Liz Truss: Whitehall Farce

On 17 December 2020 the Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss, MP delivered a live-streamed speech from the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) in London. It received a great deal of publicity at the time: The Independent called it “bonkers”, and it seems that bits of the transcript were redacted from the government website. They may have been edited out here also, for all I know.

Let’s have a look…

She is introduced by Robert Colville, director of the CPS, and immediately I am wincing. Many, if not most, inexperienced speakers have a problem with their hands. There are reasons and simple solutions with which I shall not tire you, but the very worst thing to do with your hands is to stick your thumbs in your pockets. Again I’ll spare you the several paragraphs I could add here in explanation.

Colville begins with his thumbs in his pockets. In fact he seems deeply unhappy throughout this introduction, and although it is barely one minute long I can’t wait for it to finish. Within seconds of Truss starting I’m wishing Colville had gone on longer.

What is it about Whitehall? I am reminded of a speech I covered on this blog in November 2012. William Hague, a superb speaker in real life, had spoken in his then capacity as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and done it like a lobotomised automaton. Though I have supplied a link to that posting you can see only my comments because it seems that some official, so embarrassed by the speech, has removed it. I sympathise.

Is there a Whitehall Civil Service department responsible for advising ministers how to deliver official speeches? If so I recommend that it be broken up forthwith and its staff reassigned to occupations more suited to their talents. I suggest scarecrows. The incompetence hereby manifested throws light on much else that emanates from the cvil service in Whitehall.

Lis Truss is an able politician. She doesn’t speak like this. No one speaks like this. I’m not referring to the essential message, which is fairly reasonable – though appallingly structured – I refer to the way it is being put across. It wouldn’t be less engaging if written in Klingon. This bland monotone, periodically punctuated by huge meaningless pauses is simply ghastly.

The Big Pause is an excellent speaking device with a wide range of beneficial uses. Deployment at random between sentences is not one of them.

I fell asleep at one point, and when I awoke was unable to establish what I had missed. I confess it was all so awful that I couldn’t bring myself to go back over it. Therefore I can’t tell you whether there are edit-points in there to indicate redaction. I was past caring.

Katie Hopkins works her audience.

How did I miss this speech by Katie Hopkins?  More than a year ago she spoke at a debate at the Oxford Union.  The motion was This House Believes Positive Discrimination Is The Best Solution To An Unequal Society, and she spoke in opposition. ‘Positive discrimination’ can be translated as ‘affirmative action’.

Katie Hopkins is a professional loudmouth, and I tend to enjoy loudmouths whether or not I agree with them. Put it down to my earning my living getting people to dare to open up. The hyperlink, on her name in the first line above, takes you to her own website. This link takes you to her Wikipedia page, which makes for stimulating reading. Here is one gobby broad, and I am fascinated to see how she handles an Oxford Union audience.

Straight out of the starting blocks she invites interruptions from the audience. For someone like her it’s a sound technique. A straight monologue takes a certain skill in construction, and if she hasn’t learnt that skill (and she hasn’t) then by creating dialogues she barely needs it. I have seen her on TV, chewing up and spitting out some of the best, so she is engineering this game to play to her strength.

These students don’t need asking twice, particularly when the asking was so defiant. Members of the audience begin popping up and down like fiddlers’ elbows. She laughs with some, flirts with some, dismisses some for studiously absurd reasons – “Sit down: I don’t like your top”, addresses some arguments seriously, others facetiously. It almost becomes a rite of passage in the hall to be insulted by the speaker. Even the President jokingly tries to get in on the act.

But what of the actual speech in the middle of all this? It almost doesn’t exist. There are a handful of sentences on a piece of paper on the dispatch box. When she gives herself a chance to do so she astonishes me by actually reading them. I am aghast, because what there is could be memorised by anyone who can memorise a telephone number. She’s taken a clever, unexpected line with her argument, and it would be child’s play to build a speech out of it – but she hasn’t the first idea how.

But by golly she can work an audience!