Guest Blog: Emotional Politics


Once, when I was a teenager delivering newspapers in Dartmouth, a woman whose paper I delivered invited me into her house and offered me paid employment: Would I deliver a bundle of leaflets for her political party to the houses on my paper round? Of course, I said yes. The money was, I recall, equal or close to my pay for an entire week, and I had yet to develop any political opinions of my own. Whatever this party was, the money was certainly worth it. And so, dutifully, I took my first step into the political world and delivered the leaflets.

And that, dear reader, is how I became instrumental in the rise of UKIP.

The story of what would later be called the ‘Leave’ vote is an interesting one. When I was out delivering UKIP leaflets, and even much later, the thought of Britain leaving the EU was, to most people, unimaginable. But, largely thanks to UKIP, the movement would grow and grow, especially in areas with large fishing and farming communities. Every election, purple signs would go up in the fields alongside the main roads. I believe that this was, in part, because the party was so good at campaigning on an emotional level. I do not mean this in a derogatory way: In time, both Leavers and Remainers would make stirring emotional appeals to their would-be supporters. But UKIP got there first, and was very successfully contrasting an overbearing, unaccountable enemy (the EU) with patriotic virtues (independence, national pride) before anyone on the other side knew that a Remain movement would be necessary. The emotions UKIP tapped into were keenly felt by a great many people, and managed to rouse the indignation of people who might not have been convinced by cold facts alone.

Today, we are used to hearing emotional appeals from both sides of the EU debate. Remainers appeal to the virtues of openness, tolerance and unity, whilst Leavers (particularly Boris Johnson in his more Churchillian moments) call upon the spirit of World War II, a willingness to stand one’s ground in the face of fear and intimidation. Both sides present facts supportive of their case, of course, but the emotional undercurrent is always there, aiming squarely for the hearts of the audience, while the facts and figures aim for their heads. This should not surprise us, and anyone who is tempted to denounce one side or the other for this behaviour should remember that the appeal to ‘pathos’, the appeal to emotion, has been recognised as one of the three great appeals in the art of rhetoric for more than two thousand years. And it is as important as any statistic or carefully-constructed argument. As Sam Leith writes in his (excellent) book on Rhetoric, “Feeling – and through it, fellow feeling – is the basis of pretty much everything that most of us regard as important in being human. Without it, we wouldn’t fall in love, nurture children, build communities, enact laws, remember our dead, or throw dinner parties.” Politics without emotion would look very different to politics as it is now, perhaps unimaginably so. Frustrating though the emotional appeal may be, especially when it is used effectively by the other side, we are stuck with it.

All that being said, I would argue that there are better and worse emotional appeals, and that one may tell the difference by asking: is this appeal to the emotions cynical or sincere? I tend to accept that both sides of the Brexit debate are attempting to tell emotional truths, and sincerely calling upon the deeply-held feelings of their audiences… most of the time. The one truly cynical manoeuvre used by anybody in this debate, and British politics more broadly, is what might be termed the ‘NHS appeal’. Nigel Lawson was probably right when he said that the National Health Service is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” – indeed, it even had a starring role in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Hardly surprising, then, that politicians find it tempting to rouse the nation’s feelings about the Health Service in aid of the political campaigns of the day. This is playing out as we speak in the 2019 general election campaigns, with both the major parties championing the NHS and casting themselves as its protector in shining armour. But probably the most transparent case of this peculiarly British phenomenon was the insistence by the Leave campaign in 2016 that leaving the EU would free up £350 million pounds for the NHS, something that those who made the claim couldn’t possibly hope to make a reality. Beware the politician who tries to lean too hard on your affection for this or that public institution: they may well turn out to care more about getting your vote than they do about the NHS, or anything else for that matter.

We cannot escape the appeal to emotion in politics, nor should we try. But we can be savvy in our reactions to what politicians put in front of us. Sometimes it will be a sincere effort to engage with the things that are close to our hearts; sometimes it will be nothing more than a lot of faux-inspirational chatter. But perhaps if we can show politicians, advertisers, and all manner of others competing for our emotional energy that we know what they are doing, they will be a little less likely to tug at our heartstrings for cynical reasons, and a little more likely to speak those emotional truths to which all of us can relate.

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