UCL European Institute


Roman oratory and the EU referendum campaigns

11 July 2016, 12:00 am


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In addition to marking a politically decisive moment in British history, the campaigns in advance of the referendum on the UK's membership in the EU were exciting objects of study for Classicists in terms of the political use of oratory.
Gesine Manuwald
11 July 2016

In addition to marking a politically decisive moment in British history, the campaigns in advance of the referendum on the UK's membership in the EU were exciting objects of study for Classicists in terms of the political use of oratory. This applies in particular to students of the oratory of the Roman Republic, mainly the orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), as such scholars tend to have a specific perspective on contemporary speeches and argumentative techniques, shaped by their experience of the ancient world; they are also often interested in comparisons as these can be illuminating both ways. Approached that way, the campaigns and the strategies used turned out to display all sorts of unexpected parallels between rhetorical argument in Republican Rome and present-day Britain.

For instance, a widespread view among Classicists is that one reason why speeches in the Roman Republic were such an effective tool of pushing through policies and making audiences vote in a particular way is the fact that the media in the modern sense did not exist; accordingly ordinary people did not have many opportunities to obtain independent information and therefore were more likely to believe whatever political leaders told them. It is assumed that, in the modern age, with the availability of independent news through a variety of electronic channels 24/7 and immediate access to the written text of politicians' speeches, the situation is different. Thus it was amazing to see in the run-up to the EU referendum that, despite the opportunity to check information, many voters apparently did not do so: they believed what they were told by campaigners, although, as was revealed during and after the campaigns, some of what was said was factually incorrect.

The general question of the extent to which and the way in which misinformation is spread is an interesting feature from a comparative perspective. As for Cicero, modern scholars are not always in a position to check the accuracy of what he says in the speeches whose texts survive, because of the lack of comparative evidence. But as far as it is possible to ascertain, Cicero does not seem to have used any outright 'factual lies', but rather relied on a judicious selection of facts and a tendentious presentation (e.g. leaving out details or presenting issues in a particular order or with a particular interpretation). For instance, Cicero might define a period of twenty days as 'a month', if he wishes to highlight the length of time, or say 'nobody believed it', even if a small group might have done so, to indicate complete rejection. All this may be described as rhetorical exaggeration rather than factual misrepresentation. On the basis of what can be established, Cicero does not appear to have published a figure known to be wrong all over the place even though most ordinary citizens would have had no means of checking it. Still, his way of 'misrepresentation' was generally successful.

Irrespective of the presentation of 'facts', a perennially effective oratorical technique is the promise of a better world and a better life, even though the description might be rather vague and it may be unclear what it entails. For example, in his inaugural speech as consul, the highest political office in the Roman Republic, Cicero promised the People peace, tranquillity and liberty as his programme for the year if they followed him rather than voting for an agrarian reform bill recently proposed by his opponents. Cicero does not say anything concrete or offer an alternative proposal; he just puts forward some ideas that sound good and appear plausible on the basis of his authority. Such general slogans (used by both sides in the referendum campaign) still have an impact today, despite the fat that, again, the presence of the media should make it easier to discover their vagueness, become sceptical and request clarification.

In the same speech Cicero tackles the potential obstacle of ordinary people feeling that politicians come from a higher social class and do not understand their concerns. Cicero tries to persuade the audience that, because he does not have any ancestors who had gained high political offices, he was essentially 'one of them' (although he came from the second-highest social class). Moreover, he often uses an inclusive 'we' to indicate the common concerns of everyone. In the referendum campaign too some politicians felt that it might be conducive for them to set themselves up as 'anti-establishment', although their background would not suggest that, so as to connect with ordinary voters, and they generally talked of 'we' without identifying what that meant.

Employing a similar strategy, Cicero, in some of his speeches, denies that certain people, even though they are formally Roman citizens, could be regarded as citizens because, in his view, their behaviour and activities have been unconstitutional and directed against the state. Such an approach allows him to make claims such as 'all citizens think' in cases where some certainly do not and thus to create a sense of unity and bring any doubtful individuals over to his side. To use such an argument explicitly would be more difficult nowadays, but the referendum campaigns had the appearance of being implicitly based on a certain view of the identity of 'we' and the characteristics of citizens.

Even before the referendum campaigns, classical scholars had realized that attacks on the character and background of opponents, which were common elements of the argument in competitions or controversies in the Roman Republic, are still used today (in different ways), even though they are no longer regarded as politically correct. Beyond that, what was astonishing in the lead-up to the EU referendum (irrespective of its political implications) was that many rhetorical strategies well known from the ancient world, which were thought no longer to be effective in the modern context, were still used, and successfully so! This shows how relevant the study of ancient speeches can still be and how careful one needs to be when engaging with speeches of politicians of all periods!