Michael Heseltine’s half-truths

In Summer 2019 The Oxford Union hosted a talk, followed by Q&A, by The Rt Hon Lord Heseltine. The last time I heard him speak in public was many years before I began this blog, and roughly coincided with the last time I heard him speak in private. He was holding forth at a neighbouring table at a restaurant off Eaton Square in London. Over that I shall draw a veil.

This video lasts more than an hour and sixteen minutes: the talk is thirty-two minutes long. Simple arithmetic tells us that the questions keep coming for essentially three quarters of an hour, and indicates both the interest shown by the audience and Heseltine’s accommodation of it.

No paper. Heseltine is shooting from the hip. I should have been sorely disappointed had it been otherwise.

He opens with the usual courtesies to the Union; but then in quiet and measured tones, which inevitably lay silence upon the audience, he talks of his youngest days. He tells us he was born on the day Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany (not quite accurate – about five weeks out), and gives us landmarks from his youth which formed his views on what was to become the European Union. It’s a clever and very effective ethos-laden opening.

The whole speech is clever. It’s a politician’s speech, dripping with confected sincerity. But it is a brilliantly constructed tapestry of half-truths. I will supply two examples.

He can’t resist disinterring the weary canard of Winston Churchill saying that we must build a United States of Europe, but like others of his persuasion he carefully omits that in all such urgings Churchill made it clear that Britain should be not part of it, but apart. Churchill said –

We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.

He also cites Harold Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I have the transcripts of many notable speeches of history; and to make sure of my recall of that one I dug it out and read it. Heseltine implies that Macmillan was heralding concepts like the EU, whereas he did the opposite. He was calling for freedom and self-determination of nation states.

This sort of misguidance could be the idle result of sloppy research – like the inaccuracy of his birthdate not quite coinciding with Hitler’s election – but merely a cursory glance at his career in politics and business would suggest that sloppy research would not be a habit. I believe we’re looking at carefully constructed half-truths. And, as Mark Twain observed –

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

Eva Schloss and Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born 12 June, 1929, so today is her 90th birthday.

Eva Schloss was a friend of Anne Frank and her family, something that emerged during a talk she gave at the Oxford Union in August 2018.

In her opening remarks she tells us how she has read lists of distinguished people who have spoken in this hall, and how privileged she feels to be added to them. A cynic might put this down to simpering artificial modesty, till she unknowingly has what I call a Neil Armstrong Moment. She talks about Hitler having managed to influence “a cultured people like America”. We know what she means, as does the audience being far too well-mannered to react, so she continues not knowing what she said. I am meanwhile noting her significant stress.

The stronger the story, the less need there is to ‘sell’ it. In this case ‘selling’ it would detract. We can imagine all sorts of ways Schloss could enhance her narration, but the story neither needs nor wants it. Speaking in almost a monotone to pin-drop silence she tells us how a man succeeded in seducing much of the world’s establishment in his attempt to subjugate Europe under centralised control, and started a Word War in the process.

She speaks of the spread of antisemitism, culminating in the robbing of the Jewish race of everything from its property to very nearly its existence. Indeed all but its dignity which they refused to make available to be stolen.

Many of us, particularly we older ones, have heard much of this many times before; but still it catches the breath with horror.

Fleeing Vienna, where she was born, her family reached Amsterdam. She was eleven years old and was befriended by another little girl called Anne Frank, whose family were destined to influence her later life.

I could tell you more, but she tells it better. So I urge you to sit through the ghastly but strangely uplifting story, including her somehow surviving Auschwitz.

Lest we forget.

Daniel Hannan eviscerates socialism at Oxford

As in my previous posting I said I would, I return immediately to Daniel Hannan for the second of a pair of speeches that he delivered in 2013. This was in November in a debate at the Oxford Union in support of the motion, This House Believes Socialism Will Not Work.

When delivering the speech at Runnymede for my previous posting he was among like-minded friends, probably exclusively so. This time, if not in the lions’ den, he certainly was going to have to work hard to sway them to his point of view.

A brave opening! He points out that Hitler called himself a socialist, then immediately pre-empts Godwin’s Law accusations by himself citing Godwin. He could have chosen to remind the audience that Oswald Mosley was a Labour Minister, but the Hitler example was undoubtedly the stronger. He describes the opening as ‘high-stake’ and so it is.

Just as with the Runnymede speech, the material that he shoots from the hip is flawlessly constructed to carry his narrative, illustrate and exemplify his points, pour in a wealth of supporting data; and it ends in a blood-quickening peroration that concludes with words from Milton. We expect no less of Hannan.

I shall not dwell on the delivery flaw I highlighted in the other speech, but even with the added energy that he is using to drive today’s message you will spot that the flaw is still there (at 4:05 that word is “commissars”). This proves that it is caused not by lack of application but by slightly misapplied application.

Apart from my merely enjoying his speaking, therefore, what is my reason for presenting him twice in two postings? There occur in this speech examples of an important lesson for any speaker, particularly one speaking in a hostile environment. Hannan is interrupted a few times.

There is one golden rule when dealing with any member of the audience who raises his head above the parapet and speaks. Maintain courtesy at all costs. You may have read, heard, or witnessed examples of comedians who have destroyed hecklers with ruthless put-downs and found the prospect of imitating them hugely exciting; but you are not a comedian and (more importantly) even if you are, this is not a comedian’s audience.

Heckling is not very common nowadays; but the courtesy rule applies just as much to your dealings with the idiot who tries to use your Q&A as his soap-box. Audiences are not stupid, and will quickly cotton-on to someone being a pillock. They will be wholly on your side right up to the moment that you tell that pillock he’s a pillock; and then they will immediately change sides. Even if they have started yelling at him to sit down, or slow-hand-clapping him, do not let your courtesy slip or you will lose your audience. By all means remind him of the importance of sticking to the matter in hand, or any other such remonstration, but do so courteously. Let others take whatever steps are required ultimately to shut him up.

By the way Hannan’s interrupters do not have microphones, so – though one of them goes on a bit – I cannot tell if they are being pillocks; but I can tell that he maintains his courtesy.

And there is another little kindred lesson to be learned from this speech, and one that has nothing to do with the speaker. If you are in a debate, or panel discussion, or any such adversarial environment, you maintain apparent strength not only through courtesy but through remaining impassive. Discipline yourself to keep your powder dry: exhibit nothing other than rapt attention while others are speaking. If you doubt me, watch closely the next TV debate you see. If anyone while others are speaking is shaking their head, looking incredulous or indulging in any form of face-pulling, you will see they are weakening themselves. Robert Griffiths, one of the opposition speakers, does himself no favours with that mocking laughter at 6:20.

I may return to this debate in due course to look at other speakers; but for a while this blog will remain a Hannan-free zone. Unless, of course, another important lesson emerges…

Rory Stewart – a copy-book speaker

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”. We have seen the opening speech by Ben Sullivan for the motion. Today we examine the first speech against the motion. It is delivered by Rory Stewart.

I concluded the critique on Ben Sullivan’s speech by hoping for his sake that subsequent speakers would be courteous enough to let him down lightly. In the first few seconds Stewart does exactly that. He has the strength to afford to be charitable.

Rory Stewart is a very, very good speaker.

It is not just the absence of any sort of paper assistance – shooting from the hip is easy if you know how. His good syntax notwithstanding, I’d be prepared to bet that this speech has never seen paper, and was principally composed in his head. He certainly hasn’t memorised it: the effortless way he digresses to quote the preceding speech shows that. Some might think the elegance of figures of speech suggest that it had been written down: there are a 2-element anaphora at 0:55, 3-element ones at 2:04, 2:26 and 5:50; and the last of these is immediately preceded by an anadiplosis (this doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive catalogue because I was enjoying it so much that I stopped noticing). The ability spontaneously to produce things like this becomes a natural facility for those who read good literature. They work themselves into your subconscious by osmosis.

It is not just his masterful command of his subject matter – that is (or should be) a sine qua non for any speaker booked by the Oxford Union. That said, it warms my heart to see how confidently and smoothly the facts, figures and dates punctuate his talk.

It is not his unselfconscious enunciation which makes every word heard, nor the (rare) discipline that causes him to conclude comfortably within his time limit.

It is the laser-sharp focus that he brings to bear on his message and its effect on his audience. His mindset is exactly where it needs to be, and it makes him as near bullet-proof on the speaking platform as anyone should want to be. At one point, shortly before the end, Ben Sullivan, oblivious of how kind Stewart has been in only covertly disembowelling his emaciated arguments, asks for the floor, is courteously granted it, attempts to refute some point, and is gently trodden on. In technical terms I think Stewart may just be the best I have had on this blog.

He grabs you with his argument, and weaves his narrative spell around you.

He pitches his decorum exactly where it needs to be for this environment. The hard, cold facts are warmed by the humanity of the emotions that he recounts in those who went to fight Hitler. But still it is all a little formal – as befits the Oxford Union. That leads me to my only reservation. What would he be like in more of a bear-pit environment?

I may find the time to go looking.

Charlie Chaplin – a little dated, but hey!

I was invited to look at the final speech in the Chaplin film, The Great Dictator. How could I resist? A critique of a fictional speech is a first for this blog, and it has been hailed in some quarters as the finest speech of all time.

Is it? No. There could never be any such thing. Nevertheless, of its time it is a pretty fine example.

Bald opening! And you thought the concept was revolutionary!

Are you surprised that, for a star of silent movies, his enunciation is so good? Don’t be. He was not always a movie star: he paid his early dues on the live stage, and you didn’t get anywhere in those pre-radio-microphone days without having learnt this facet of your craft. I know his vowels, to the modern ear, are a little pale and clipped, and also he’s part-rolling his ‘r’s (a little like Olivier in the same period); but listen to how he always speaks right to the end of every word, never swallowing a syllable. If you found yourself having to speak in a large hall with a PA system that had broken down, that is how to enunciate. And he’s not over-enunciating. At 0:45, “Human beings are like that,” the final ‘t’ is barely touched…but it’s there!

I mentioned the paleness of his vowels, but it’s not with all of them. Yes, at 2:30 he speaks of people being treated ‘like kettle’, but that vowel was the fashion of the day. Also the fashion was to make the long ‘o’ sound desperately pale, almost like a long ‘a’. I once heard someone address Noel Coward, calling him “Nail”. However listen to Chaplin at 2:20. The ‘o’ in the first syllable of ‘soldiers’ is really quite dark, and there’s a reason for this. He learnt to enunciate correctly from the front of his mouth, and that always darkens the ‘o’ sound. I feel myself getting on too much of a hobby horse here, so I shall cease this subject. I cover it all in my booklet, Every Word Heard.

Chaplin’s eyes are fixed to a little below the camera lens. Is this supposed to represent humility, or is there an idiot-board there?  I don’t know, but let us remember that he directed this film, and directing steals a hell of a lot of the time that could otherwise be spent learning your lines.

When he gets worked up towards the end of the speech is when the age of the film really shows. No speaker could get away with that sort of ranting, stylized oratory in front of an audience of today. The man he was lampooning, Adolph Hitler (or Adenoid Hynkel, as they called him in the film) got away with it – but that was then.

What about the value of the speech’s message? My problem is that because it calls for all sorts of obviously desirable things – freedom, happiness (or, rather, heppiness), brotherly love, etc. it can be cited as supporting any political doctrine that claims to achieve those things – i.e. all of them. It wouldn’t surprise me if even Soviet commissars used to wheel it out to promote their disgusting creed. I know that it calls upon people to throw off dictatorial yokes – a consummation devoutly to be wished – but how many dictators would admit to using yokes? This ain’t aimed at me, guv, honest!

I know what I choose to assume the speech means, and I like it for that reason; but …

At 3:40 he calls for the doing away of national barriers, and immediately I’m onto another hobby horse. That concept is superficially very seductive, but withstands no examination whatever. Consider: someone has to run things. In order that they do so on behalf of their fellows and not on behalf of themselves or anyone else, they need to be accountable chiefly to their fellows. Tyranny thrives on distance between governors and governed, because accountability diminishes proportionally. Administrative units should therefore be as small as practicable. World government would be guaranteed to become tyrannical, exploitative, incompetent and corrupt. Look at the EU, and then multiply several-fold. What a ghastly prospect!

All right, I have attempted to encapsulate a very complicated matter into a single paragraph. I concede there is more to it than that, but be in no doubt that sovereign national barriers are A Good Thing, particularly if the national administration fosters localism. Good! I’m glad I got that off my chest!

I’ve never seen the whole film of The Great Dictator. I think I shall get it.