The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition.
Today, speaking against the motion, we hear from Nikolai Tolstoy.
Dandified though he may be (Where did he get that collar? For that matter, why did he get that collar?) Nikolai Tolstoy is nobody’s fool. He is following two speeches whose power would eclipse most offerings. He knows the rule that you should always play to your strength. His strength is very clear. He is a historian with a string of books to his name, many dealing with war.
He launches straight in to an analysis of the 1933 Oxford Union debate with particular reference to its background, the most immediate ingredient in which was The Great War which had ended merely fifteen years earlier. He holds that Britain entered it for a noble cause, and supplies us with a wealth of reasons. In the process he readily concedes that war in general is horrible and that not all wars are for a noble cause. Not for the first time in this debate we are steered towards the unmistakeable inference that Iraq and Afghanistan are ghastly errors.
Not only dandified, but patrician and speaking in opposition to the motion! How easily could we assume him to be a mindless Establishment glove puppet. Big mistake: the author of Victims of Yalta is not blind to his country’s capacity for moral crime.
Queen and Country! Tolstoy turns to the first of these, and immediately seems to make the distinction between the institution and the person. The institution – the Crown – supplies the focal point by which to identify the nation. Its existence also holds at bay any overweening political ambition with ideas above its station. When turning to the person who currently wears it, he admits to having been in love with her. He narrates a story from his days in the army. I shall not spoil it, except to congratulate him on the excellent laugh it harvested from what could easily have been a resistant audience.
He closes with a well chosen quotation. Up to that moment he had prompted himself with merely occasional glances at paper beside him on the box. Now he unashamedly picks up the paper to read words by Hilaire Belloc. That is the correct way to use paper if you use it at all.
This is a good speech: well considered, well balanced and well delivered. It maintains the gratifyingly high standard this debate has set.