PSAI 2017: ‘PM Theresa May––appealing to the few and not the many?’

Guest post by Joe MacDonagh, lecturer at the School of Business and Humanities, IT Tallaght. This post is based on his paper to PSAI Annual Conference 2017, titled ‘PM Theresa May––appealing to the few and not the many?’, due to be presented Saturday 14 October.

Senior politicians’ speeches fit into a special category of reported speech––usually not written by the politician but by a number of professional speechwriters/advisors. When former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was asked about having authored his speeches, he or his spokespersons would say he had been the ‘architect’ of them. Nevertheless, though we know that Theodore Sorenson composed the words ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’, most people are happy to attribute it to U.S. President John F Kennedy. Robert Kennedy’s speeches also featured ‘inversions’ such as the one above, this one from George Bernard Shaw: ‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

In these instances there is the sense of referring to others and to abstract ideals in order to appropriate them for one’s cause. The lexicon of political speech tropes is a wide one and is used skillfully by accomplished politicians to clarify, elaborate or even to obfuscate. The professional discourse of politicians is frequently abstract and aspirational, with the use of highly stylised and formulaic tropes. Thus the former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo said that ‘you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.’

An example of this is British Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech outside 10 Downing Street on 13 July 2016 setting a vision for her tenure as British Prime Minister upon succeeding David Cameron after the latter had resigned upon losing the Brexit referendum. She used quite novel––for the Conservative Party––rhetorical structures and devices to try and establish herself as a credible successor to Mr Cameron. She attempted to do this by endorsing fundamental Conservative party values of fiscal prudence whilst reminding her listeners that the United Kingdom must also care for those who can’t care for themselves, in the manner of a ‘one nation’ Tory. In doing this she implied agreement with traditional Tory beliefs whilst also seeking to appeal to as many parts of the electorate as possible.

Mrs May’s speech was a radical departure from her usual formal and stilted mode of delivery––frequently high on detail and low on emotion. When someone is speaking they are not limited to a particular speech genre and can move between multiple identities in their discourse by means of different ‘voices’. In her speech Mrs May used voices of care, concern and solidarity; not traditional Tory perspectives nor ones used frequently when she was Home Secretary.

As a newly appointed Prime Minister, of an uncertain nation and fractious political party, Theresa May was trying to:

  1. Establish herself as a worthy leader of the UK and as a successor to her predecessor David Cameron:
    David Cameron has led a one-nation government, and it is in that spirit that I also plan to lead.
  2. Instill unity in the country post Brexit.
    …we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.
  3. Set a social solidarity path for her new government, by using a “seven part list” incorporating the phrase ‘if you’re’ followed by different marginalised social groups and then the plight affecting them. This was rounded off with the phrases ‘I want to talk to you’ and:
    the government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours…we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.

Thus this was a well-constructed and sophisticated introduction of her to the British public which was delivered in a relaxed and passionate manner. It can be useful to see such speeches not just in terms of themselves, at a particular moment in time, but longitudinally as a series of linked speeches that explicate the vision of a politician. When politicians do this it can form a type of roman fleuve of that politician’s beliefs, even if written by others.

Given Theresa May’s current difficulties with her party, and with her perception in the recent General Election as an emotionless and aloof individual who was afraid to debate her counterparts, it is interesting to see how fluently and intricately she stated her vision for Britain in this speech. After that, however, when she moved to the ‘prose’ of governance it seems that the electorate thought she was really working for the privileged few rather than for everyone in the UK.

This article is part of a series by authors presenting at this year’s PSAI Annual Conference. If you are a participant at this year’s conference and would like to have your work featured on the blog, please contact us and let us know.

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