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Watching the above video of Peter Shore making the case for a No vote at the Oxford Union, a couple of days before the 1975 referendum, brought a few disparate thoughts to mind.

First, how little some of the essential arguments have changed in 42 years – Shore effectively attacks Project Fear in the cause of taking back control.

Second, what a contrast between Shore and Keir Starmer, between a prominent Labour figure willing to espouse clear principles and one who prefers to skulk behind careful ambiguities.

But aside from the politics of Brexit or of the modern Labour Party, the third thing that struck me was the sheer quality of Shore’s oratory. The artful combination of phrasing, cadence, rhythm, tone and gesture serves to elevate his argument to a degree that I’d hope is recognisable regardless of whether you happen to agree with him or not.

As a result of his oratorical skills, Shore delivered not just an argument but a great speech. But he wasn’t a freak, or even a wildly renowned public speaker in his day. I suspect his contemporaries would recognise a good speech in the footage above, but wouldn’t view it as something that was truly extraordinary. In the Commons of that era were quite a lot of politicians who were accomplished orators.

What’s striking is to try to list the modern speeches by Parliamentarians which have achieved the same quality. I’ve wracked my brains and, frankly, I can’t think of any. To be quite honest, while there are many excellent MPs in today’s House of Commons, I can’t think of a single one who speaks so well. Probably the most famous good speech of recent years was delivered by Hilary Benn, in the Syria debate – but watch it back, and you’ll see that while it was effective, it was done with notes and is still seen as exceptional rather than normal.

Depressingly, most of our Parliamentarians do not seem to prize public speaking. Indeed it’s a fairly regular occurrence to see some of them apparently struggling to convincingly read out loud from a bit of paper. Many are perfectly serviceable speakers, but compare modern performances to those from 40 or 50 years ago and it seems that today’s greats are not as great, the average is somewhat worse than it was, and the worst are now really quite dire.

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to value oratorical skill in our politicians. Perhaps it was the decline of the public meeting and the rise of soundbite-dominated TV campaigning that did it. Or maybe the decision not to teach school pupils how to debate left millions unduly intimidated by the idea of even trying to speak in front of an audience. There’s also a suspicion in some quarters that public speaking is somehow inherently elitist – a fallacy, given the many great orators who once arose, largely self-taught, from the union movement in particular, but a self-fulfilling belief, in that if you tell the majority of kids that only the rich and posh do speeches then you run the risk that they will believe you.

This is a clear loss to the character and effectiveness of our politics. How often do we hear people lament that politics is boring, that its main characters are bland, or that they don’t understand what it’s all about? It cannot have helped to have reduced the art and feeling in how we communicate about politics, and abandoned a means to compellingly communicate often complex concepts to mass audiences.

That’s not to say that the art of political oratory is gone forever. We’re unlikely to see a new generation of politicians who have formally studied Cicero’s musings on rhetoric (excluding the eventual arrival of the Rees-Mogg children on the green benches), but technology is moving in a way that makes the spoken word more important again. Amid the generally rising importance of social media in political campaigning, video is experiencing a huge boom. Images, of course, remain dominant, but here is an opportunity to hone once more the power of speech to advance a political cause. I can’t wait to see how people experiment to make the most of it.

71 comments for: The art of political oratory is overdue for a revival

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