Tony Benn and the Living Art of Rhetoric

Tony Benn, the veteran Labour politician and campaigner, was widely praised for his oratory skills. Professor Alan Finlayson explains why Tony Benn was such a successful rhetorician.

Tony Benn is dead. The tributes to him – quite rightly – are plentiful and generous. Significantly, despite the wide variation in assessments of his politics, the encomia for him converge on one thing: he was a great orator.

Benn’s gifts of eloquence have been praised by journalists and politicians of all stripes. Particularly noticeable are the reminiscences of those powerfully affected and ultimately inspired by his words. These include, as one might expect, people such as Mark Ferguson from Labour List  but also (as one might not expect) people such as the right wing eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan. Across the social media that I follow a huge number of people similarly have recalled a Benn speech the way they might remember the first time they heard a piece of music, saw an artwork or read a great poem.

This is, of course, a testament to Benn’s eloquence. But I think it’s also more than that. It’s a testament to the power of political speech and to the persistence of our desire for memorable and moving oratory. At first blush this seems odd. We live at a time when platform oratory has long since given way to the fake stridency of celebrity columnists, the inchoate hostility of blog-commenting keyboard warriors and the crowd-sourcing of opinion in 140 characters. Yet the memorialising of Benn’s eloquence is not only nostalgia. It is a reminder that there is a fundamental connection between speaking well and democratic life in a just society. All of us, instinctively knows this. It is why the characteristic institution of a democracy is a debating chamber. It is why democracies put free speech at the top of their list of fundamental rights. And it is also why all tyrannies start by suppressing speech.

What is politics’ most characteristic action?

It is standing up and making known to others what you think, feel and believe. It might be at a council meeting. It might be as part of a noisy demonstration. It might be in a letter to an MP. The political theorist Hannah Arendt thought that when we do this kind of thing we are, in a way, born anew. Through such speaking, she thought, we become more than a body labouring on the world to survive. We become a citizen – seen and heard by others who recognise us as a free person sharing in the governing of a free society. And in seeking to persuade others to see things our way, responding to the arguments made against us, we open up the possibility that each of us might transcend our immediate selfish wants and begin to think about what might be best not only for us but for the entire community of citizens of which we are a part.

Without such speech, without places from which to do it and without people who can do it (people who can utter more than the routine cliches of ‘tough choices’, ‘hardworking families’ and ‘going forward’) there is no democracy and no politics.

Benn, evidently, could do this well. Indeed, he possessed three attributes that are essential for any successful rhetorician.

The first was conviction. Nobody sounds appealing if they are not themselves sure of their own position and of how and why it is different from others. This is not the same as being dogmatic or stubborn. It is, rather, a matter of knowing not only what you think but also why you think it. Then you are able to apply your values to the varied and challenging situations that politics throws at you.

The, second thing was knowledge. Benn was widely read and knew a lot about political history and practice. He also travelled around and so knew a lot about the people and places of the country. Too many political people are familiar only with one kind of person – and their ignorance of the lives of the rest of us is often all too apparent.

The third is a little more specific. Like all very successful orators Benn was skilled at the invention and use of metaphors. A lot of political argument is really about getting people to see the world or some part of it in a certain way. Metaphors are all about showing one thing in the light of another. As such they can help us think about things in new ways. The Daily Telegraph has selected some of Benn’s most memorable quotations and many of them involve a metaphor which creates a striking and definitive image of a situation, a person or an issue.

There is another side to all this. For all that people now praise Benn’s oratory, and for all that they recall how it influenced them, it would seem to be the case that in the long run it was ineffective. Benn did not take over the Labour Party. Bennism is not now, and never was, a dominant ideology in British politics.

“Through talk, we tamed kings, restrained tyrants, averted revolution” said Benn celebrating Parliament, in 1982. But it wasn’t just talk that achieved these things. It was talk that inspired action. There is always a danger in democracies that we become too pleased with the sound of our own and each others’ voices, and that we allow oratory to do all the work for us. We spend an evening out, listening to someone saying well the things we also think – and we imagine that we have done something important.

In the end the greatest of oratory depends on great audiences. As those who admired him most remember how well Benn spoke they will, I am sure, consider also how they might, in their actions, be worthy of his words. Great rhetoric delivers a promise that only its audience may keep.

Professor Alan Finlayson is Chair in Professor of Political & Social Theory at the University of East Anglia.   He  has particular expertise in the theoretical and practical study of political rhetoric, a field which he has done much to establish within British Political Studies, and he oversees the website British Political Speech.

Photo Credit: Joe Dunckley

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3 thoughts on “Tony Benn and the Living Art of Rhetoric

  1. Alan highlights the role of metaphor in Tony Benn’s rhetoric, but on reading the list of memorable quotations compiled by both the Guardian ( ) and the Telegraph ( ), I was struck by the wealth of rhetorical figures he used: antithesis, dirimens copulatio, isocolon, oxymoron, rhetorical questions…

    It would be a useful classroom exercise to have students identify the figures in a formal analysis.

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