Owen Paterson just talks

The UK in a changing Europe held a meeting in May 2018, entitled Brexit and the island of Ireland. It included a keynote from the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP.

For some time I have wanted to look at his speaking on this blog, as he is one of Britain’s more impressive Members of Parliament, noted for the conscientiousness with which he does his homework. And there was another reason.

Since the referendum in June 2016, when the British people instructed parliament to extricate the country from the EU, I have been bemused by the convoluted meal that has been made of it. Very shortly after the vote I read an article by a Swiss professor of international law which stated that we did not need Article 50, we could just leave. I read that Lord Tebbit had stated that leaving needed only, “We’re going. We hope we can still be friends. Bye!

The latter might be just a tad simplistic; but I have also noticed that those who insisted upon complications were mainly politicians, lawyers and civil servants, all of whom by nature can cut red tape only lengthwise. They need to get out of the way. Ordinary folk just get on with things. And when the matter of the Northern Ireland Border came up, I looked on in disbelief as a non-problem was elevated to ridiculous proportions. Owen Paterson has always struck me as having a more practical mentality than most, and his wide experience with Northern Ireland meant that he could fill in the obvious holes in my knowledge. Here is my chance to learn the problems that have escaped me.

The introduction is by Professor Anand Menon. He looks down at the lectern to tell us that. I think we can safely assume that he has in fact memorised his own name, so there we have evidence to what extent people use the lectern as a security blanket. Ok I’m being a little unkind because he very properly raises his eyes to us for the remainder of the time, except when listing future events, but people do use lecterns as a security blanket. Much of my time is spent in showing people that they don’t need a security blanket.

Paterson begins at 3:40 and ends for Q&A at 16:25. I don’t think he looks at the lectern one single time.

He spends his first couple of minutes on ethos, in which it emerges that his experience with Ireland, Northern and Republic, goes far beyond merely his parliamentary involvement, which in itself is very extensive.

Thereafter he makes it clear that any sort of heavy border is – in his own words – a dotty idea. It is undesirable for both sides, both of whom will want to go on trading as smoothly as possible. It is also unnecessary, as technology has already smoothed out such requirements. The British and Irish people have shown they can cooperate though much bigger issues than this. To suggest otherwise is political mischief.

His approach to public speaking is equally down to earth. He epitomises what I regularly say to my trainees, “It’s just bloody talking!” Yes, he occasionally goes a bit quickly and swallows a few syllables, but he doesn’t pretend to be attempting high oratory. He’s just talking, and everything about the way he does it conveys sincerity.

Claire Fox. What a communicator!

On 20 July, 2016, less than a month after the United Kingdom conducted a referendum on whether the country should leave the confines of the European Union, a referendum that returned a decisive vote to leave, The Leeds Salon invited Claire Fox to discuss the implications of the vote.

Having heard her on James Delingpole’s podcast, talking nineteen to the dozen, I am astonished to see her handling a thick sheaf of papers on that lectern.

My immediate impulse is, “Whatever for? – she needs a script like a reindeer needs a hatstand“. And then that reaction is quickly chased by admiration at how well she nevertheless manages it.

If you are a regular reader you will know how I often invite you to close your eyes for a short time, while the video is running, to hear the full difference in the sound of a speaker when reading or not reading a script. Usually, when the speaker’s eyes go to the paper, all the life drains from the speaking. In Fox’s case the difference is so slight as to be almost dismissible. Almost.

I fully approve when she reads to quote what someone else has written or said. A speaker needs to get these things precisely right, and be seen to be doing so, but the rest of the time she is so fluent and coherent when eyeballing the audience that it’s a disappointment when she looks down to her script, even though she’s only half a notch less so.

The speech itself is brilliant! She really is a fabulous communicator. She starts by saying that she doesn’t know what will happen next. And then from the opening observation that negotiating seems to be one of the most telling skills hollowed out by membership of the EU (ain’t that the truth!), through the various ways that remainers have tried to explain away their loss, to the exciting future in prospect, she sweeps you along for half an hour. This speech was two years ago, when her principal concern was that the government might renege on invoking Article 50.

She was very perceptive, though I think she would today agree that she underestimated the establishment’s determination disgracefully to thwart the will of the people. They’re still fighting without shame, clearly showing us that we have our own swamp to drain.

The least disruptive route for the country now is surely just to abandon pretence of negotiating with people who do not intend to negotiate; walk away from the table; keep the £40 billion alimony that they had the cheek to demand; go straight to WTO rules (of which we already have plenty of experience and mechanisms in place); kick the dust off our shoes and rejoin the waiting world.

 

Boris Johnson resignation

On 18 July, 2018, Boris Johnson made a statement in the British House of Commons, explaining why he had resigned the post of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

It was streamed live, and we have here the unedited video.

We’re greeted with the bear-garden noise that is characteristic of the House of Commons, and Boris raises his voice to come in over it. That, the tribute he then pays to the government department that he represented for a time, and the constant glowing praise to the Prime Minister (PM), are all par for the course for such a statement.

At around 01:30 the speech morphs seamlessly into addressing its main purpose.

Immediately it is clear that his theme here is to compare the Brexit proposal that emerged from the meeting at Chequers (the PM’s country house) the previous week to the Brexit speech made by the PM on 17 January 2017 at Lancaster House. Thus he sidesteps any accusation that he has changed his allegiance to the PM, and instead implies that she has changed her allegiance to her own stated aims.

He blames this on a “fog of self doubt” which has descended upon her, though he chooses not to analyse the source of the fog. He tells us how well Lancaster House was received not just by him but by commentators, the markets, our world allies, those in the Commonwealth and so on.

This speech is a very eloquent comparison of the bright, sunlit uplands of Lancaster House with the cringing defeatism of Chequers.

Boris points out that he had said at the Chequers meeting that he could not support the proposal on the table. What he does not say, because he does not need to, is that there is only one way for a Cabinet member publicly to refuse to support a Cabinet communique and that is to resign.

His principal message, indeed the Face of the speech, is that there is still time to return to the values of Lancaster House, and pledging his support he urges the PM to do so. It’s a very good speech.

But what of that “fog”? Whence came it?

Let us try to continue to play the game that everyone else has played by overlooking that the PM was a remainer in the referendum: let us take at face value her repeated assurances that Brexit meant Brexit. It requires a certain amount of credulousness because it inevitably assumes that the PM must be stupid, but let’s go down that route. What was she thinking when she surrounded herself with an extremist clique of Brexophobic civil servants and then allowed them to get ideas above their station? Wasn’t that “fog” inevitable?

Boris is right that it is not too late, but May is surely not the one any more. The administration needs a new broom.

John Redwood: a Speaker’s speaker

In 2011 the Speaker of the British House of Commons, John Bercow, launched a series of lectures in aid of a parliamentary charity. On 20 February 2018, the lecture was delivered by John Redwood MP

You need only look at that still image below to see where Redwood’s eyes are pointing. He is reading his speech. You probably expect me to castigate him for this, and though I shall examine how much better he would have delivered it without a script I shall not castigate him because he is subject to one of the few sets of circumstances whereby a script is necessary. More of that anon.

John Bercow’s introduction is well delivered. I have some reservations concerning the sightly self-conscious content; but he fulfils one of my prime delivery requirements, namely that he speaks with his audience as distinct from at.

Of the many parliamentary positions John Redwood has held, he has yet to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Why on earth do I bring this up?

I mentioned earlier that there are circumstances when a script becomes regrettably necessary for a speaker. In my book I cited those occasions when someone has been supplied with a transcript, because you kinda need to say what that transcript does. (The Speaker’s office publishes these lectures.) I then added a brief advice section on how best then to handle paper, including everything from layout on the page to how to avoid needing to lick your finger all the time.

Redwood turns over his pages which is needlessly clunky. It is smoother to have your pages printed on just one side, sitting in a pile of loose sheets which you simply slide one at a time across the lectern. This lectern is wide enough. That technique is customarily employed every year in the House of Commons during the delivering of the budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Redwood has never been Chancellor, and I rather feel that he and scripts are relative strangers. A good thing too.

Redwood speaks well without the aid of a script. I’ve seen him do it, not least when he appeared in this blog before. We see here the huge lift in the quality of communication at 11:40 when he departs from his script to recount an experience. For a minute and a half we see his unmasked personality shining out before he returns to being a talking head.

It’s a very good speech, and I know that the word ‘lecture’ strictly means a reading, but it is a pity when a man who communicates so well is forced by circumstances to operate under the tyranny of paper.

Patrick Minford is nearly tickety-boo

On 2 October, 2017, The Bruges Group held a meeting at the Great Hall in Manchester. Inevitably the theme was Brexit, and the meeting was addressed by a series of experts on the subject. We recently looked at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech. It was immediately preceded by one from Patrick Minford. Sadly the online video of that speech is in two parts, and I’m far too impatient to fiddle around with that, so instead I have gone back to another Bruges Group meeting in November 2016, also addressed by Professor Minford.

The messiness of his opening can, I think, be put down principally to nerves. It reeks to me of Hump. The speech dramatically comes together at 1:17 when he addresses the question “What was the Brexit vote for?” He gives his answer and the audience gives his answer a round of applause. Just imagine if that had been his opening – a bald opening. He’d have received that spontaneous applause within 15 seconds of starting, which would have done wonders for his Hump, and his opening would have been clean and mess-free.

Of course I understand the pressure that says that you must acknowledge and thank a gracious introduction. I equally understand the real value of the little bit of self-deprecating humour concerning the previous time he spoke there, but there are ways of satisfying both those imperatives while still starting with a hump-busting bald opening.

At any rate, from that point you can sense his nerves evaporating down to a manageable level while his natural capacity for thinking on his feet builds proportionately. A couple of minutes later he is going like a train.

I’d like to say that thereafter everything is tickety-boo, and it very nearly is because he knows his subject and can talk the hind-legs off a donkey. With a little bit of minor tweaking to the structure he wouldn’t need even that little scrap of paper that he uses as a comfort blanket. He could shoot the whole thing from the hip, everything would be tickety-boo, and that’s the way I like it.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: a long investment.

On 2 October, 2017, The Bruges Group held a meeting at the Great Hall in Manchester. Inevitably the theme was Brexit, and the meeting was addressed by a series of experts on the subject. One of them was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a very fine speaker, so I haven’t wasted the opportunity to bring the speech here.

I enjoy listening to his speaking not only because of his articulacy, coherence, his skilful delivery, and so on but because I admire the man. The beautiful balance of his arguments is not artifice. His old-fashioned manners and cut-glass accent may suggest that he is cold, distant and out of touch, but his record dramatically belies that. There are examples of his having, for instance, courteously drawn the claws of quite hostile opponents on TV panel discussions.

He is introduced by Barry Legg, Chairman of this meeting and indeed of the Bruges Group. JRM, as I shall call him hereafter for brevity, begins just after the 4-minute mark though you may like to join at around 3:50 in order to understand his first sentence.

Preliminaries over, he tells his audience that if people take the trouble to come to these meetings, for whatever reason, he wants to engage with their arguments. He is as good as his word. At this same meeting there is disruption from invading protesters waving banners saying “Tories Out”. Before bouncers can evict them, JRM approaches one in order to exchange thoughts. You can watch the episode here.

Of course JRM uses no paper. At 6:38 a bell is heard tolling in the distance. He instantly utters a throw-away quip, being well rewarded with a laugh. This sort of spontaneity is one of the hallmarks of those who shoot from the hip. Audiences love both, and both are absurdly easy.

The speech was well received by the Twitterati at the time it was delivered. I am pleased to agree.

Steven Woolfe on the red spot

My eye was caught by this TEDx talk, newly published on YouTube. Though I think the TED formula is good, and deserves its huge success, I am not unreserved in my admiration. My principal problem is in that word, ‘formula’. Formulaic speaking is almost inevitably second best, because the speaker’s wings have been clipped to a pre-ordained shape. It may be a very good shape, and the clipping may have been discreet and sensitive, yet they have still been clipped. I have seen examples of TED making a lousy speaker seem ok, but I have also seen examples of brilliant speakers rendered merely ok – and that’s my problem.

Steven Woolfe was discussing Brexit, and I was quietly gratified to hear him pronounce it that way rather than the ghastly “Bregzit”.

He opens with some quite nice, faintly self-deprecating, throw-away humour, and is rewarded with a level of chuckle from the audience that indicates just enough amusement to relax them. Good start.

He then lays out his stall. In general I am not in favour of speakers telling me what they are not going to talk about, but in this instance I’ll forgive him simply because he rightly assumes we are nearing nausea with the arguments, pro and con Brexit, so instead he wants to try to explain why the referendum vote went the way it did.

He dives next into his ethos. Usually these days, and this is no exception, this process is largely that of publicly ‘checking your privilege’. If you don’t understand the phrase you’ve been leading a sheltered life. Try this link and see how soon you start losing the will to live. (You may also give a thought to those lucky teenagers whose A-level grades were not high enough for them to go to university: they may be spared an environment steeped in that imbecility.)

For much of this speech Woolfe is following a script. He has no paper to read, nor do I see evidence of autocue, so that means he has learnt it. My evidence is in the stumbles, which are script-style stumbles and quite different from shooting-from-the-hip stumbles. It’s a pity because he could easily have shot this from the hip and it would have been livelier, more brightly coloured and infinitely more powerful for it. It would probably have gone a long way towards perking up the rather listless body-language we see in the occasional audience shots.

All he needed was a tiny bit of guidance in structure, which would also have made his arguments more coherent and digestible. It’s a good speech, but it could easily have been brilliant.

That typifies my problem with TED. The formula is safe in its way, but the price of that type of safety is a slight dulling of the argument’s edge. Frustrating!