Three word statements are imbued with special power. We no longer learn rhetoric in school, but we all know how memorable and impactful a tricolon (or, for that matter, an epizeuxis) can be – even if we no longer know that that’s what they’re called.
British politics was treated to its newest example today, when Boris Johnson arrived in Dudley to announce his ‘Rooseveltian’ ‘New Deal’, stepping up to a podium adorned with one simple word, repeated three times in block caps: ‘BUILD, BUILD, BUILD’.
His lengthy speech was, as ever, peppered richly with metaphor and visual imagery – but, as is often the case, rather thin on detail. Yet there’s a sense in which that simply doesn’t matter, because relatively few people will have watched or read the speech carefully or in its entirety. Tomorrow’s headlines will almost certainly carry the core messages – that this government is intent on “building better…greener…faster” and on initiating “the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war.”*
Will this communication enjoy sustainable cut through, though? Providing the government follows through with substantive policies and urgent action, the echoes from today’s speech will be heard down the corridors of history. And I can tell you why I’m so confident.
Do you remember Margaret Thatcher’s emphatic “no, no, no” to Jacques Delors in response to a drive for greater accumulation of centralised power within the E.U.? I do, and it was fully thirty years ago.
Perhaps you recall a fresh faced Tony Blair addressing the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool just six years later, building toward the 1997 landslide election, hammering home that he had just three policy priorities?
You can hear him – “education, education, education” – although he actually inserted an ‘and’ on the day, which rather ruins the effect. Of course, fewer people recall John Major’s pretty decent response – that his priorities were the same as Blair’s, just in a different order.
Fast forward a decade – and it was Mr Johnson leading the charge for the Vote Leave Campaign urging the British electorate to ‘Take back control’ at the upcoming Referendum. It just goes to show, you don’t have to repeat the same word three times for it to have seismic impact – three different words can do the trick, too.
But not every attempt at following the formula is successful. When a slogan is profoundly vacuous, or, worse still, not backed up by a substantive campaign or grand policy initiative, it can quickly morph into a parody. There were a great many respectable things about this short speech by Mrs May – especially her earnest reference to her commitment to public service – but ‘Brexit means Brexit’ didn’t go down in the annals of British rhetorical history. Come to think of it, the robotically repeated 2017 General Election mantra ‘strong and stable’ didn’t either…
Skip forward two years, and the country was going to the polls yet again. The Conservatives had changed leader and crafted a sharper slogan: ‘get Brexit done’. It did the trick, delivering an 80-seat majority against all expectations.
And now for the three big questions: will ‘build, build, build’ deliver results or flop; will it be remembered or forgotten; and will it become another landmark asyndetism for the political history books, or disappear into the dust and the dark reaches of Wikipedia – like the DUPs stilted ‘step not back’ in the 2015 General Election campaign**?
Time. Will. Tell.
*If you want to buck the trend, the full transcript is here:
**To be fair, the DUP lost one seat and gained one, staying at eight MPs – so (strictly speaking) they could claim their slogan worked.
P.S. H.T. to Simon Lancaster – rhetorical master, whose tweet earlier today inspired me to write this. Interested in more? You can follow him on twitter at @bespokespeeches.