ciceros and fetters their language.
‘Nothing is more unreliable than the populace, nothing more obscure than human intentions, nothing more deceptive than the whole electoral system.’
The world is crying out for conviction politicians with an ability to inform and persuade. Barack Obama and David Cameron have the ability to be great speech makers. They have all the tools necessary to follow in Cicero’s footsteps. They and their colleagues must cast off the crippling desire for mollifying, pacifying and pandering. There is the potential for politicians of the twenty first century to usher in a new world. Internationally Europe looks jaded and the US juggernaut is carried on sheer size alone but China, India, Brazil and others look set to flourish. Domestically there are real battles to be fought, amongst many others, on pensions, social care and benefits all arising from the positive that we are living longer.
They are vast challenges, of that there is no doubt. What is equally true, however, is that if our leaders continue to navel gaze and crawl from one general election to another then these issues simply will not be resolved satisfactorily.
‘Nothing is so difficult to believe that oratory cannot make it acceptable, nothing so rough and uncultured as not to gain brilliance and refinement from eloquence.’
Cicero’s speeches averted a military coup and drove Catiline from the City of Rome, they antagonised and troubled the would-be dictators Caesar and Mark Anthony and his writings mused on the fundamentals of a republic including its constitution, government and provision of education.
In December 43 BC the great orator was assassinated. He was beheaded, his hands were cut off and they were displayed for all to see in the Forum. Such was the price that he paid for his views, for his challenging orations and written pieces. It is a far cry from defeat at the ballot box.
So here is a plea to leaders around the world. Do not seek to tell your audience what you think that they wish to here but rather challenge, excite and attempt to persuade them. Unleash your inner Cicero and allow rhetoric to have its day.
Maybe then we will all begin to hear truly great speeches.