Anniversary ‘King and Country’ Debate. This one is opened by Ben Sullivan

Some months ago this blog covered all the speeches in an Oxford Union debate on the subject of belief in God. Today I want to start an equally comprehensive coverage of a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. If I recounted more details of that debate I might ineptly spoil what speakers will tell you.

In this debate, whose motion is “This house would not fight for Queen and country” the speakers are –

  1. Ben Sullivan, librarian of the Oxford Union [for the motion]
  2. Rory Stewart [against]
  3. Ben Griffin [for]
  4. Nikolai Tolstoy  [against]
  5. Gareth Porter [for]
  6. Malcolm Rifkind [against]

– and I will summarise the debate afterwards.

First impressions are important, and Sullivan’s first impression is that he is a talking head. Does he need to consult his paper to tell us that his voice is husky? No of course not, so immediately we are informed that his script is his security blanket.

There are, nevertheless, a few circumstances under which it is appropriate to read your material; and shortly after he begins Sullivan meets one of them. As first speaker, and also his being Librarian of the Union, he is the host.  Therefore it falls to him to introduce the debate and its speakers. While he is doing that, why doesn’t he just pick up the paper and read? The audience will instantly understand that, as he is giving them detailed information about all the speakers, he owes it to them to get all his facts precisely correct. Apart from a bit of stumbling, which he might not have done had he been holding his paper in front of him, he does these introductions competently. His speech actually begins at 4:06.

At this point he reaches miles above his competence. He has not even the first idea of how to prepare or deliver a speech. I am happy to leave it to subsequent speakers to fillet his arguments if they wish, but I am not happy watching this. This is wall-to-wall cringe. He reads every word, stumbles the whole time, speaks too fast, and is just generally incoherent. It is safe to assume that he is bright, which is why he is librarian (and even at Oxford in the first place) so he could easily learn how to speak. In the mean time I can only say that I have had pleasanter headaches.

Being of stern stuff, and conscientious on behalf of my readers, I endured the speech to the end. Thus I witnessed a moment (at 11:41) that managed to cause me to wince even while I was mid-cringe. If you are going to be overtly pedantic you must first be sure you are correct or you will lock yourself into a pillory.

“…whomever he may be…”

…is incorrect. The verb ‘to be’ cannot have an object, so the accusative version of ‘whoever’ is ghastly in this context. It’s a little precious in any spoken context. Had he been shooting this from the hip I might have forgiven it, but he actually wrote down that horror.

I strongly urge Ben Sullivan to get some lessons; and I hope for his sake that subsequent speakers in this debate are courteous enough to let him down lightly. We shall see.

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