The speech of the week in the UK was without doubt the one by the shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn in parliament in favour of air strikes in Syria.
He spoke for just under 15 minutes: here is a sample of the reaction to what he said:
The Telegraph called it ‘spine-tingling’ and ‘inspiring’. The Guardian found it ‘riveting’. The Daily Mail said it was ‘electric’ and ‘one of the great Commons speeches’. Huffington Post said it was ‘eloquent and poetic’. And perhaps most telling of all, Philip Hammond, Britain’s Foreign Secretary – the man who sits opposite Benn on the political benches – called it ‘one of the truly great speeches in parliamentary history’.
So for us students of effective communication it is worth analysing why this speech had such impact, both in parliament and across the nation.
Not a rabble rouser
The first thing I would observe is that the speech is inclusive. This is not a rabble rouser. Instead Benn carefully builds affinity with his key audiences.
He does this first by giving the Prime Minister a very strong telling-off for insulting Jeremy Corbyn and suggesting he was a ‘terrorist sympathiser’. Benn restates his respect for his boss, saying he is not a terrorist sympathiser but an ‘honest, principled, decent, good man’. This establishes the fact that although Benn is going to disagree with Corbyn and side with the Conservative government, he is not changing sides and the issue is not personal.
Then, in a rather long-winded way, he makes reference to other speakers in the debate, praising contributions from both sides of the argument. More evidence of inclusiveness.
His key message comes at about five minutes in: ‘I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria’.
Tower of Logic
This is followed by a fairly detailed and very logical look at whether the proposed military action is legal. This is tedious but a crucial foundation of his argument as many in the House of Commons today question whether Britain’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was legal. ‘Proving’ that airstrikes in Syria would be legal is the first brick in the tower of logic Benn seeks to build through the speech.
After the legal question he shakes things up with an emotional appeal. As he expresses horror at the actions of ISIL (or Da’esh), we get to a very powerful part of the speech. Benn uses three ‘colourful’ examples first:
– Four gay men thrown from the fifth storey of a building.
– The beheading of the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra.
– And the mass graves of Yazidi women killed because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.
Having delivered the ‘colour’ he then delivers the numbers – people killed by Da’esh:
– 30 British tourists in Tunisia
– 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane
– 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc
– 130 people in Paris
…ending this section ‘they could have been our children’. (Note the ‘our’; not ‘your’ or ‘anyone’s’, or ‘British’.) People who have worked with us know that we always look to build in both colour and numbers to our client’s arguments.
Benn then continued to take on, one by one, the other key pillars of the debate: why Britain should not stand aside; why the argument that ‘air strikes achieve nothing’ is wrong, and how Britain could both continue to work for peace in Syria and send bombing forays against Da’esh. Each step was clear and logical, building brick by brick the case for extended military action.
Fascists and contempt
The final few minutes of the speech are the most powerful. Much of the comment has focused on Benn’s evocation of the Second World War fight against Fascists.
‘Here we are faced by Fascists…’ he says. It is strong but I was more struck by his repeated use of the word ‘contempt’. Somehow it was this that, in the moment, stiffened my sinews and evoked my disgust.
‘They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.’
Benn finishes the speech with a short, staccato rallying cry, couched in simple, colloquial language.
‘And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria.’
Rhetoric can change history
Expert rhetoric does not mean the argument is right. But those of us spending our lives trying to find the right words, the right analogies and the right tone to build arguments must pause and reflect when someone hits the mark as Hilary Benn did last week. It is also a reminder of the power of rhetoric. This speech probably did not change the outcome of the debate but it may well have changed the trajectory of Hilary Benn’s career and the future of the Labour party.