‘Speaking in Parliament: History, politics, rhetoric’ conference report

Last week, in collaboration with Professor Christopher Reid (Queen Mary, University of London, author of ‘Imprison’d Wranglers: the Rhetorical Culture of the House of Commons’) we hosted a conference dedicated to the art and history of parliamentary rhetoric. Academics with backgrounds in history, English, drama and politics came together from across the world for this two-day meeting, wonderfully organised by the team at Queen Mary.

Day one began with Professor Richard Toye with a keynote lecture on Winston Churchill’s parliamentary oratory. Toye argued that Churchill’s rhetoric in parliament was deeply connected to both the space and history of the Commons’ chamber but also his understanding of the place of parliament within the British constitution. He charted the evolution of Churchill’s speeches, blending his famous rhetoric with an intimate, conversational style suited to the small space of the Commons’ chamber. Toye then explored the relationship of oratory in the Commons’ to Churchill’s political career, arguing that as a centrist politician (who switched parties more than once), for Churchill the Commons presented an opportunity to gain political power, and saw his speeches as a way to make his mark. This strategy finally worked for Churchill in 1940.

Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox, by Joshua Reynolds

Our first panel explored identity, gender and representation. Ben Griffin explored how 19th and 20th century used their occupational identities in their speeches to gain authority in a speech, yet these identities were used tactically, in different ways at different times. Maggie Inchley discussed Margaret Thatcher’s voice, arguing that women’s voices are at a disadvantaged in male rhetorical culture, and Thatcher’s voice in particular has been a strong source for satirists. Robert Jones finished with a discussion on the lack of representations of politicians actually speaking in 18th century political art (such as in this image of the brilliant parliamentary orator Charles James Fox), suggesting there was something ‘unseemly’ about this aspect of parliamentary culture.

Two panel sessions followed in the afternoon. In the first, Daniel Seward discussed the emergence of classical references in Tudor parliaments; Ugo Bruschi debated the role of the monarch in Hanoverian parliamentary speeches, from gradual acceptance they were a ‘ventriloquist’ in the session’s opening speech, to the uproar should the monarch attempt to influence debate; Kari Palonen discussed the theoretical relationship between debate and voting. In the second, focussing on procedures and conditions, our own Hannes Kleineke investigated what we know about speech in medieval parliaments without detailed records of debates we know happened; Andrea Cullen presented an insight into speaking in Australian parliaments based on a survey of past and present members; Christoph Konrath and Melanie Sully argued a variety of historical and political factors meant that debate was virtually non-existent in the Austrian parliament, as MPs address their speeches to TV cameras (and use a wide variety of props to catch the viewer’s attention); finally Marc Geddes wrapped up the session exploring the roles MPs perform during select committees.

We concluded the day with a drink and some extracts from interviews given to our oral history project exploring how MPs felt as they spoke in Commons, with comments from David Natzler, Clerk of the Commons, and Professor Alan Finlayson.

Day two’s proceedings also began with Professor Finlayson. In his highly stimulating keynote lecture, he asked what is the point of parliamentary speaking? The answer to his question, perhaps inevitably, was that there was no single answer, but many. Deliberation – the process of finding out the general will, which Bentham thought was the point – is one objective, but as Carl Schmitt most vigorously argued, this sort of rational debate may be difficult to achieve in the days of mass party politics. Oratory is no longer seen regarded as important in the way it once was; but people still value fine words at the appropriate moment – great parliamentary moments such as Hilary Benn’s intervention during the recent Syria debate. Opposition has been seen, especially by Kari Palonen as a key function, the constant dramatization of the problem at the heart of democracy that to any question there is no right answer, and no general will to be discovered: the constant conflict embedded within parliamentary debate is a real contest between competing interests. And finally, the function of acting as a theatre in which great issues are not just debated, but seen to be debated, even performed. Though the theatrical element might, for some be unwelcome, the problem, Finlayson suggested was not that it was drama; but bad drama.

We continued with some fascinating panel sessions. Josephine Hoegaerts discussed how people thought about voice production in France and Britain during (especially) the nineteenth century, dealing with a slightly shady world of quacks and ‘stammering professors’ who offered advice on voice production, and suggested that over the period there was a decline in the level of tolerance for unconventional voices. Theo Jung, focussing on the French Parliament, talked about silent deputies during the period of the July monarchy (1830-48), a spectrum from those who were perhaps insufficiently confident to intervene to a few more powerful figures whose silence (sometimes punctuated by sighing, animal noises and other forms of non-verbal expression) could itself be deeply meaningful. Ian Harris, referring to the reporters of debates and other parliamentary proceedings from the 1770s especially, argued that those who recorded these matters for the newspapers saw themselves – and were – engaged in a process of selection, rather than of faithful reporting, which made them into historians themselves. Interested in the substance of the debate, they left out material which simply repeated what they had already heard, no matter how important the speaker.

After lunch, John Vice, who is editor of Hansard for the House of Lords, graphically illustrated the way reporters in different countries recorded interruptions in debate (from a light exploding in the Eerste Kamer in the Netherlands, to the attempted military coup in the chamber of the Spanish cortes in 1981), showing how some provided almost no information on what had happened, thus avoiding potentially controversial interpretations of the event; while others went into some, and perhaps contestable, detail. Robin Eagles looked at the speeches of John Sheffield, the duke of Buckingham and Normanby, eventually collected and edited by Alexander Pope, and showed how Pope seems to have intervened extensively to make them more elegant. Roland Quinault examined the parliamentary speaking of Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father: although Randolph, for whom Parliament was the ‘greatest of all great institutions’ disliked platform speaking and the amount of preparation involved, most of what he published in his collected speeches consisted of platform oratory. Jonne Haarmstra spoke about the Dutch economist, prime minister and central bank governor Jelle Zijlstra (1918-2001), whose expertise made him unusual among politicians and meant that his interventions, though much respected, could also be frustratingly difficult for other politicians to engage with.

In the final session, Kathryn Rix described two oddball MPs of the nineteenth century whose interventions were enjoyed by their colleagues, though for different reasons. ‘Beer Barrell’ Kearsley always amused, both because of his uncommon girth, and because of his curious speeches, which had no middle, but a beginning and an end (which were in any case difficult to tell apart). ‘Noisy Tom Collins’ was a more astute conservative politician, seen as the ‘arch interrupter’: his interruptions, however, were often welcomed, as they frequently reflected the boredom of the House with a tedious speaker. Andreas Serafim looked at how politicians used humour in debate, partly as a way of building a community, a relationship with their auditory, and partly as ekphrasis, bringing things more vividly to the mind of the listener. Henk te Velde, talking about parliamentary oratory in Britain and France mostly in the nineteenth century, referred to the connoisseurs of parliamentary eloquence, and emphasised how speaking was linked to the idea of political freedom, and what would become identified by writers such as Weber and Schmitt as a distinction between debating parliaments and working parliaments. Pasi Ihalainen completed proceedings with a summary of his research on the debates throughout Europe in 1917-18 on constitutional issues, and how the experience of one country could be taken up by another.

A wide-ranging conference, with many aspects of parliamentary speaking discussed, it showed the potential of the subject: how many matters could be fruitfully investigated. We are already discussing the next one….

PS & EP

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About The History of Parliament

Blogging on parliament, politics and people, from the History of Parliament
This entry was posted in 18th Century history, 19th Century history, 20th century history, Conferences/seminars, Early modern history, medieval history, oral history, Post-1945 history, social history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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