Tony Blair and Bregzit

On 17 February Open Britain hosted a highly publicised speech by a past British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Open Britain is an organisation which deplores the result of the EU Referendum in June 2016 or, to be fair, as True Democrats they accept the result of the referendum but

Good, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

The media had warned informed us that this speech was coming, and I think most of us found the prospect interesting.

My interest was quickened for two reasons. Blair has an impressive record as a public speaker, and I was keen to see if that was still justified. My other reason, having yearned in vain during the referendum campaign for the remain side to come up with a really strong argument to give me something substantial to chew on, was the hope that he might at last produce something of interest. Shall we see?

The warm-up acts being less than riveting let us turn to Blair himself, beginning at 5:30.

Do you see him plonking paper on that lectern? I remember when he used to speak without script or notes. Has senility set in? Why does he have to consult his script to tell us how nice it is to be with us? And he’s taking no chances with that script. Not only does he have that paper, but also autocue: you can see a perspex screen in front of his right elbow, and he consults it.

Blair always did have some weird pronunciations, and now a new one enters his repertoire. We are repeatedly treated to “Bregzit”. Bless him!

Whoever wrote this script has no notion of the difference between written and spoken English. Or if they have, they are too idle to have learnt how to script the latter. This stuff is ghastly! It’s stiff and stilted. Who, when writing for speaking, churns out pompous rubbish like “rancorous verdict from future generations”? Rancorous is a word I might write, but wouldn’t dream of speaking – except possibly in jest. (Actually I might adopt it for a while to see if it gets laughs. Perhaps I could affect rhotacism – that’s the Jonathan Ross speech impediment.)

My hope of fresh arguments around Bregzit quickly fades. He’s revisiting the same weary avenues, or perhaps I should say culs de sac. He even tries to rub the rust from the ‘reform from within’ line. Let us not forget that this is the man who, when Prime Minister and the EU was clamouring for a reduction in the British rebate, assured us that he would negotiate it only against fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. In the event he came home with no CAP reform and greatly reduced rebate, thus demonstrating that the EU is not to be reformed and that he is the weakest negotiator since Eve caved in against the serpent.

Speaking of stiff and stilted, take a gander at this doozy at 9:54

“…thus leaving us with no locus on the terrain where the bridge must be constructed.”

That gem should be put in a glass case in a museum somewhere. We know that ‘locus’ is the Latin for ‘place’, but you justifiably break into a foreign language only if it’s a technical term, if doing so uses a nuance not available in English, or you plan to style yourself a prize pillock. Which do you suppose this has contrived?

If you think I am merely exercising a dislike of the man I would point out that he was on this blog four years ago, at which time I defended him against a shoddy sound engineer whose ineptness bordered on sabotage.

Didn’t I read somewhere that he is paid huge amounts to speak? I honestly would pay a fee to not hear him speak. I’d rather stay at home with a good book – or even a bad one.

Leaving aside all of the above I fear that this leaden weasel-fest is an entrenchment speech. It has not the quality to sway anyone; it will merely cause each side to dig in.

Bregzit means Bregzit.

Theresa May be a Good thing.

On 17 January Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, delivered a speech which had been eagerly awaited by many. Since the people of the United Kingdom, on 23 June 2016, had decisively voted to leave the European Union the country had seemed to be stuck in limbo. For the benefit of non-British readers, allow me to outline the background.

Mrs May’s predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron, had called the Referendum. He had announced, in a highly publicised speech in January 2013, that he intended to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU, and then put this expected new dispensation to the British people in a referendum during 2017. In 2015 there was a General Election in which this promise of an EU Referendum was a central plank of his campaign. He won the election, launched this renegotiation in a fanfare of trumpets while many of us marvelled at how radically he had watered down his promised demands, went off to Brussels, and came back with essentially nothing. The little he claimed to have been agreed was not remotely binding, and even that was disputed by many European politicians. He rushed into the referendum, rather earlier than originally promised, on a platform that we should vote to remain ruled by this ‘reformed’ regime. Nevertheless he undertook that in the event of the British people voting to leave he would immediately trigger Article 50, the EU exit door, and lead the exit negotiations.

The referendum took place, the people voted for Brexit, and Cameron immediately vanished. He simply welshed on all assurances and left everything for someone else to sort out. That someone turned out to be Mrs Theresa May. Her principal problem was that incredibly the British governing establishment had put no contingency plans in place against the vote going for Brexit, so she had to start from scratch. Thus for six months the country was in limbo, with several establishment figures openly attempting to thwart the expressed democratic will of the British people who in turn were supported by little more than periodic assurances from Mrs May and her cabinet that Article 50 would be triggered before the end of March.

This speech had been loudly heralded as a key piece of progress report.

An opening pause. Immediately I am encouraged.

This video, originally a live, streamed feed, occasionally shows live tweets commenting in a separate window. At 11:07 there is one which expresses the hope that the speech gets more interesting. I can understand this up to a point, because in laying out her stall Mrs May has needed to cover very many bases. I however am in possession of information not then available to that tweeter: there is half-an-hour still to come.

Do you have more than 40 minutes to listen to the whole thing? If not I can recommend two short excerpts that summarise effectively. This is so much better than my cherry-picking quotes. It’s safer too, because of being less susceptible to my confirmation bias.

Between 31:08 and 31:43 she very clearly summarises all that she has thus far covered. If you want to stick with it to 32:58 you will hear how she intends to keep her cards face-down,

 “because this is not a game, or a time for opposition for opposition’s sake.”

You may find that this satisfies your curiosity or that it excites your appetite to hear more. Either way, I whole-heartedly commend all this speech.

The other excerpt is her ending. I recommend that you pick it up at 38:55 with the words, “I don’t believe…” I have heard worse perorations, and didn’t care that it had no auxesis, because the content and the occasion did not call for it.

Only a few days later she delivered another big speech, this time in the USA. In it she was busy massaging the ego of a huge ally, but still I felt that she meant what she said. It is this quality that I like. Even if I don’t always agree with everything she says and stands for, I don’t feel embarrassed that she is representing my country. That speech did call for an auxesis to herald the peroration, and it got it. If you don’t listen to the whole thing you can pick up the peroration at 33:00.

Like or loathe her political position, she does not beat around its bush. More and more I sense that this woman is a WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – and I find that hugely refreshing after the dismal succession of duplicitous twits that have been representing us for a quarter of a century. (The word ‘twits’ was a slight edit from the first word there.)

She makes me feel strangely optimistic.

Don Tapscott talks freedom

Recently published on YouTube by TED is a talk by Canadian Don Tapscott. It is entitled How the blockchain is changing money and business.

Cryptocurrency fascinates me.  It is dragging commerce into something approaching the modern age, and bypassing the orthodox banking system in general and central banks in particular that have made such a pig’s ear of matters in recent years. Also, because it can’t control it, the establishment hates cryptocurrency which is another factor in its favour. I went and watched this talk for reasons that have nothing to do with my work.

Nevertheless my rhetor hat is never very far away, and immediately I am conscious that Tapscott is effectively hiding quite a serious hump, though it lasts barely a minute. Nerves connected with public speaking are unpredictable because they are largely irrational (though being irrational doesn’t make them any less real). Tapscott has done a huge amount of speaking, so why should he be nervous? Because it is irrational.

I always keep to myself the subtler manifestations of nerves, and I have been accused of being miserly with my professional secrets. There is something in that, but my main reason goes much further. The most effective antidote to speakers’ nerves is a relaxed audience. Therefore if the speaker successfully hides nerves, the audience relaxes so the speaker relaxes. If audiences became too conscious of subtler symptoms they would be more difficult to relax, and that benign circle would be broken. I’ll keep my secrets on behalf of all speakers and all audiences.

Shortly after the first minute has passed he is more relaxed, and when he explains the double-spend problem at 1:32 he gets a nice little laugh from the audience. That’s two points to him: one for relaxing them and one for explaining so clearly. The two are totally intertwined.  That hurdle, however, is as nothing compared with some of the concepts he still has to explain.

I must say that he makes a pretty good fist of them. There are a couple of moments that I find myself asking “Wha…?” but in the main he keeps me with him, and I feel that his audience in the hall likewise understands enough to get a pretty good idea of what this is all about.

One of the strongest messages I receive is that every person operating with cryptocurrency is freely dealing with every other person, and the entire process is independent of any controlling body.

And then, beginning around 9:25, he says something that stuns me. While bemoaning a world of increasing levels of all manner of regrettable things like anger, extremism, protectionism, etc. he cites the latest example as being Brexit. I am astonished that someone as smart as he has fallen for that sort of lame EU propaganda. Has it not dawned on him that Brexit is another example – like Blockchain – of people scrambling out from under the dictatorial control of a distant and unaccountable central authority? Is it really so extremist to want your vote to mean something? He is making exactly the same idle mistake as the person who said to me that Bitcoin was all about arms sales and organised crime. He should seek to smell the coffee on this matter. Ignorance is not necessarily his fault, but …   Oh, let’s move on.

Time will tell whether Blockchain really is the future of commerce. In my time I have seen too many cases of brilliant ideas being the vanguard that got swallowed up by even better imitators to assume that this is home and dry, but…

I do like any blow for freedom – which is why I voted Brexit.

Michael Dobbs. The hit man shoots from the hip

I calculate that on 14 June, 2016, the Oxford Union hosted a talk and Q&A by Lord Dobbs, aka Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards. On 18 August a video of the talk was published on YouTube where I found it. The descriptive text on YouTube doesn’t give the date of the talk itself, but repeatedly during the video there is reference to the EU referendum being nine days away.

I must be one of the very few people on the planet to have sampled none of Dobbs’ books nor so much as an episode of any of the television series of House of Cards, though obviously having heard of them. This is not through deliberate choice, but simply because they came along at times of my life when I was not reading much fiction nor watching much television. I have no doubt that this is my loss; but it does give me the advantage of approaching the following with no preconceptions.

My immediate impression is one of a charming, affable bloke with very good audience approach. I have read that The Guardian once described him as “Westminster’s baby-faced hit man”. I can see the baby-face, but must take the “hit man” on trust. Of course, his being a Conservative The Guardian would see him as the enemy.

He quickly commits a basic speaking error, which every one of my trainees would pick up. His opening humour is too overt, so he is exerting pressure on his audience to laugh. This, counter-intuitively, is why they don’t – or at least not as much as he wants. They are good stories but he needs more covertly to sneak this stuff up on them, at least cutting out the funny voices. Never be seen to beg laughs, particularly at the beginning.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, which is standard, his hump recedes and he’s on a roll. It’s a very good roll. His first section concerns himself, his early career in politics as Mrs Thatcher’s Chief of Staff, his being eventually cast into the darkness by her and almost by accident turning to writing House of Cards. He has clearly done a great deal of speaking and it shows. This material has been thoroughly road-tested, so he shoots it confidently from the hip. Although he has travelled down this route more times than he can count, his actual words are spontaneous. That says to the audience all the right things about him  – sincerity, command of subject, etc. That’s why we listen to him; and it’s worth listening because it’s an intriguing story.

Next he turns to an interesting treatise on the subject of political leadership. This is likewise shot from the hip, and fascinating. For twelve years he worked closely with one of the very few political titans of our age, so his views on the subject are more than valid. That concludes the speech.

At 25:20 he threw himself open to Q&A, and I certainly thought he had thoroughly seeded the lion’s share of the questions. The EU referendum was nine days away: he had mentioned it prominently at the very beginning of his talk, and again at the end, saying that he would be happy to talk about it later. Surely we would now see a tsunami of questions on the subject. I was overlooking the gigantic popularity of his books and the TV series they have spawned. For half an hour all the questions were about House of Cards and about writing, culminating in an hilarious account of his wife’s opinion of the sex scenes.

Finally the chairman of the meeting actively solicited questions about the EU referendum and at 55:00 there began questions whose answers I, armed with hindsight, found riveting.

Though I would not hasten its coming, when the day arrives when I can sit with time on my hands I look forward to reading House of Cards or watching a TV boxed set.

Barry Poulson isn’t fluffy

In my previous post, which was on Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, I made reference to the current USA administration – of which Mrs Clinton has been a key part – having presided over that country’s being indebted to the tune of “$20-odd trillion”. I am not in a position to know the true figures, but here’s a man who is.

Dr Barry Poulson delivered a talk to the Heartland Institute. It was entitled How Can Fiscal Rules Fix the American Government? 

How indeed? He begins at 04:19. There are severe sound-problems prior to his beginning: persevere.

I do nearly all my work with business speaking. It has particular demands on the speaker, like precision and conciseness. It is also perceived (often wrongly) to be rather hard-edged; and for this reason I enjoy helping people package tough issues in a way that makes them seem relatively fluffy.

Here we have a speaker from an academic environment. His first impression is an avuncular one. Almost immediately we are made to feel that he has all the time in the world, and reckons we have too. He even wanders off to get a drink of water, and is gone for ages; later he becomes inaudible for a time when he takes root on the wrong side of the screen. This man, we tell ourselves, doesn’t need fluffy packaging: he’s already fluffy. Beware! From what I’ve seen of academia it can be every bit as cut-throat as the business world, so ignore sheep’s clothing. The only licence that academics could have over business-people might be freedom from immediate and terminal accountability. Get it wrong and usually you can go back to the drawing board.

Poulson is dealing with an issue (national debt) that everyone has been getting scandalously wrong, and he quickly makes the point that neither of the presidential candidates is talking about it, presumably because there are no votes in it according to the pollsters (remember pollsters? – they’re the people that keep getting it wrong). This is where the $20 trillion number comes up. It exceeds GDP. On this matter Poulson isn’t fluffy: Capitol Hill is. The Executive seems to regard Venezuela as a rôle model.

His message is that without fundamental changes of fiscal direction the USA is toast. That may be unthinkable, but it is feasible and doesn’t have fluff.

There is a way out, and he spends half an hour telling us what it is. Here’s a clue: it’s a little more grown up than taxing the ‘super-rich’, which is why politicians might prefer to see their country gurgling down the drain than put it to the people. Politicians seem to be convinced that people are stupid. That’s why they call themselves ‘leaders’ and expect to be followed by sheep. They are not leaders, they are representatives. They have been delegated to attend to matters, like the nation’s finances, and to do so with competence or be booted out.

The US Constitution begins with its three most important words,

We    The    People.

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, but on 23 June We The People were presented with a rare chance to exercise a vote that made a difference. They rose to the opportunity, exercised grown-up judgement, made it clear they were the masters, and what their command was. Their command was the one that would keep them in charge. This was in the teeth of flawed [that’s a euphemism] arguments and judgements being fed to them by ‘leaders and experts’ of all descriptions, including the current US President. They showed they were not sheep to be led, but delegators of responsibility. The sheep among them have been bleating piteously ever since.

Politicians really do need to wake up to the probability that We The People are at least as bright as they, and do something really revolutionary like telling the unfluffy truth. Then possibly they might find that their candour wins them votes, and the USA might just be saved.

John Major: copper-bottomed nonsense

A few weeks ago The Oxford Union played host to the Right Honourable Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC, Prime Minister of The United Kingdom from 1990 to 1997. He delivered a speech in favour of Britain remaining within the EU, after which there was a Q&A session which you can find here.

Here is a little experiment. I invite you to watch the speech to the end of the story about Boris Yeltsin – that is roughly the first 30 seconds of Sir John speaking. Now pause the video, reflect for a few seconds on what you have heard and then tell that Boris Yeltsin story to your computer screen, the nearest chair, the wall, anything. I venture that you will have no problem doing so.

Unlike Sir John, you didn’t have that conversation with Yeltsin; you probably haven’t been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; you haven’t delivered anything like as many speeches as he has; you probably haven’t told that story before; yet you can tell it now without the aid of a script.

Then why can’t he?

Well obviously he can, but he doesn’t. He looks at his script twice during that 30 seconds. It’s conditioned reflex: his eyes are drawn downwards by invisible elastic every few seconds throughout the speech. That lousy bunch of papers is his comfort blanket. It’s pitiful; and this is a man who from his experience should be a masterful speaker.

At 6:02 he surveys the room and asks the rhetorical question, “What sort of country are we?” And then he has to look at his script for the answer. He really needs to get a grip!

I have said often enough on this blog that I looked forward to the referendum because in the campaign I eagerly expected some really well reasoned pro-EU arguments. I was drawn to this speech for that very reason. Fat chance! It is a series of outrageous claims, all of which could be easily blown out of the water once you had decided where to start on each. I could give you scores of examples, but here’s one to brighten your day. You’ll find it at 25:25…

Commonwealth immigration is entirely unaffected by our membership of the EU.

…see what I mean – where do you start? This speech is a load of copper-bottomed nonsense, which curiously happens to be the very phrase he used about something when regurgitating from his script at one point.

It’s worth remembering that after signing the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992, Sir John solemnly informed the British people that it set a high-water mark in terms of Euro-federalism. Let us pause while we reflect upon the subsequent onward federalist rush represented by the Treaty of Lisbon et al, with Gordon Brown’s lame wittering about ‘red lines’, and then shall we permit ourselves a hollow laugh? How on earth can Sir John keep a straight face when he tells us that David Cameron has secured immunity from ever closer union? The EU doesn’t obey even its own treaties, let alone casual assurances to nuisance Prime Ministers.

The funny thing is that he seems a personable sort of chap, really, and I’m sure he is sincere. The question we have to address therefore is how gullible Prime Ministers are allowed to be.