The Oxford Union recently held a debate on the motion, This House Believes A University Should Be A Safe Space. Among the speakers for the opposition was Peter Tatchell.
I have not previously covered a speech by him, which comes as a surprise considering that he is not known for hiding his light under bushels. I was eager to amend the omission.
According to his opening, this is his thirtieth Oxford Union debate in three and a half decades. Then why isn’t he better?
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to score cheap points. I admit that I am uneasy with many of his political views, but I defer to none in my admiration for the personal courage and principled perseverance that he has shown in the campaigns I have seen him fight over the decades. I genuinely expected this to be a forceful, and forcefully argued, speech.
But it isn’t: compared to what I expected it’s insipid, repetitious, flabby. The insipidness is in the way he is almost speaking down to his audience as if it had been drawn from a primary school. The repetitiousness is just that: he goes over and over virtually the same ground. And it’s flabby because he spends almost as much time apologising for perfectly sensible views as he does expressing them.
In the early minutes he is transfixed by the paper at his right elbow. It seems not to be a script so much as a comfort blanket; but why on earth should someone of his experience need a comfort blanket? What on earth is the matter with him?
He has spent more hours than you or I would care to count being grilled by the toughest the media has to offer, giving it back with interest. I guess I had expected him to light a fire under this gathering, and yet we get a bit of moist rag. Why?
Could it be that his communication skill is in the two-way traffic of hitting back at hard questioning, and he’s never got around to learning how to construct his own one-way traffic? No, it can’t be! Not if he’s been debating at the Oxford Union on average nearly once a year since the early eighties. I don’t understand it.
Was I simply expecting too much from someone like him? This performance would just about suffice for many speakers. I suppose.
It is a puzzlement.
Mind you: his side won the debate.