The Columnist Part IX: The Art of Winning Arguments (via Hilary Benn)

 Jeremy Corbyn takes Resting Bitch Face to new heights; picture courtesy of The Telegraph.

Jeremy Corbyn takes Resting Bitch Face to new heights; picture courtesy of The Telegraph.

We’re pretty starved of decent rhetoric in UK politics, so it’s understandable that everyone gets excited when someone shows us how it’s done.

Let’s take a moment to consider Hilary Benn’s steps to fail-safe rhetorical persuasion:


1. Shame & Blame: if at ALL possible, begin by positioning your opponent as your moral inferior. Remind everyone you’re the voice of reason in a messy fight; a fair and moral arbiter.

‘Before I respond to the debate, I would like to say...I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and... say, ‘I am sorry.’’
... whatever decision we reach, I hope we will treat one another with respect.’

2. Thank your supporting actors: remember, they’re just there to make you look better. Be gracious. No smirking.

‘Now we have heard a number of outstanding speeches, and sadly time will prevent me from acknowledging them all...’

3. Draw the battle lines: Use biblical/archaic terminology at least once, so your audience remembers this is an ancient and profound struggle of, ideally, EPIC Shakespearean proportion. (FYI:This will not work when negotiating your raise, or arguing about the bins).

‘What should we do... to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the yoke, the cruel yoke, of Daesh?’

4. Define the burning platform: Time to switch up the tone. Why we need action now. (Move away from sweeping ideals to gritty realities to ensure you’re addressing the cynics as well as the idealists).

‘Carnage in Paris brought home to us the ... danger we face. It could just as easily have been London or Glasgow or Leeds or Birmingham – and it could still be.’

5. Get personal: Start light. At this point, it’s simply ‘I believe’ (as someone with flawless moral judgement), not ‘you must too’; don’t shove it down throats (yet)...

‘And I believe we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria.’

6. Shift into the Collective: seamlessly move from personal subjectivity into clear collective duty.

‘And I am also clear... We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council resolution 2249.’

7. Restate & Reduce: restate the original issue - which should now have effortlessly shrunk from insurmountable moral dilemma to astoundingly obvious response. Throw in some anaphora for good emphatic measure.

‘So the United Nations is asking us to do something. It is asking us to do something now. It is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq.’

8. Reinforce: Continue to drive home the obviousness of the required action. Throw in some rhetorical questions to emphasise that there can only be one response (and you’re giving it).

‘Labour.. helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. And why did we do so?Because we wanted.. to deal with threats to international peace and security – and Daesh is unquestionably that.’

9. Build consensus: Leapfrog division by reminding your audience they’re all in this together (...sound familiar?). In fact, they already agree!

We are.... standing together shoulder to shoulder to oppose their ideology... All of us understand the importance...No one in this debate doubts the deadly serious threat we face.’

10. Strengthen consensus through shared knowledge: Voicing what you already know as a group ensures you’re not lecturing - you’re the voice of their conscience. Again, throw in plenty of Anaphora, and weave together a pastiche of carefully-selected images (note here the preference for high-impact yet bloodless description; no one likes to feel emotionally manipulated.).

We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building... We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded and his headless body was hung from a traffic light... We know they have killed 30 British tourists... 224 Russian holidaymakers..’

11. Bring it homeComplete the shift from old view to your view. Take your audience with you using loaded rhetorical questions (helpfully leaving zero room for dissent without ever seeming to impose your perspective.)

‘..given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act...? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security? .... should we not play our full part?’

12. Reinforce the benefitsNow you’ve dismissed the counter-argument, reinforce the positives.

Now Mr Speaker, it has been argued in the debate that air strikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq...

12. Close the deal: Acknowledge & anaesthetise any final niggling doubts.

‘Now I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However unlike Daesh... we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.’

13. Battle Cry: doubt eradicated - back to the epic (but try to resist beating your chest).

‘But I say the threat is now

14. Call to Arms: The climax of the speech where you make sure your audience feels ideologically bonded...

‘As a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another.’

... and morally obligated (throw in some biblical analogy)...

‘We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road.’

...and fanatically inspired (evoke some stirring national heritage)...

‘And we are here faced by fascists...They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy... in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.’

... and 100% CERTAIN OF SUCCESS.

‘It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. 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. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight.’

Simples. USE THIS POWER WISELY PEOPLE. And don’t forget to bow to the thundering applause.