The government has sometimes been criticised for recycling a stale argument for cuts - repeatedly referring to the deficit, but research at Warwick Business School suggests that 21st Century politicians, of all stripes, rely on the same rhetorical techniques that flourished in ancient Greece.

Politics is rarely black or white but the effect of skilful rhetoric can make almost any case seem considered and balanced, and any policy choice appear reasonable or inevitable.

Take the Chancellor's latest statement on cuts of 40 per cent across public services. The BBC quotes him saying:

“I know some ask: why do we need this surplus? I'll tell you why: to protect working people.” 

Kevin Morrell, Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School who researches governance and narrative, said: “This asking and answering and raising of an apparent criticism communicates a sense of symmetry or balance, and also makes the conclusion seem reasonable and considered. But the question is really inventing a fairly weak, imaginary opponent. The conclusion is also an incontrovertible good - who would not want to protect working people?

“Very few people are going to be preoccupied with the safe question ‘why do we need this surplus?’ - I don't know anyone in public services who is asking that. If someone were to say to a Chief Constable, ‘on top of the cuts we have had in the last few years your policing budget is going to be cut by 40 per cent,’ the question keeping them awake is not ‘why do we need this surplus?’ It's ‘how on earth can we do our job if we have to cut the number of officers in half over a seven-year period?’

“Rather than wondering why we need a surplus, many more people would be likely to ask Mr Osborne - do you really know what you are doing? Are these cuts based on economics or ideology? or, are our public services ever going to recover?

“There is also a framing of this strategy in terms of the concept of agreement - getting departments to ‘agree’ sounds like they had a discussion, have taken soundings and considered all options to reach a mutual consensus.

“But he is the second most powerful politician and has the support of the most powerful, he is in a majority Government and his Government has not faced a powerful political opposition. Actually he has gone in to appointees of this Government (ministers) and said find me cuts - and his ministers have agreed.”

Osborne behind the camera
image courtesy: mrgarethm Flickr
And action: Osborne plays to the audience with well chosen words according to Professor Morrell



The BBC also quotes Osborne saying:


‘If our country doesn't bring the deficit down, the deficit could bring our country down.’


Professor Morrell said: “This ancient rhetorical criss-crossing is known as chiasmus or sometimes antimetabole.


"Again it provides a rhetorical wrapper for the case for cuts that make this policy choice seem like an inevitability and seem balanced. There is a symmetry to the structure of the argument that makes it seem like there is also symmetry in the content. If A doesn't lead to B then it surely follows that B will lead to A.


“Actually political choices are not black and white like this, one can always cut more or cut less."


Finally there is this extract from Osborne’s speech:


By making the further savings we need over the course of this parliament, we can prioritise what matters for working families - schools, the NHS and our national security.’  


Professor Morrell said: “A nice list at the end - of three things - makes this case sound considered and comprehensive - it is part of the magic of listing three things, a device speakers use all the time.


“But it's not clear that this is a comprehensive list. Why should ‘national security’, presumably code for spending on Trident, come before other priorities? It isn't necessarily the case that the current choices (which include cuts to the Foreign Office) are the best for national security. And, alternative options would be to increase spending on education and the NHS, or invest more in scientific research, or prioritise feelings of safety in our immediate neighbourhood. None of these are necessarily superior or inferior choices, but they are alternatives that are glossed over by the list of three."


Kevin Morrell is currently a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow researching Public Confidence in Policing. You can read more about his research here.


He is also the author of Organization, Society and Politics: An Aristotelian Perspective (Palgrave Monograph: London).