Kit Smart’s BlogBack to blog index

Back to blog index

Riley Declamation Prize 2016

Congratulations to undergraduate student Joe Leech (2014), who has won the 2016 Riley Declamation Prize

This is the twenty third competition for the Riley Prize, designed to encourage communication skills and reward excellence in both written and oral presentation.

A prize of £700 (at least half to be taken in books) may be awarded for the best speech on any topical subject with a European theme.  While possible titles are suggested, candidates are able to broadly interpret the theme when shaping their speech.

Any undergraduate or graduate member of College may compete. Short-listed candidates, of which there were five this year, read their compositions before an audience.  They are judged on substance, written style, and elegance of presentation, and expected to keep the speech to ten minutes.

The prize was created in memory of Brian Riley(1959), who read Modern and Medieval Languages and Oriental Studies at Pembroke, specialising in German, French and Chinese.  He maintained his interest in foreign languages and cultures throughout his life.

The winner:

Joe Leech, undergraduate historian

Joe’s speech, which you can read in full here took a historical perspective, immediately taking the audience back to the 10th October 1794, and the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the battlefield.  Joe looked at the state of unions today, illustrating the disconnect between the ideal of unions – props for liberty that strengthen all parties equally – with the more often-seen reality of difficult relationships between different-strength parties.  Problematising the distance that unions place between people and sovereignty causes problems, Joe argued that the original ideals of the EU seem to be giving way to alienation.

Joe was selected as the winner on the basis of his combining of history with contemporary EU politics.  He used graphic language to great effect, and his speech was brilliantly paced and delivered.

All of the finalists were congratulated on their excellent talks and interpretation of the brief.

The finalists:

  • Léonie de Jonge, 2nd year politics PhD
  • Joe Leech, 3rd year historian
  • Stefan Ulrich, 4th year natural sciences
  • Isaac Wilkinson, 1st year theologian
  • Barry Colfer, 4th year politics PhD


Léonie’s speech looked at the surge of populist right parties in Europe following the ‘perfect storm’ of recent events, including the refugee crisis.  She identified a crisis of democracy, in which people lack faith in democratic institutions and look for populist parties where there is a centrist government.  Referendum mania she saw as a new development, but cautioned that instead of being an expression of direct democracy, referenda are increasingly used as political tools by the elite.  Populist parties turn complex questions in simplistic binaries, and so informed debate is lost.  In order to solve the democratic crisis, Leonie argued, we must find creative ways to foster informed, nuanced debate and political engagement.


Barry’s focus was on the need for reform in the face of opportunistic populism, a task even more urgent in the aftermath of the US election.  Europe has undergone a series of crises and now has a fragmented political landscape in which the establishment is losing out to populism.  Reform is possible, but only if the will is there; the EU is currently in a ‘state of lethal incompleteness’.  There is no longer an option of doing nothing; action is required to reform Europe.  The key to the European project, Barry argued, is that in Europe we are all minorities.  It will take courage, but Europe can be saved.


Stefan focused on a single – but immense – issue facing Europe; the Syrian refugee crisis, pointing out that, while the immediate shock has diminished, it remains a tragedy and a crisis.  Drawing attention to Merkel’s policy of welcoming refugees, Stefan used the subsequent mood in Germany, reminiscent of pre-referendum Britain, to illustrate the tension between humanitarian values and political pragmatism. Stefan concluded that a long-term strategy was required in Europe, involving better resettlement processes, support for the Greek asylum service, and support for Turkey.


Issac’s speech took the audience through a thought experiment on the edges of Europe; what it looks like in the minds of Europeans, the geographical, ideological, and historical limits of its ‘vague and fuzzy’ borders.  With Europeans living all over the world, no geographical boundary between Russia and what is considered ‘Europe’, and complex oceanographic exclusions and inclusions, the edges of Europe are not easily defined. Isaac ended with speculation; does Europe exist in a meaningful way? Will it keep expanding? Or will it contract and collapse? Only time will tell.

Back to blog index