By Will Holmes
Say what you will about Theresa May’s premiership, her orations from the backbenches are undoubtedly the acme of her career. As Prime Minister, it was her dancing that circulated social media; now it is her speeches.
Most recently, her appraisal of the debacle in Afghanistan gained widespread attention and praise. Mrs May has come a long way from allegedly plagiarising The West Wing. Unfortunately for her, speeches in modern-day parliament – unlike those in the idealistic utopia of Jed Bartlett – rarely make a difference.
Parliament has been host to no shortage of great orations over the years. From William Wilberforce’s condemnation of slavery in 1789 to Leo Abse’s stand for homosexual rights in 1966, parliamentary speeches have allowed for many a ground-breaking cause to have its voice heard. Though in typical British fashion, parliament has never claimed to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, such a trailblazing history suggests it could reasonably stake such a claim.
The modern populous will likely be more familiar with the spoken words of Sir Geoffrey Howe, Robin Cook, or Hilary Benn. Howe’s speech marked a pivotal change in the Conservative Party and precipitated the downfall of the intractable and previously invulnerable Margaret Thatcher.
The late Robin Cook spoke of his reasons for opposing the war in Iraq and his consequential resignation. Hilary Benn, meanwhile, gave an impassioned speech explaining his support for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
What makes these speeches memorable? The first consideration must be the format to which they are constrained. Members usually have a very short time to make a point. Their speeches are, for the most part, directed at their peers, intended to persuade or affirm. As a result, wooliness and one-liners are usually discarded in favour of concrete and illustrations. “Tear down this wall,” and “I have a dream,” may win votes on the outside. But they are less likely to sway those on the inside.
The language and structure of these speeches are similar; none bury the lede, and none are embellished with grandiose language of phraseology. Speeches must be easy to deliver and easy to receive, while also being able to withstand the possibility of constant interruption from the captive audience.
Speeches in parliament are also required to show due reverence to their audience and must always be respectful. Hence one is unlikely to hear the strong and personal rhetoric of a Thomas Paine or Christopher Hitchens in a parliamentary debate. On the occasions that we are entertained by such polemics, we usually have to endure a drawn-out apology or withdrawal afterwards.
A similarity of particular note is that the aforementioned speeches come from those possessing an elevated position in the relevant debate. Howe and Cook were both criticising governments of which they had latterly been members. Benn’s came in the light of his own family history, and the well-known opinion of his then party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
As with Mrs May’s status as a former Prime Minister, these elevated positions lent weight to their words and attracted a greater degree of attention than that which would otherwise be warranted. Indeed, it is largely for this reason that such speakers are bestowed with a generous (and rare) silence.
Finally, a most disheartening similarity is that most of these speeches have been unsuccessful in achieving their desired outcome. Excepting Howe, Benn, Cook, Wilberforce and May, many have been or likely will be unsuccessful in their cause. As noted, these speeches usually come from those outside the halls of power, thus their words, though no doubt impactful, hold minimal sway over the course of events.
Social media may yet change that. Much was said about the pernicious effects that the presence of TV cameras might have on parliamentary debates. The pessimistic predictions did not come to fruition. There was no incentive for politicians to aggressively play to the camera when BBC Parliament was attracting a meagre audience.
Now, however, the proliferation of edited social media clips from parliament has given MPs a much wider, albeit less attentive, audience. Clips of Mrs May contradicting her predecessor have already gone viral.
The norms that underpin all the aforementioned speeches may soon be swept aside. The essence of a great parliamentary speech will likely morph into one of populism, of one-liners, of scorn and of grandiosity. Parliamentary classicists will no doubt lament such changes. The rest of us, however, must surely hope that a wider audience might finally add the missing impetus to the proud orations of a Benn, Cook or May. A noble cause, combined with a noble speaker, might finally entail some noble action in Westminster.
Image: UK Parliament via Wikimedia Commons