In early summer 2017 the Oxford Union held a debate on the motion This House Believes A University Should Be A Safe Space. The Union had the sense to defeat it. On 20 June I covered one of the opposition speeches. It was from Peter Tatchell, whose performance I found disappointing. Perhaps that was one reason I didn’t bother with any more of the debate at the time.
Another is that I no longer critique speeches by students. I have done, and have regretted it. From my position of advanced years I cannot satisfactorily take any public position on either the speech or its delivery. If I praise it I can be considered patronising: if I condemn it I am being unkind.
Then recently my eye was caught by a clickbait caption, Peter Hitchens laughing at Loony Students. It turned out to be the final opposition speech from that same debate.
That is a magnificent opening, largely for what it doesn’t stoop to say. The device is a variety of what I call tactical omission. We watching, with the data immediately available to us can have no idea what he means; and even the audience in the hall is left thinking back to the previous speech to try to work it out. Meanwhile in an irreducible minimum of words he has been brutally scathing. I now know to what he refers, though I had to submit to some ghastly research. I shall say no more (see my second paragraph above), except to confirm that Hitchens is right.
The clickbait caption is a lie, and I should have known. Clickbait usually is. Peter Hitchens has been known to laugh, but not in my experience at his opponents in a serious debate. He may give them a good kicking, eat them, chew them over, spit them out, but not laugh. He is unusually courteous in his destruction, much more so than his late brother.
He shoots this speech from the hip, looking at his papers only for the purpose of reading quotations, and is able to do so because of how well he has structured it. It makes it easy for him to know where he is at any moment, and therefore where he then has to go. The byproduct of this, and even more important, is that the speech and its message are easily followed and digested. Given that this last is the prime imperative for any speech you might understand why I ceaselessly castigate those who mistakenly believe that they cannot deliver a speech without burying their face in a script.
Hitchens definitely doesn’t laugh.