For a couple of weeks we have been working our way through the speeches that comprised a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most famous debate the Union has staged. In 1933 the motion, “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was carried. What would happen when a similar motion was proposed in 2013? We have heard from Ben Sullivan, Ben Griffin and Gareth Porter for the proposition, and from Rory Stewart and Nikolai Tolstoy for the opposition. Now it is the turn for Malcolm Rifkind to conclude the debate with one more speech for the opposition.
As I prepare to watch his speech I find myself considering how many different ways he could choose to follow, summarise and conclude what has already been said, and to what extent he will vary his tone to blend with the decorum set by his predecessors. The golden rule, when in doubt, is to trust your own game. A seasoned performer as he is, and the decorum’s having varied so much already, I expect him to grab the proceeding by the throat and bend it to his will.
He starts by making the audience laugh. I know every one of the jokes, but then I am a great deal older than this audience. There’s a moral here: if you are addressing students you can afford to dust off and recycle material that you thought had completely run out of steam.
He also recalls that he has been here before, when he took part in the 60th anniversary debate on the same motion. I wonder whether he is going to recycle some of that material also. I wouldn’t blame him – if it works.
It is at 3:19 that he finally gets down to cases. “The choice we are being asked to make…” At this point he seamlessly moves into a higher gear. He claims that the other side had essentially condemned all wars, despite their attempts to qualify their declarations. He names justifiable wars, citing The Falklands and of course World War II. He hits us with a startling statistic to the effect that – the 1933 debate notwithstanding – when WWII broke out, of the 3,000 Oxford students eligible to fight, 2,600 volunteered.
He concedes that there are unjust wars, and he is the one that identifies the elephant that has been quietly growing in the room. All six of the speakers, he included, were against the Iraq War: it was unnecessary and illegal. Yet the previous Gulf War to liberate Kuwait was quite different, being unanimously sanctioned by the United Nations. His speaking tone and power have grown to oratorial dimensions; so it is highly unexpected when suddenly he introduces two more jokes, just as old as the others and just as successful at harvesting laughs. But he hasn’t finished with the serious stuff: he is still beating the drum for the war that is last-resort and just. He even cites St Augustine. But he is cleverly keeping the audience receptive by occasionally mixing in the unexpected laughs. He knows what he is doing.
So ends the debate.
The motion “This house would not fight for Queen and country” is carried.