Monday, 30 June 2014

Rhetoric, Neoliberalism and Crisis Politics: David Cameron’s Justifications for Austerity

Andrew S Crines evaluates the rhetoric of David Cameron in the context of political crisis and the justification for neoliberalism.

As a basic principle of the art of politics, rhetoric is how a message is communicated from the party leadership to the party membership, the media, and subsequently the broader electorate. On an even more fundamental level it also represents the lifeblood of the political process because it enables debates between opponents to take place. It is how ideological positions are communicated thereby enabling parties and individuals to gain political success.

Interestingly, this art has received little scholarly attention in British Politics. This is because of an innate suspicion of rhetorical techniques, however better understanding their intellectual significance is in the process of being addressed. This has been partly enabled by the increasing importance of the political persona in British Politics which has enabled a greater actor-centric approach of analysing contemporary politics to emerge. Needless to say this takes inspiration from the far more developed school in the United States.

More generally, how rhetoric and political discourses are constructed is enabled through ‘regimes of truth’. As Foucault discerned these differ between nations and states which produce different oratorical styles and political discourses because each depend upon the ideological context of the political debate. For example “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”[i]

When considering the rhetorical justifications of neoliberalism one has to look at these political and economic contexts. The years running up to 1979 and 2010 represented moments of economic crisis which were used by the leader of the Conservative Party to blame the outgoing Labour government for those global economic crises. By doing so the arguments avoiding deconstructing the international causes for the crisis given it was more politically expedient to attribute those crises to the domestic arena.

In the case of David Cameron’s ‘regime of truth’ this tends to be premised upon the politics of fear and common sense. For example during his years in opposition he argued “We must pay down this deficit. The longer we leave it, the worse it will be for all of us.” [ii] He continued by arguing “Here's the most obvious reason we can't wait. The more we wait, the more we waste on the interest we're paying on this debt” (ibid.). As the Prime Minister of a Coalition Government he continued using fear in this way by arguing “we're going to spend £43 billion pounds on debt interest payments alone. £43 billion - not to pay off the debt - just to stand still.” [iii] The rationale behind creating this sense of fear is to justify austerity “in the national interest.” [iv] To enhance the subsequent credibility of this argument he argued “we have acted decisively - to stop pouring so much of your hard-earned money down the drain. And at the same time it's stopped us slipping into the nightmare they've seen in Greece, confidence falling, interest rates rising, jobs lost and in the end, not less but more drastic spending cuts than if you'd acted decisively in the first place.” [v] This enables Cameron to argue that through austerity the Coalition has saved the economy from the brink of collapse, thereby justifying neoliberalism.

In terms of how his justification is rhetorically constructed Cameron used antithesis by using binary opposites of possible economic strategy. For example, as Pete Dorey argued, those opposites are “private sector ‘good’ / public sector ‘bad’; wealth creators / wealth redistribution; small state / big state; liberty / equality; workers / shirkers; individualism / collectivism, amongst others.” [vi] This enables Cameron to argue his own position is self-evidently positivity whilst those of his opponents are self-evidently negative. Moreover this simple argument resonates with the electorate because the argument is premised upon Cameron’s credibility (ethos).

Succinctly, Cameron has constructed a political persona that sees him as a likable figure, even in contrast to the broader image of his own party held by the electorate. These issues are, of course, far more nuanced than I have argued here. Indeed, I have developed these arguments for an upcoming article that has appeared in the Global Discourse journal. However, in summation, it can be discerned that simplicity, antithesis, and common sense rhetoric drives Cameron (and others) justifications for neoliberalism which precludes a broader economic debate. This political rhetoric has enabled the global economic crises to reaffirm neoliberalism rather than challenge it in the way some economic theorists may suggest.
Andrew S Crines is a political scientist at the University of Leeds where he researches oratory and rhetoric in British party politics. He is also the Publicity Officer for the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism specialist group, and the coeditor with Richard Hayton of two forthcoming volumes on Oratory in British politics.

[i] Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Writings 1972-1977, Pantheon Books: New York.
[ii] Cameron, D. (2009) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 8 October. Available from:
[iii] Cameron, D. (2010) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 6 October. Available from:
[iv] Crines, A. (2013a) ‘Rhetoric and the Coalition: Governing in the National Interest?’ Representation 49: 2, pp. 207-218.
[v] Cameron, D. (2010) Speech to the Conservative Party conference, 6 October. Available from:
[vi] Dorey, P. (2014) Policy Making in Britain, Sage Publishers: London.


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