In February 2013, The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, This House Believes That We Are All Feminists. Edwina Currie spoke against the motion. When I first spotted the video my instant reaction was, “This’ll be fun!” Edwina Currie is seldom boring.
Often when I’m working with a client a question comes up, prefaced with the words, “Is it all right if…”. I habitually interrupt with, “…The answer is yes. Now what’s the question?” The point is that rules, real or imagined, are ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is what can be made to work.
The Oxford Union could be regarded by some as an intimidating environment, beset with tradition and conventions. But Currie cut her speaking teeth here – something she makes very clear – and later went on to perform on the more august stage of the House of Commons. Under the guise of tipping her hat to the conventions, she puts her personal stamp on proceedings the moment she starts speaking. This is her show, and she is going to bend it to her will. This is precisely the right mindset – if it can be made to work.
Syntactically her first sentence is appalling. It contains, “May I actually congratulate, if I may,….” and it continues to ramble around with more of that sort of thing. No one with an education would ever write like that, and this is a brilliant example of what I try to convey when castigating those who read their speeches. Written English is a different language to spoken English. Currie is shooting from the hip and what emerges makes perfect sense when imbued with her strong personality. Furthermore it is infinitely more engaging for the audience than stuffed-shirt literature. There is a very important communication point here.
- If you want a speech consisting of elegant literature read a book.
- If you want a play in which nothing goes wrong, see a film.
- If you want a concert consisting of flawless performance, listen to a record.
The whole purpose of live performance is the element of danger. Something could go wrong!
Currie spends her first two and a half minutes, beating the decorum into submission. We have the first of numerous Oxford University reminiscences, in which she chats jovially (and sometimes flirts) with her opponents; and in the process I have to say that she lives dangerously. Several times I wince as she appears to be going too far, but though walking a high wire above the Abyss of Embarrassment, she knows what she’s at. She’s always in control.
Eventually she addresses the matter in hand, and again she bends it to her will by adopting her own position. Those for the motion, she says, claim that the battle is won and feminism is universal. Those against it claim that there is still more to be achieved. She is not – and never has been – a feminist. She then proceeds to tell us why feminism is wrong-headed.
I shall not precis her arguments: that’s what the speech is for. She lays out her stall in binary fashion tackling the issue culturally and practically, and all the while the Oxford anecdotes keep coming. At 3:49 she harvests a seismic laugh, with a secondary shock a few seconds later. She is really very skilled.
The skill extends, when it matters, to uttering ringing phrases. There’s a pleasing epistrophe at 2:55 and, in a tribute to Margaret Thatcher, there’s a strong anaphora at 14:20. Another anaphora makes up the spine of the peroration she launches at the 16-minute mark.
What especially singles out this speech for me is what I mentioned earlier. It is saturated with personality – her personality. The whole thing carries her brand. Anyone else would be foolish if they tried to parrot it, but they can learn from the principle. When you deliver a speech, you have the chance to make it your show.
And I was right: this was fun.