Liam Halligan and releasing the handbrake.

On 28 March, a year and a day before the UK is due to leave the EU, The Bruges Group was addressed by John Redwood and Liam Halligan. The former has been on this blog fairly recently, speaking at another event: the latter we will hear today.

Liam Halligan is co-author, with Gerard Lyons, of Clean Brexit: Why Leaving the EU Still Makes Sense – Building a Post-Brexit Economy for All. The foreword was written by Gisela Stuart who was featured on this blog just last week.

If you glance at a summary of his career you will be in no doubt as to how highly regarded Halligan is, not only as an economist but as a journalist, author and broadcaster. In other words, not only does he know his stuff but he can communicate it. Nevertheless, addressing a live audience is quite different from those other media. Let’s watch.

[A little warning: the fx mic recording the audience reaction is turned too high at the beginning. Therefore turn your volume down before you start the video, and then up again after the applause.]

I’m not a fan of lengthy preambles, favouring what I call the Bald Opening (among other things it’s counter-intuitively good for the control of nerves). Nevertheless here the first 90 seconds is the best part of the opening, because Halligan is not staring at bloody paper. He may be a communicator and he has obviously learnt how to manage a round of applause, but he hasn’t been properly taught how to speak in public if he has to use notes or a script.

That’s not just my beating an idealogical drum: look for yourself how the best, most fluent, most engaging and compelling bits are the parenthetic sections where he lifts his eyes to the audience and just talks. Yes I know he reads very expressively, and he gets some well-deserved laughs, but it would have been even better without the paper. Hampered by paper it’s as if he is driving a car with the handbrake on. If he reads this he won’t believe it – they never do till I prove it to them – but it’s true.

And this speech deserves to be driven without the handbrake on, because it is a good and valuable speech. It has strong well-argued messages, full of properly researched data, everything such a speech should have … except the handbrake is on.

At 17:35, “I want to talk a little bit about No Deal…” he stops reading for more than a minute and a half, and indeed for some periods for the rest of the speech. Even when his eyes go down to the lectern he’s not always reading. You can tell by the tone of his voice, by his using spoken, as distinct from written, English – it’s a subtly different language – that this is Halligan himself speaking, not regurgitating something he’d written earlier. And those periods are always better.

This speech is nearly eight months old and Halligan was saying that though No Deal was not to be feared, an FTA was preferable. I wonder if he’d still say so. For me that argument has receded. Yanis Varoufakis, Greek ex-Finance Minister, has repeatedly warned that the EU is not to be negotiated with; and day by day he is proved right. It now seems to me that a deal – any deal – has now become suspect if it is negotiated before we have left the EU.

WTO may mean some short-term disruption, but it also means…

  • no £39bn
  • no 585 pages of legalese to be combed through for hidden traps (taking time that could be better spent, preparing for WTO)
  • no small print
  • no more pretending that the Northern Irish border is a problem
  • and we might speculate on how long it will then be before the EU comes hammering on our door for an FTA.

And also, open to the world, the UK can then release its own handbrake.

 

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.

Charles Moore is prescient

On 3 October, 2016, the Bruges Group held a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference. One of their speakers was Charles Moore.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theatre…” It’s one of the oldest openings in the book, but as sound as a poun… er … well, it’s sound anyway.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit, continental Brexit, full English Brexit: it’s got to be divorce, as the man said.

We are eavesdropping on a meeting, the video camera is incidental and marginal. Thus we are getting less than perfect sound quality, and also a sideways view of the speaker. I actually prefer this for my purposes, because I get a warts-and-all view of what is going on. You may find Moore’s left hand distracting, gesturing as it does between his face and the camera, but I like the way he manifestly is not playing to the camera but applying his focus to his audience in the room. I also like the way those gestures are spontaneous, natural and unconscious.

Moore is clearly familiar and comfortable with the speaking platform. He hasn’t saddled himself with a bloody script, because he knows and trusts his capacity to find the right words spontaneously at any moment during the speech’s journey. All of this I like.

What makes me wince is that he is holding a route-map for that journey. He has an index card with, no doubt, bullet points to guide him on his way.

Why does that bother me? I cannot deny that this is a widespread practice among those who who are good enough to spurn scripts. His periodic consultations of that card do not hamper the pace or rhythm of his speech at all. So what’s my problem?

He is the fountainhead of the information, the views, and arguments he is imparting. If even he can’t remember what he has planned to tell us, what chance that we will remember what he told us?

When working with trainees, I introduce them to structures that are designed to make such notes redundant because the route-map is absurdly easy to memorise. And they work even for hour-long, data-stuffed, keynote speeches to annual conferences. This is not just for their benefit but also for their audiences. Clarity of the route makes the speech not just easy to deliver but also to digest.

Watch the speech, and then see how much of the information, views, and arguments you can subsequently remember. Spooling back any of the video is not allowed for this exercise, because the audience in the room couldn’t do that. However much you can’t remember is how much this speech failed in its purpose.

Moore is good, but he could very easily be better.

So much for his skill as a speaker. Here’s a bouquet to his skill in prescience. This speech was delivered eight months ago. Watch from 19:35, and then consider positions on migration recently adopted by Poland and Hungary in defiance of Brussels. With such a strong grasp of future events, I might suggest that Moore should publish an almanac.

But only if I were feeling particularly childish.

 

 

Jonathan Portes is not optimal

On 20 November 2013 economist Jonathan Portes delivered a talk at the Institute for International and European Affairs entitled Crisis and recovery in Europe: what have we learnt?

In addition to my evaluating the quality of the speaking, I was eager to hear what he had to say. After all, probably the most important thing for him to have learnt is what caused the crisis in the first place, particularly when as one of the chief holders of Britain’s economic reins at the time Portes could justifiably be held to have been one of the prime architects of said crisis.

I am slightly allergic to the starting of sentences, let alone whole speeches, with “So…” but that’s probably my age. I am trusting the quality will pick up. It doesn’t. This must count as one of the handful of dreariest openings I have ever had the misfortune to hear

The only thing that can be said in its favour is that Portes does eventually lay out his stall by giving us a pair of little triads by way of a contents page for his speech – “diagnosis, prescription, prognosis: how did we get into this mess, what have we been doing since we got into this mess, where do we go from here?”. That could have been inspired by my book, and was looking as if something constructive was coming.

After a sustained period of verbal wandering around aimlessly he declares that “fiscal policy was not the cause”. Got that? Not his fault. He admits that fiscal policy was “not optimal”. (This is bureaucratese for “piss-poor”.) There remains an obvious and so far unanswered question, namely what then was the cause? He addresses this, and the next minute or so could have come from a Monty Python Spoof as he “ums”, “errs”, and generally meanders, restarts several sentences, and finally pins it on the US, the Chinese, and “structural imbalances”. I half expected him to blame it all on global warming or the tooth-fairy.

As convincing speaking goes, this is not optimal.

He is in general shooting from the hip. His frequent glances down at the lectern are really so as not to get caught by all the unconvinced eyes that I feel sure are in the room. The curious thing is that there comes a time in the speech when I want him to look more at the lectern.

At 15:40 he puts up a slide with a graph on it, and for quite a while he speaks to the image on the wall. Had he been speaking through his left ear or his left shoulder the microphone would have picked it up wonderfully: in the event, the sound is not optimal. I reckon it likely that he has that graph and later ones in hard-copy on the lectern, in which case he merely needs to glance over his shoulder to acknowledge the image on the wall but otherwise he can keep his face to the audience, his sound to the microphone and look at the graphs in front of him. Just after the 31-minute mark when he turns over his paper he shows me I was right.

This speech would cure an insomniac.

Readers of this blog, in which I rail so often at those who bury themselves in scripts, might be tempted to conclude that all they have to do is find a way to do without paper and everything will be tickety-boo. I’m sorry but there’s a little more to it than that. You need to structure your material in such a way as to make it easy for you to drive your message. Before that you need a message. Before that you need to understand your subject. Albert Einstein is quoted as follows –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Considered on that basis, this speech shows that Portes’ understanding of economics is … not optimal.

Jacob Rees-Mogg shoots turkeys from the hip

A reader in the USA, Chun Chan, recently wrote to me suggesting that I should examine the speaking of two of my countrymen. We looked at Douglas Murray a couple of weeks ago: today it is the turn of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Chun suggested a speech that starts at 2:11:35 here. It is a very good example of J.R-M’s speaking skill even though it takes place in the relatively formal environment of the British House of Commons; but I hope Chun will forgive me if I turn instead to his performance in the bear-pit atmosphere of the Oxford Union.

There was a debate in late October 2013 on the motion, This House believes that the EU is a threat to democracy. J.R-M was speaking for the proposition.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has an accent even more plummy than mine. He makes me sound like Ali G. His Wikipedia page suggests that this has been a hindrance in his career; but it also says that he defies the matter. Good. Like everyone else on the planet, the most interesting, engaging and compelling he can be is when he is himself. Furthermore an accent, like any mannerism, is only distracting if the speaker is boring. J.R-M dramatically fails to be tedious.

He is a very good speaker. He shoots from the hip; he is fluent, articulate, compelling, and his arguments are well assembled for maximum clarity.

The only cause for a slap on the wrist in this instance is that he exceeds his time by nearly three minutes. Thirty percent over-run is grounds for the naughty step. We can quickly find how it happened: he spends nearly three minutes gleefully and ruthlessly filleting the opposition’s previous arguments. This is excellent but no excuse, because it is predictable. Surely he realised that they were likely to say things with which he disagreed? Surely he had enough confidence in his own ability to swat them? Surely he knew himself well enough to realise that he would be unable to resist the temptation to do so? He should therefore have allotted a section of his time for the indulgence of this.

The speech is fun to watch, and J.R-M blasts away with a will; but it’s a bit of a turkey shoot. You could hold a debate on many aspects of the European Union, and I really want the UK to do so, but the democratic deficit is such a gaping cavern that it’s hard to see where there could be much of a challenging argument. I look forward to watching speakers from the opposition. I am fascinated to see what they try to say.

There is, of course, the definition of ‘democracy’. There are regimes who appear to define it as a dictatorship that strives for the good of the people, with or without the consent of the people, not even bothering to ask the people. I tend to assume that it is by this rationalisation that East Germany (German Democratic Republic) could in the past and North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) can in the present use these names with anything approaching a straight face. The EU often pontificates pompously on democracy, lecturing and hectoring on the subject. They must be assuming the same mindset as Kim Jong-un.

Having an easy argument to win doesn’t make the speech one jot easier to make. As a spectator sport, watching the daylights being kicked out of a marshmallow begins to pall after a minute. Jacob Rees-Mogg maintains the entertainment to the very end.