The Oxford Union recently held 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”. We have seen the opening speech by Ben Sullivan for the motion. Today we examine the first speech against the motion. It is delivered by Rory Stewart.
I concluded the critique on Ben Sullivan’s speech by hoping for his sake that subsequent speakers would be courteous enough to let him down lightly. In the first few seconds Stewart does exactly that. He has the strength to afford to be charitable.
Rory Stewart is a very, very good speaker.
It is not just the absence of any sort of paper assistance – shooting from the hip is easy if you know how. His good syntax notwithstanding, I’d be prepared to bet that this speech has never seen paper, and was principally composed in his head. He certainly hasn’t memorised it: the effortless way he digresses to quote the preceding speech shows that. Some might think the elegance of figures of speech suggest that it had been written down: there are a 2-element anaphora at 0:55, 3-element ones at 2:04, 2:26 and 5:50; and the last of these is immediately preceded by an anadiplosis (this doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive catalogue because I was enjoying it so much that I stopped noticing). The ability spontaneously to produce things like this becomes a natural facility for those who read good literature. They work themselves into your subconscious by osmosis.
It is not just his masterful command of his subject matter – that is (or should be) a sine qua non for any speaker booked by the Oxford Union. That said, it warms my heart to see how confidently and smoothly the facts, figures and dates punctuate his talk.
It is not his unselfconscious enunciation which makes every word heard, nor the (rare) discipline that causes him to conclude comfortably within his time limit.
It is the laser-sharp focus that he brings to bear on his message and its effect on his audience. His mindset is exactly where it needs to be, and it makes him as near bullet-proof on the speaking platform as anyone should want to be. At one point, shortly before the end, Ben Sullivan, oblivious of how kind Stewart has been in only covertly disembowelling his emaciated arguments, asks for the floor, is courteously granted it, attempts to refute some point, and is gently trodden on. In technical terms I think Stewart may just be the best I have had on this blog.
He grabs you with his argument, and weaves his narrative spell around you.
He pitches his decorum exactly where it needs to be for this environment. The hard, cold facts are warmed by the humanity of the emotions that he recounts in those who went to fight Hitler. But still it is all a little formal – as befits the Oxford Union. That leads me to my only reservation. What would he be like in more of a bear-pit environment?
I may find the time to go looking.