EU debate does pro-lobby no favours.

At the Cadogan Hall in London exactly two years ago on 20 March, 2013, Intelligence Squared staged a debate with the motion Both Britain and the EU would be Happier if they got Divorced. The Chairman was Nik Gowing and his opening statement measured the hall audience at nearly a thousand people..

Speaking for the proposition were Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage, and for the opposition were Katinka Barysch and the late Leon Brittan.

I have gone on record on this blog as declaring myself anti-EU, but wanting a referendum principally because of the accompanying debate. Pro-EU arguments seem either emaciated or disingenuous, and I hunger for some that might give me pause. Perhaps this debate will oblige.

I am often asked, by those who will be taking part in adversarial events such as these, what their ‘off camera’ demeanour should be. Should they, for instance, illustrate with their facial expressions that the current speaker is lying through his teeth? My unwavering advice is that they should keep their powder dry, remaining impassive unless they are speaking. It weakens the image to do anything else. During Gowing’s introduction to the debate, and his naming of the speakers, all remain expressionless except Barysch who switches on a semi-profile friendly smile. She’s already working, but I doubt that it is working.

I assume that the opening addresses are restricted to five minutes each. For one thing this is usual practice, and for another the length of them in the event varies from 4:15 to 4:50. This is impressively professional and disciplined. I am hoping this discipline will prevail in the debate itself. Events like these get cheapened by accusations of untruth or cheap tricks like interruptions that artificially extend themselves to cut into the opponents’ speaking time. Actually, an Intelligence Squared audience should be savvy enough to make such stunts counter-productive.

Hannan [2:44 – 7:34] goes first. He rises to his feet as his introduction begins, arriving at the lectern as the introduction ends. This sort of apparently inconsequential detail has a positive influence on audiences, if only subliminally.

I have featured Hannan often on this blog, commending the skill that he has evidently toiled to polish. I am a little concerned that he is perhaps too polished, that super-fluency might be sterilizing his performance. I would like to see more of the real warts-and-all person showing through. His habit – I have heard this often – of punctuating his speeches with “my friends” is a little old-fashioned and bordering on the prim. Yes I am picking nits off nits, but when a speaker is this good I have little else to pick. If I were advising him I would urge him now to stop striving for perfection, relax a little and allow more warmth of human imperfection to show through – at least with most audiences.

He has a very classy closing! It’s one thing to manipulate the final lines of the poem, Ulysses, weaving your peroration with Tennyson’s, but the impudence of his introducing it via reference to a James Bond film causes me to smile and tip my rhetor’s hat.

Barysch [8:15 – 12:53] opens for the opposition. She likewise walks to the lectern during her introduction: we’re watching pro speakers here!

We saw her studied smile earlier, and now we hear the studied dulcet cadences of her voice. She seems happy to leave much of the nitty and gritty to the others. Her role is to paint the EU loving and understanding, a little wayward possibly on occasion but essentially benign. The EU, she cooingly implies, is a great big fluffy bunny rabbit.

Stressing that she is an economist and therefore concerned with data as well as fluffy bunny rabbits she goes down the “why would Britain want to close her doors to the rest of the world?” route. I wonder how heavily her opponents will tread on that canard, and whether the audience of ‘almost a thousand’ will buy it anyway. In terms of pure speaking technique she is very good. In terms of her reading of this audience I am not so sure

Farage [13:36 – 18:16] likewise walks through his introduction, and opens with “Good evening everybody!” For non-UK readers unfamiliar with the current political climate in Britain, perhaps I should make it clear that Farage is a very sharp thorn in the hide of the British political establishment. The mainstream media and the education system being part of that establishment, he is routinely painted as being the devil in human form. I have yet to read that he eats babies for breakfast, but give it time. The interesting thing is that people who meet and speak with him seem always to like him. Funny that! I have never met him.

I am interested to see what he does with some of Barysch’s assertions. The Japanese have a word, Mokusatsu. It means “To treat with silent contempt”. Farage practises Mokusatsu, trusting in the audience’s wisdom. Instead he concentrates on the duplicity of the EU having been miss-sold on the basis of being merely a market, then steam-rollering its way to a political monolith with the enthusiastic collaboration of the political class but in defiance of just about every poll or national referendum. The inference is that half a billion European people don’t want it, but a few hundred politicians don’t care.

Just after 16:25 he comes out with a statement that could be held to be highly inflammatory, but which gets a small laugh from the audience. This is merely an appetizer to prime a punchline that harvests a huge laugh. He reads the audience very well.

Brittan [19:02 – 23:17], uniquely in this company, stays seated through his introduction. To be fair his chair is nearest to the lectern. Uniquely in this company he has a script, though he handles it skilfully.

He opens with the claim that leaving the EU we could no longer trade with countries within it.

Though we are a net buyer in our trade with other EU countries, apparently European manufacturers are so rich that they would no longer want to take our money for their goods. I remember Ben Gummer MP coming out with that one on Twitter, and being greeted with a deluge of derision. On my visits to Switzerland and Norway – both non-EU countries – I was sure I saw plenty of Mercedes, BMWs, VWs and Audis, but obviously I was mistaken.

Next he accuses his opponents of lying.

Next he declares it an “absolutely howler” that European Commissioners make the laws. I wonder how strictly Hannan and Farage will practise their Mokusatsu when next they speak.

The four opening addresses being completed, Nik Gowing explains that a poll was taken of audience members when they arrived. He reads out the results which show that pro-EU sentiment prevailed substantially, and goes on to tell us that another poll will be conducted at the end.

There follow some questions and answers which involve lots of Mokusatsu. There is a diverting episode in which Brittan accuses Hannan of misrepresenting something he had said. Hannan’s trademark courtesy is clearly stretched and, though he maintains the niceties, his widened eyes betray his anger. That anger, like all stress, robs Hannan of some of his ability to think on his feet. He has a crushing answer easily available – “the audience were listening: let them decide” but doesn’t use it. Brittan is anyway only doing it to cut into Hannan’s speaking time.

There is a lesson here for all debates including adversarial broadcast interviews. It is easy to lapse into the mistaken sense that your goal is to sway your opponent or interviewer. That is of course nonsense: they couldn’t matter less. It is only the audience that matters.

Barring that momentary lapse from Hannan, he and Farage were infinitely better with the audience than their opponents. You do not need to take my word for that. The final poll showed a huge swing in their favour. They wiped the floor.

Did I glean any new, thought-provoking pro-EU arguments? Nope, they were pathetic.

Daniel Hannan eviscerates socialism at Oxford

As in my previous posting I said I would, I return immediately to Daniel Hannan for the second of a pair of speeches that he delivered in 2013. This was in November in a debate at the Oxford Union in support of the motion, This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work.

When delivering the speech at Runnymede for my previous posting he was among like-minded friends, probably exclusively so. This time, if not in the lions’ den, he certainly was going to have to work hard to sway them to his point of view.

A brave opening! He points out that Hitler called himself a socialist, then immediately pre-empts Godwin’s Law accusations by himself citing Godwin. He could have chosen to remind the audience that Oswald Mosley was a Labour Minister, but the Hitler example was undoubtedly the stronger. He describes the opening as ‘high-stake’ and so it is.

Just as with the Runnymede speech, the material that he shoots from the hip is flawlessly constructed to carry his narrative, illustrate and exemplify his points, pour in a wealth of supporting data; and it ends in a blood-quickening peroration that concludes with words from Milton. We expect no less of Hannan.

I shall not dwell on the delivery flaw I highlighted in the other speech, but even with the added energy that he is using to drive today’s message you will spot that the flaw is still there (at 4:05 that word is “commissars”). This proves that it is caused not by lack of application but by slightly misapplied application.

Apart from my merely enjoying his speaking, therefore, what is my reason for presenting him twice in two postings? There occur in this speech examples of an important lesson for any speaker, particularly one speaking in a hostile environment. Hannan is interrupted a few times.

There is one golden rule when dealing with any member of the audience who raises his head above the parapet and speaks. Maintain courtesy at all costs. You may have read, heard, or witnessed examples of comedians who have destroyed hecklers with ruthless put-downs and found the prospect of imitating them hugely exciting; but you are not a comedian and (more importantly) even if you are, this is not a comedian’s audience.

Heckling is not very common nowadays; but the courtesy rule applies just as much to your dealings with the idiot who tries to use your Q&A as his soap-box. Audiences are not stupid, and will quickly cotton-on to someone being a pillock. They will be wholly on your side right up to the moment that you tell that pillock he’s a pillock; and then they will immediately change sides. Even if they have started yelling at him to sit down, or slow-hand-clapping him, do not let your courtesy slip or you will lose your audience. By all means remind him of the importance of sticking to the matter in hand, or any other such remonstration, but do so courteously. Let others take whatever steps are required ultimately to shut him up.

By the way Hannan’s interrupters do not have microphones, so – though one of them goes on a bit – I cannot tell if they are being pillocks; but I can tell that he maintains his courtesy.

And there is another little kindred lesson to be learned from this speech, and one that has nothing to do with the speaker. If you are in a debate, or panel discussion, or any such adversarial environment, you maintain apparent strength not only through courtesy but through remaining impassive. Discipline yourself to keep your powder dry: exhibit nothing other than rapt attention while others are speaking. If you doubt me, watch closely the next TV debate you see. If anyone while others are speaking is shaking their head, looking incredulous or indulging in any form of face-pulling, you will see they are weakening themselves. Robert Griffiths, one of the opposition speakers, does himself no favours with that mocking laughter at 6:20.

I may return to this debate in due course to look at other speakers; but for a while this blog will remain a Hannan-free zone. Unless, of course, another important lesson emerges…

Nikolai Tolstoy enters the ‘Queen and Country’ fray

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition.

Today, speaking against the motion, we hear from Nikolai Tolstoy.

Dandified though he may be (Where did he get that collar? For that matter, why did he get that collar?) Nikolai Tolstoy is nobody’s fool. He is following two speeches whose power would eclipse most offerings. He knows the rule that you should always play to your strength. His strength is very clear. He is a historian with a string of books to his name, many dealing with war.

He launches straight in to an analysis of the 1933 Oxford Union debate with particular reference to its background, the most immediate ingredient in which was The Great War which had ended merely fifteen years earlier. He holds that Britain entered it for a noble cause, and supplies us with a wealth of reasons. In the process he readily concedes that war in general is horrible and that not all wars are for a noble cause. Not for the first time in this debate we are steered towards the unmistakeable inference that Iraq and Afghanistan are ghastly errors.

Not only dandified, but patrician and speaking in opposition to the motion!  How easily could we assume him to be a mindless Establishment glove puppet. Big mistake: the author of Victims of Yalta is not blind to his country’s capacity for moral crime.

Queen and Country! Tolstoy turns to the first of these, and immediately seems to make the distinction between the institution and the person. The institution – the Crown – supplies the focal point by which to identify the nation. Its existence also holds at bay any overweening political ambition with ideas above its station. When turning to the person who currently wears it, he admits to having been in love with her. He narrates a story from his days in the army. I shall not spoil it, except to congratulate him on the excellent laugh it harvested from what could easily have been a resistant audience.

He closes with a well chosen quotation. Up to that moment he had prompted himself with merely occasional glances at paper beside him on the box. Now he unashamedly picks up the paper to read words by Hilaire Belloc. That is the correct way to use paper if you use it at all.

This is a good speech: well considered, well balanced and well delivered. It maintains the gratifyingly high standard this debate has set.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev should have spoken at the God debate

In the five months since Rhetauracle was born the sheer internationality of the Internet has been brought dramatically home to me. Yes, of course I knew that it was all over the world: what I hadn’t altogether appreciated was how eager the world was to be reached. Already I have readers in around thirty countries. It seems therefore at least courteous that I avoid being too insular. The difficulty is that though I can stumblingly make myself halfway understood in three other languages it is only in English that I can hope to be able to analyse a speech.  Nevertheless the Anglosphere includes a huge subcontinent that I have thus far neglected. And the curious thing is that I was born in India, and my mother before me.

I found a rich seam to mine for speeches: The India Today Conclave. I shall be dipping into it over several postings, but first I want to explore a speech that frankly belonged in the series of postings that I concluded last week. Am I dreaming, or did I bemoan the lack of the word ‘spiritual’ in the Oxford Union God debate? Likewise, did I or did I not wearily regret the lack of new and inspirational lines of reasoning? And do you recall my quoting Andre Gide – “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”? Stand by for a Seeker of Truth.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev begins speaking at 11:30.  Javed Akthar, who proceeds him makes a ten-minute speech that essentially introduces the debate entitled Is Spirituality Relevant To Leadership?. I may have a look at his speech in a future posting, but Jaggi Vasudev is today’s focus.

That’s what I call an opening! None of the speakers for the Oxford Union motion began their speech with a prayer. Why not? Debates in Parliament start with prayers.

Do you want to grab your audience? One way is to surprise them in some way. He surprised me twice: first with the chanting and then with the quiet “Hello everyone” that followed. It was a glorious amalgam of ethos and decorum. I sensed a smile of delight forming on my lips.

And it stayed there!

This man is awesome. I use the word literally: he fills me with awe. On many levels.

If you chose to click in around half a minute before he began you will have seen how he pointedly stood to one side of the lectern, causing one of the crew to have to move the microphone to him. (What a pity that he pointed the mic at his mouth. At his eyes would have been better, because we get a little bit of popping.) And there he stands, paperless of course, with beautiful wisdom pouring out of him for 45 minutes – yes, there’s also a part 2.

He expresses himself stunningly well. His enunciation is clear and effortless. The structure of his arguments makes for wonderful digestibility. His phrasing is that of one steeped not only in the wisdoms of the East but the finest literature of the West. Forget airy-fairy: his analysis of spirituality is right here, right now, feet firmly on the ground and fired at you from the hip in clusters of those figures of speech in my glossary. Between 15:13 and 16:40 you should spot two anaphoras, one epistrophe and an extended asyndeton.  In many ways he is a copybook speaker – so much so, that I think I shall have to go back and look for further examples of his speaking before I press the publish button and commit this many superlatives to posterity.

My notepad, as well as being smothered in technical observations (that I decided to spare you) is also covered in aphorisms for life, gleaned from this speech. I mentioned that there is a part 2. Beginning at 08:14 there’s a very funny story. It is with huge reluctance that I am telling you this, because I’m dying to steal it.

The Oxford Union brought in Cornel West for their Occupy Wall Street debate. For all that he was hypnotically compelling, West was something of a histrionic cabaret in that setting. Had Jaggi Vasudev been in the God debate, on their own terms and on their own turf, he’d have stormed them.