Mario Draghi: from bees to boredom

In the summer of 2012, London hosted the Olympic Games. Almost simultaneously Britain launched – in London – The British Business Embassy. It would be a mark of extreme cynicism to suggest that one was riding on the back of the other.

On 26 July, 2012, at a Global Investment Conference hosted by The British Business Embassy, Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, delivered a speech.

Draghi opens with a nice little metaphor about bumblebees; or rather he doesn’t, but he should. Uttering a few obligatory words of thanks to his hosts and introducer is one thing, but – like too many – he fannies around with dross before reaching his opening, the bumblebee metaphor.

It’s a good opening: he compares the Euro to a bumblebee that urban legend decrees should not be able to fly. Come the financial crisis of 2008, the bumblebee was in danger of falling to earth, so now “the bumblebee will have to graduate into a real bee”. Were I an apiarist I might bridle at the suggestion that a bumblebee is not a real bee; but I’m not, I’m a rhetor who hopes that he will run with this metaphor for longer.

He does revisit it a minute or so later, but sadly just the once. It’s a pity because it could have given this speech some much needed coherence, not to mention lift. It almost immediately fell into a mire.

Perhaps he abandoned it because he wanted to devote his eleven minutes to an orgy of self-congratulation, and the spectacle of a currency limping from crisis to crisis doesn’t lend itself too comfortably to the image of a creature buzzing around in the sunshine sipping nectar.

While he trumpeted the euro’s imagined triumphs I could think only of the economic human disaster that is Greece, the hugely expensive silken strips of empty highway that bypass impoverished villages in Spain or Sicily, all the various pieces of pointless white elephant expenditures that are the price that ordinary people pay for his being able to pat his own back and those of his co-conspirators.

Had the speech been more coherent he might just have obscured some of that. In the event he left me conscious that his is becoming merely the latest in a long line of failed attempts at taking self-determination out of the competent hands of the people and trying to centralise it in the hands of those who think they know better. Will they never learn?

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.

Here’s your answer, Alice

Yesterday out of the blue I received from you a timeline message on Facebook saying that you were confused by all the conflicting messages and didn’t know how to vote in tomorrow’s EU referendum. Could I provide guidance?

Our brief public exchange quickly looked like turning into a slanging match between various factions that joined in.  I eventually pointed out to everyone that they were trespassing on a conversation I was having with my stepdaughter, and could they please calm down? You deleted your post. Today I shall spend eight hours travelling, with a two-hour meeting in the middle. What better way to spend all that time on trains, writing you a slightly fuller reply? I shall keep it as short as I reasonably can, though that may well make it a little simplistic. Bouncing around in a train isn’t the best environment for checking data details. This is broad-brush time.

I’m not surprised you are confused. The past weeks have seen a tsunami of prejudices, claiming to be facts, pouring over us from all sides: arguments over economy, sovereignty, security, immigration, free trade deals, and so on. It may surprise you to learn that I intend to address essentially none of those.

Throughout history there has been a remarkably consistent pattern to the way empires, even the biggest and strongest, eventually crumble and fall. Very ancient civilisations like the Sumerian were phenomenally rich and powerful but collapsed. Similar fates befell empires throughout history in both the west and east up to and including the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The mistake they all appear to have made was that their ruling elites became too detached and alienated from their societies – the people. Those elites, be they princes or politicians, lost sight of a hugely valuable truth, namely that the powerhouse of a society is in the combined ingenuity and industry of the ordinary people. As soon as the toffs forget that fact they are on a slippery slope, because that’s when they begin trying to run things through central planning; and central planning has always been disastrous.

You can be the cleverest person the world has ever seen, but just a handful of ordinary people with the right experience will wield greater wisdom than you. That is why central planning is a disaster: it always kills societies. The EU loves central planning almost as much as Stalin did.

But where is evidence of this ‘slippery slope”? All societies beginning to fail go through a similar process:

  • they start practising all manner of fiscal irresponsibilities like printing cash, introducing capital controls, borrowing far too heavily etc. Seem familiar?
  • they get more and more control of the news media, not overtly but covertly. They buy lots of advertising, they dole out honours, they cosy up to them in all sorts of ways. Seem familiar?
  • They move in on education, making sure that all the ‘right’ things are told the children. Seem familiar?
  • They invent ‘beneficial crises’, synthetic scares that cause the populace to be suddenly more inclined to do as they’re told. Seem familiar?
  • They find ways and excuses to undermine democracy, treating their electorate with barely concealed contempt. Seem familiar?
  • They hollow out, infiltrate and neutralise any and all organisations (the UK parliament for instance) that could challenge them.  Seem familiar?
  • They make sure, either by bribes or threats, that key members of society are on their side.  Seem familiar?
  • Politicians, who are elected to be representatives, start calling themselves ‘leaders’. Seem familiar?

Need I go on? Do we see a pattern emerging?

We live in interesting times. All sots of potential dark clouds are hovering over the international horizon. There is no such thing as the status quo – anywhere. When disasters threaten we will need to be nimble; we will need to be able to make key decisions quickly. Being shackled to a lumbering, crumbling hulk which is already threatening to collapse will only get in our way.

You may have noticed that there is one empire I haven’t mentioned – the British Empire. That one didn’t crumble away, but got turned into the Commonwealth. The process was admittedly resisted in some quarters but it all went off successfully, and now is a huge source of pride. There is a historic detail that might have had something to do with our rare achievement in doffing our empire relatively peacefully. We have a history of putting despots in their place. Think of Magna Carta in 1215, the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Even the American Revolution was in a very real sense a case of Englishmen holding steadfastly to their rights – which is why Magna Carta is every bit as important to Americans as it is to the British. Think of the two world wars, when we rescued Europe from despots. Democracy has been bitterly fought for across the centuries by our forbears, and is part of our heritage. Could we really be on the verge of binning in it in one last democratic act?

Vote Remain and you vote away your vote.

As far as I am concerned there is simply no choice tomorrow. We must leave.

Lord Owen takes no prisoners

On 19 May 2016 Lord Owen delivered a speech on behalf of Vote Leave, indeed he delivered it in their HQ on the Albert Embankment in London. Some of us are old enough to remember when David Owen was a young, vibrant, energetic, dynamic, ridiculously young Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the Cabinet of Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

Today, aged 77, he still looks maddeningly youthful, but that is not why I was eager to see what he had to say. I already knew which side of the debate he took: I wanted to see what fresh arguments he would deploy. I was not disappointed.

In the first few seconds Lord Owen bluntly defends the reputations of the three leaders of Vote Leave, Gisela Stuart, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, giving the smear merchants a good kicking and setting a style that goes on to characterise this speech. He is highly disapproving of much of the way this referendum campaign is being conducted.

He is scrupulously even-handed. Repeatedly he refers to opinions that differ from his, holding them up as being perfectly respectable. What bothers him is the manner in which they are being promoted. Given that he was a Member of Parliament before the Prime Minister was potty trained, a Cabinet Minister while the Prime Minister was still in short trousers and given that his tenure in the House of Commons segued in 1992 to tenure in the House of Lords, we are here looking at one who has seen at very close range half a century of the workings of the British legislature. He knows as well as anyone that politics can be a rough game, but the elder statesman in him cleaves to codes of honour which he evidently feels have been damaged.

These codes are not merely unwritten understandings and they are not restricted to the public players of the game. Lord Owen’s toughest censure is reserved for Civil Servants. He deplores various breaches of political purdah, in particular at 17:20 when our own politicians are planning to hide behind the skirts of Christine Lagarde breaking purdah for them.

He also weighs in severely on the notorious projection from HM Treasury. Most of us simply found the analysis risible, because the assumptions were so outlandish and because HMT consistently get their forecasts wrong. Lord Owen at 18:40 addresses it from a standpoint of Downing Street having breached Whitehall protocol, concluding that the Cabinet Secretary will be held responsible. The Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Secretary are passing the buck back and forth, and the result is a disreputable shambles.

What, I wonder, is he now saying about the legality of the last-minute extension of the registration for voting, or the news that voting cards have been given to thousands of EU citizens not eligible to vote? The government of the United Kingdom seems prepared to behave like a Third World Banana Republic, and this bodes ill for the conducting of the referendum itself. I find it hard to forget the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin –

The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.

At 20:42 we turn to what happens if we vote to remain. We have become accustomed to the Remain side daily peddling fear; and Lord Owen now gives it back. He makes the point very strongly that a Remain vote is not a vote for the status quo, and he shows his workings. Apart from other things a Euro collapse is firmly on the cards, and consequences for the EU as a whole, including the non-Euro countries, would be very dire. As Daniel Hannan says,

Staying in does not mean staying put.

The speech concludes at 31:40, leading into questions. Lord Owen is not pushover in the questions either.

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.

The Spectator gives us a grown-up EU debate.

In April 2016 the Spectator hosted a debate at the London Palladium on the question of whether the British people should or should not vote in a referendum on 23 June to leave the European Union.

What a relief! Two years ago I said on this blog that I looked forward to a referendum, not least because of the campaign. I wanted to hear proper arguments. This looked like perhaps the best chance we’d have of that: a structured series of addresses from a balanced selection of speakers, followed by a well-chaired exchange of challenges, and lastly questions from an informed audience. Knowing that you will be held ruthlessly to account for any idle nonsense that you might peddle concentrates a speaker’s mind wonderfully; so I looked forward to watching this and, perhaps having my eurosceptic instincts challenged.

The debate was chaired by Andrew Neill, with the Remain team consisting of two Labour Members of Parliament and one from the Liberal Democrats: Chuka Umunna, Nick Clegg and Liz Kendall while the Brexit team were two Members of the European Parliament, one Conservative and one UKIP, and one Labour MP:  Daniel Hannan, Kate Hoey and Nigel Farage. All hundred minutes are worth watching but I shall comment only on the opening addresses, which is to say the first thirty seven and a half minutes of the following video.

I’ll cover the speakers in the order that they speak.  First let me say that Andrew Neill’s introduction is competent, though it does highlight the truth of what I tell my trainees concerning humour. Stand-up comedy is immeasurably more difficult than it looks, so you try it at your peril.

4:06 – Liz Kendall starts by reading a legend to be found on a Labour Party membership card. Fair start, but she continues to read her whole speech. Her theme centres on the importance of international cooperation. No doubt one of her opponents will gently point out that no one in this argument disapproves of international cooperation. Otherwise, apart from the usual argumentum ad verecundiam where she quotes all the international bigwigs that say they want us to stay, she is banging the influence drum and, because she is reading her speech, whatever she says is diminished. Some will never learn.

9:24 – Nigel Farage elects not to remain behind his lectern, but to claim downstage centre. Why not? – while he is speaking, it’s his show. The trouble is that downstage centre is not lit so till the lighting catches up we see him only in silhouette. If he is aware of that it doesn’t seem to bother him, and he has obviously worked out (or contrived) that the sound system is man enough to cope with him away from his lectern microphone. He shoots his five minutes from the hip, which makes what he says immediately more compelling, and closes with a long and stirring anaphora.

15:20 – Nick Clegg speaks well. He makes his case very eloquently and without hampering himself with paper. I see little point in my contesting anything he says, because his opponents on stage are there for that.

20:10 – Kate Hoey is reading her speech, which takes the edge off her message. As a Labour Member of Parliament, she puts a different slant on the argument from that of her colleagues: she is unashamedly for the people.  She is the first in this debate to bring up the matter of TTIP, the alleged ‘Free Trade Agreement’ negotiated in secret between the administrations of USA and EU. As an MP no doubt she knows more about its plans than most of us, but some of the leaks seeping out on the subject are alarming. I wonder whether it will feature more strongly later in this referendum campaign.

26:40 – Chuka Umunna says, “Now look!” It’s almost a catch phrase. Miserably I hear my last chance for a new and exciting argument in favour of remaining in the EU gurgling down the plughole. A column of straw men arguments marches across the stage: a child of twelve could mow them down. This is really pathetic! There is just one speaker left: I have heard innumerable speeches from him on the subject, so I think I have a good idea what is in store. I honestly wish he could have been offered a stronger target to attack.

31:20 – Daniel Hannan proves me wrong. I did not know what was in store. Yes I have heard him offer all these arguments and have read them also in his book, Why Vote Leave, but he is speaking with greater panache and freedom than I have seen before. It suits him. He still punctuates his speaking by calling his audience “my friends” which jars a little, but he is in outstanding form here. No, he is better than that: he is downright awesome. It is not just my view: listen to the reception that greets his peroration. Other speakers finished to applause: he finished to deafening cheers.

I have made no secret that I fully intend to vote for us to leave, but I really did hope that we would get better arguments from the Remain side. While they trot out their preposterous lines about…

  • Little Englanders, drawbridges and so on, when we want to rejoin the rest of the world
  • cutting ourselves off, ditto
  • not cooperating with the rest of the world, ditto in Spades
  • not being able to trade, when as already the EU’s biggest customer we are ideally placed to cherry pick our trading status with the EU let alone the rest of the world,

…they’ll earn nothing but scorn. And when they claim to cite  other countries that think we should stay they are confusing pronouncements from politicians with views of the people: several polls show a very different story. Already the people of several EU countries are lining up to press for their own referendum, because they sense that the EU’s days are numbered. I rather feel that this referendum is partly about whether we go down with it or whether we get out now, the better to help the poor victims that do go down with it.

In a vote at the end of this debate the Leave side won.