Ancient and modern

Rory’s classic mistakes

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

29 June 2019

9:00 AM

If Rory Stewart had taken full advantage of his education at Eton and read classics at Oxford rather than PPE, he would not have made the basic mistakes that blew apart his short-lived campaign to become prime minister. Not that his failure was one of content: far from it. His views on public services and Brexit were entirely predictable and could be correct. So what went wrong?

His failure was one of rhetoric, the skill of peaceful persuasion dissected by Aristotle and further refined by Cicero; and his failure consisted in his being so swept away by his millions of followers on social media that he started to believe his own hype, as if that guaranteed victory. But to win, you must persuade those who are not your followers.


As Aristotle pointed out, the successful persuader secured his audience’s goodwill by understanding the mindset of those he was addressing; and by presenting himself as an honest, trustworthy individual. Stewart bombed on both accounts, making no effort to demonstrate an appreciation of where his rivals were coming from, but dismissing them out of hand as ignorant fools. No doubt his tweetees whooped with glee, but they were not the target. Nor did such arrogance, bordering on hubris, generate any confidence in his integrity. He would have acquitted himself far better had he calmly thrown down a challenge to his opponents under the four headings of ancient political debate: that his proposals were possible, necessary, advantageous and honourable. And theirs?

His third basic error was to pay no attention to his physical gestures. Here Cicero said these were ‘a sort of language of the body’, covering movement, expression and eyes, as well as speech. While Stewart’s rivals had mastered the art of sitting calmly, fully clothed, on their stools, he wriggled about, removing his tie, gazing up to the heavens, for all the world like an ill-disciplined child, giving every appearance of not wanting to be there. No sign of the ‘dignity and charm’ which Cicero saw as vital to the speaker’s bearing. Stewart’s time may come, but not on this showing. Back to your classics, boy!

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