Kate Hoey believes in people

On 11 December, 2015, at Southampton University, Daniel Hannan hosted one of his Britain and the EU – Time to Leave? conferences. One of the speakers was Kate Hoey.

Is she adjusting her bra strap while acknowledging the greeting applause? I neither know nor care, but as a piece of body language it is a beauty. It kicks away any thoughts the onlooker may have harboured that this is just another posturing politician. Such personal fidgeting doesn’t fit with posturing. It conveys the message that she proposes to speak with us not at us.

I am of a similar age to her, and when I began teaching public speaking there was still some demand for formal oratory. Reluctantly under some circumstances I used to go along with that, but my heart always yearned for the conversational sincerity that is now very much the fashion. Hoey does it superbly. I can think of several very good speakers who clearly learnt the skill from oratory-mongers, but now struggle to soften the formality a little. They should watch Kate Hoey. She wears sincerity with the ease of that silk scarf. And in passing it is worth noting that her political record shows the sincerity to be not a mask but genuine.

She shoots from the hip, of course, and is perfectly comfortable with a slightly halting delivery. She speaks with us as if across a coffee table, and all your senses tell you she absolutely means everything she says.

As a Labour MP she appears puzzled that Labour Leave – the eurosceptic group within the Labour movement – is relatively small. Some of the most distinguished names in her party’s history opposed the EEC (now the EU); and she is even more puzzled that the many of her party colleagues that are highly suspicious of TTIP nevertheless want Britain to stay in the EU.

She also makes the point that though its supporters cleverly equate the EU with Europe, it very definitely is not Europe. It is a relatively small cabal of politicians and bureaucrats who have nearly managed to hijack the entire continent.

There’s a thread through this speech, from her harking back to historic Labour grandees like Gaitskell, Foot, and Castle to the enjoyable camaraderie that she experienced earlier that evening, handing out leaflets in the company of people from all other political parties. That thread is Popular Sovereignty, grass roots, people.

As a believer in people, I cheer her.

Frederick Forsyth: writer.

Daniel Hannan has been hosting a series of conferences under the title of Britain and the EU. Quite apart from the interesting viewpoints thus being promoted, I am enjoying watching speeches from people whose speaking I have hitherto not found online.

One such is Frederick Forsyth. He was speaking at Kent University on 4th December at one of these gatherings. I am always interested to see how well expert and successful writers speak. The techniques of each are far more different than most imagine. The commonest mistake made by writers is to write and read their speeches. Let us see –

At first glance he appears to be shooting from the hip, though that laptop on the desk has quite a lot of his attention. Could he have learnt his script, while keeping it visible as a backup?

You may wonder why this should bother me, and my reply is that if you are shackled in any way to a script there’s a very good chance that you will not perform as well as you could. Written English is different from spoken English, and when you speak the former it sounds stilted and unengaged. Also writers can use quite convoluted sentences because their readers can always go back and read them again, whereas a speech audience cannot. And there is yet another problem that we find here with the opening of this speech. Reading speed tends to be quite a lot faster than speaking speed. That is why, when speaking, you need to use broader brush strokes so that you cover the ground more quickly and keep up with your audience’s attention.

Listen to Forsyth’s opening section. What he says about the advantages of growing old would work excellently when written but comes across as rather laboured when spoken. Within a few seconds I conclude that he has written and learnt a script at least for this opening. It’s a pity, because if he’d trusted himself to speak spontaneously he would have knocked off the first two minutes in fifteen seconds, and lost no impact at all.

At 2:17 he moves into outlining three choices for Britain with respect to the EU, analysing as he goes. The three choices are –

  1. The status quo
  2. Stop messing around on the periphery and plunge into the heart of the EU
  3. Get out.

This section is much tighter, and is stronger for it.  To his credit he dismisses the first choice, making clear that a proper informed decision is long overdue because what we have now is the worst of all worlds. Furthermore, when he address the second option he actually does what I have heard no Europhile do – least of all the Prime Minister. He tells us – really tells us – what total immersion would mean. It is a scenario that I find ghastly, though others might not, but at least he is saying the previously unsayable. He is to be credited with that.

The speech is an important one, and valuable thoughts are imparted. I commend it, even if if he is a far better writer than speaker.

Shami Chakrabarti mis-engages at first

On 5 March 2015 the Oxford Union conducted a debate with the motion “This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend“.

We recently looked at a speech in proposition from Brendan O’Neill. Today we have a speech from Shami Chakrabarti.

Chakrabarti is nervous.

So what? Everyone is more nervous at the very beginning of a speech: it’s what I call The Hump. Most work that I do with people in tackling nerves is busting that hump, because usually in a couple of minutes it has receded, the person is on a roll, and everything comes together. Probably the most powerful antidote to the hump is the act of engaging – really engaging – with the audience. That glorious feeling that the bridge from the platform to the audience is in place, and you are speaking with them as distinct from at them, drops your stress dramatically. The other side of the coin is that if you don’t engage with the audience the hump stays longer and you continue to battle with nerves. People who read their speeches from scripts sometimes hang onto their hump to the end of the speech.

Chakrabarti, to her credit, is not reading from a script but she is clinging to another type of umbilical cord. She prolongs her hump by repeatedly looking behind her at Madam President and looking at the other speakers around her. She is procrastinating the grasping of the scary nettle of looking at the audience by keeping her attention on the other occupants of the stage. They are her comfort zone, but they will only soothe her symptoms not sort her nerves. For the first minute the audience barely sees her face, and right up to around 2:30 she continues too often to revisit her comfort zone. It looks wrong, and it’s a false comfort.

Then she gets her first laugh. It is deserved: she delivers a good line well. Suddenly the nettle ceases to be scary and she is away. So well is she away that at 3:00 she gets a laugh that turns into applause. The real Shami Chakrabarti has arrived.

She is a very good speaker. Her delivery is spontaneous, warm, sincere, and at times funny, with just enough passion and edge in there to give the speech backbone. All of it shot from the hip. This is the way to engage an audience.

At 7:00 there is an intervention from the opposition. Regardless of the words spoken, I invite you to compare tones – shrillness from the opposition, warmth from Chakrabarti. Where would you place your vote?

I am really pleased to have covered this speech. Shami Chakrabarti unintentionally supplied a negative lesson to speakers to face the front! And then she delivered a positive lesson in excellent speaking.

Hilary Benn’s tour de force

On the evening of 2 December, I suddenly noticed that Twitter had begun humming with comments on a speech that was being made by Hilary Benn in a debate in the British House of Commons on a motion to allow British forces to begin bombing positions in Syria, held by ISIS or ISIL or Daesh or whatever we are calling them this week. What was startling was that the comments were as favourable from his political opponents as they were from his friends. From this I guessed that he was coming out in support of the motion, but I was so tightly tied up with what I was doing that I was unable to tune in and watch.  A recording was available shortly afterwards.

Comments on the speech quickly appeared in the media. Some were for him some against, and a few offered puerile bleating along the lines of “What would his father say?”.

For my part I am always eager to see for myself any speech that is being heralded as especially good; but also, with my opinions torn over the matter, I wanted to hear his argument.

This recording begins with the end of the previous speech. Clive Efford is opposing the motion on the basis of doubting the effectiveness of airstrikes. Quite so. That is my chief doubt.

Benn stands to cheers from his own side, and begins by reproaching the Prime Minister for remarks he made earlier in this debate when he characterised opponents of the motion as terrorist sympathisers. He’s right. One wonders where the PM finds those who advise him. Certainly there are some in that house who have a dubious record with respect to certain terrorist groups, but a debate of this type is not the time to indulge in name calling. Apart from lack of parliamentary courtesy, name calling always weakens your argument because it suggests you lack confidence in it yourself. While reproaching Cameron Benn reveals that he will vote for the motion.

He continues by paying tribute to previous speakers before launching into his own argument. He cites resolutions by both his party and by the United Nations, thus claiming legal and moral righteousness for supporting the motion.

Then at 5:33 he begins a section that makes me uneasy. He lists some of the crimes of Daesh. I rather feel that there will be few in that house who do not know and would not condemn the obscenities committed by those criminals; but if people are harbouring doubts concerning the effectiveness of bombing, the wickedness of the target is irrelevant. This verges on the  “something must be done” school of idiocy.

At 7:29 -“If we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much?” I’m sorry, but dropping bombs is not a declamatory activity. It is far too serious to be used to send a message.

At 8:00 the speech at last starts addressing the meat of the issue – effectiveness. He begins citing examples of airstrikes having succeeded in harming the progress of Daesh. For three minutes, culminating in the words, “the threat is now” the speech actually tackles the main question, and at last I feel that some of the plaudits I’d read on Twitter were justified.

But then, shortly before the end, the speech again weakens when he gets worked up over how these wretched jihadists hold us in contempt, and believe themselves better than us. So what? People’s opinions matter only if you respect them.

A great speech? For me, in terms of content, not really. For that crucial three minutes it was good, but most of the rest missed the point. The point is not that these people must be stopped by any legal means, including killing them. That’s commonplace. The point is whether the proposed activity will work. For three minutes Benn persuaded me that it might, but that was a small percentage of the whole.

Nevertheless the cheers that greeted the end of the speech were thunderous from both sides of the house, and I know why. Apart from the welcome it received from those voting the same way, the speech was distinguished by being very skilfully delivered. His pacing, variation of tone-colour, telling pauses, everything was beautifully done. And if that seems to reveal cynicism in me it’s because I have yet to cite the most important quality – his transparent sincerity and passion for his message. That’s why his market bought his product.


Allen West does anger well

On 26 August, 2015, in Dallas, the Heartland Institute held a conference to launch its Constitutional Reform project. Among the speakers was a former member of the United States House of Representatives, Allen West.

I have to admit that I have a problem sometimes understanding him. If this had been an international broadcast, or a speech set up specifically for recording a video for posting on line, I would here take issue with his enunciation. As it is, I am conscious of being merely an eavesdropper for whom there is a difficulty in the interface between his Southern accent and my British ears. This is a video of a conference for a live audience who appear to get every syllable. So my eavesdropping difficulty is my eavesdropping problem.

Regardless of the above, one thing comes across loud and clear. Allen West is angry. He doesn’t want the US Constitution reformed; he wants it restored and upheld. What makes him angry is how the Executive and the Judiciary have been messing around with it.

Between 5:30 and 6:20 there is a very telling section concerning how much the Judiciary, which should interpret the Law, oversteps its authority by contriving to make laws. We all know in principle about case law, but we also can tell when an actor pads up his role. West concludes the section by stating that such symptoms indicate that the Federal Government is off the rails.

That resonates with this particular Brit. Over here we also witness the spectacle of politicians and jurists arrogating the right to circumvent or distort the parliamentary process by finding ways to turn their personal prejudices into law. It’s all part of a re-defining of democracy to mean ‘what we think is good for people, regardless of their view’. In Europe it is typified by the way politicians have steamrollered almost an entire continent in directions contrary to their mandate. The current leader in the race for this year’s biggest unintentional hilarity came a couple of weeks ago from some Euro-twerp who described the EU as a centre of democracy.

Those of us who believe in the sovereignty of people hold to the principle that legislators are merely delegated by us to run things. When they get it wrong we kick them out. When they seek to exceed their brief they need to be brought to heel. The US Constitution grew out of precisely this thinking and was designed to prevent tyranny by keeping authorities in their place. It would appear from what West is saying that some of those authorities are doing their damnedest to subvert it (what the Founding Fathers actually meant to say was…) hence this speech.

West is a good speaker. Though I am pleased, I am not particularly impressed that he shoots the entire speech from the hip. It’s easy. On the contrary I get depressed by how few take the trouble to learn. You can see how well he engages his audience by not having sheets of paper in the way. What really impresses me is how he puts across his anger without getting angry. There’s no table-thumping, no eye-popping, no  bellowing. What we get is a cold laying out of the facts in a manner that leaves us in no doubt where he stands. Put it down to military discipline. He was a colonel in the US Army.

More like him are needed on both sides of the pond.