Kemi Badenoch bowls a Maiden

I first came across Kemi Badenoch shortly after the recent British General Election when I saw a Twitter trend on the subject of this new Member of Parliament. It seemed that many wrongly assumed that she was a Labour Party member. Like her I am trying to work out what gave them that idea.

Her maiden speech in the House of Commons has been widely lauded. Shall we make our own judgement?

A quarter of a minute in and she starts giving us a rundown of some of the hardships she experienced when growing up in Nigeria. I know why she’s doing it; I don’t blame her for doing it; but I suspect she would join with my lamenting that she needs to. Ethos is important, but this veers towards pandering to the identity politics and ‘privilege checking’ that is all the rage at the moment. Nevertheless if that is the game people are playing and you can beat them at it so dramatically, you’d be foolish not to. And she’s smart enough to get a partisan argument into it.

Nor do I blame her for reading a script. A maiden speech is a rite of passage that you simply have to get past, and I suspect that using a script is conventionally required. Not to do so might make you look like a smart-Alec. If the eye misses out a line (at 3:09) causing the sort of stumble that you don’t get when you are shooting from the hip then your best course is simply to laugh it off. Badenoch simply laughs it off.

She throws in a lovely Woody Allen quote, beginning at 4:16. I have heard it before, but not for a time and certainly not put in this context; so I laugh as readily as the MPs in the house. At 5 minutes she does even better: she makes me want to cheer.

I don’t know enough about the genre to tell whether just under five and a half minutes is a conventional length for a maiden speech but, convention aside, I found its length pretty well perfect. It said enough, yet met the oldest and best showbiz maxim of all – leave ’em wanting more.

I am sure we will hear more of Kemi Badenoch.

Hilary Benn’s tour de force

On the evening of 2 December, I suddenly noticed that Twitter had begun humming with comments on a speech that was being made by Hilary Benn in a debate in the British House of Commons on a motion to allow British forces to begin bombing positions in Syria, held by ISIS or ISIL or Daesh or whatever we are calling them this week. What was startling was that the comments were as favourable from his political opponents as they were from his friends. From this I guessed that he was coming out in support of the motion, but I was so tightly tied up with what I was doing that I was unable to tune in and watch.  A recording was available shortly afterwards.

Comments on the speech quickly appeared in the media. Some were for him some against, and a few offered puerile bleating along the lines of “What would his father say?”.

For my part I am always eager to see for myself any speech that is being heralded as especially good; but also, with my opinions torn over the matter, I wanted to hear his argument.

This recording begins with the end of the previous speech. Clive Efford is opposing the motion on the basis of doubting the effectiveness of airstrikes. Quite so. That is my chief doubt.

Benn stands to cheers from his own side, and begins by reproaching the Prime Minister for remarks he made earlier in this debate when he characterised opponents of the motion as terrorist sympathisers. He’s right. One wonders where the PM finds those who advise him. Certainly there are some in that house who have a dubious record with respect to certain terrorist groups, but a debate of this type is not the time to indulge in name calling. Apart from lack of parliamentary courtesy, name calling always weakens your argument because it suggests you lack confidence in it yourself. While reproaching Cameron Benn reveals that he will vote for the motion.

He continues by paying tribute to previous speakers before launching into his own argument. He cites resolutions by both his party and by the United Nations, thus claiming legal and moral righteousness for supporting the motion.

Then at 5:33 he begins a section that makes me uneasy. He lists some of the crimes of Daesh. I rather feel that there will be few in that house who do not know and would not condemn the obscenities committed by those criminals; but if people are harbouring doubts concerning the effectiveness of bombing, the wickedness of the target is irrelevant. This verges on the  “something must be done” school of idiocy.

At 7:29 -“If we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much?” I’m sorry, but dropping bombs is not a declamatory activity. It is far too serious to be used to send a message.

At 8:00 the speech at last starts addressing the meat of the issue – effectiveness. He begins citing examples of airstrikes having succeeded in harming the progress of Daesh. For three minutes, culminating in the words, “the threat is now” the speech actually tackles the main question, and at last I feel that some of the plaudits I’d read on Twitter were justified.

But then, shortly before the end, the speech again weakens when he gets worked up over how these wretched jihadists hold us in contempt, and believe themselves better than us. So what? People’s opinions matter only if you respect them.

A great speech? For me, in terms of content, not really. For that crucial three minutes it was good, but most of the rest missed the point. The point is not that these people must be stopped by any legal means, including killing them. That’s commonplace. The point is whether the proposed activity will work. For three minutes Benn persuaded me that it might, but that was a small percentage of the whole.

Nevertheless the cheers that greeted the end of the speech were thunderous from both sides of the house, and I know why. Apart from the welcome it received from those voting the same way, the speech was distinguished by being very skilfully delivered. His pacing, variation of tone-colour, telling pauses, everything was beautifully done. And if that seems to reveal cynicism in me it’s because I have yet to cite the most important quality – his transparent sincerity and passion for his message. That’s why his market bought his product.

 

Dennis Skinner – a class act.

When Tony Benn died in March 2014, his obituaries in the British main stream media were remarkable for the uniformity of their post mortem affection for him. To the political left he was a hero: to the political right he was mad, but everyone recognized the sincerity of his beliefs. He was widely heralded as one of the last of a dying breed of conviction politicians who actually meant what they said, and the absolute last of the left-wing firebrand parliamentarians. This was incorrect. There remains Dennis Skinner, who delivered a remarkable eulogy to Benn in the House of Commons.

The halting nature of his opening: is this genuine reluctance to speak or a clever piece of decorum creation? You decide. I rather think the latter.

Thank heaven for TV cameras in Parliament (I am old enough to remember the ferocious opposition to them). The meagre attendance in the Chamber means that this wonderful piece of speaking would have been largely wasted without this video making it available to posterity.

It really is outstanding.

I realize that there are times when some readers might find him so difficult to understand that they’d like subtitles. This will be particularly true of readers from outside the UK – but by no means exclusively. Skinner would not be Skinner without his Derbyshire accent, though his enunciation is excellent.

Essentially what we are watching is raconteurism of a very high quality. He narrates incidents connected with Benn, and does so with wonderful changes of tone-colour, rhythm, pace, volume, intensity, etc. One minute his fellow members of parliament are in hysterics, the next you can hear a pin drop.

I have nothing further to add. Enjoy it: it’s brilliant.

Edwina Currie barnstorms.

In February 2013, The Oxford Union held a debate with the motion, This House Believes That We Are All Feminists. Edwina Currie spoke against the motion. When I first spotted the video my instant reaction was, “This’ll be fun!” Edwina Currie is seldom boring.

Often when I’m working with a client a question comes up, prefaced with the words, “Is it all right if…”. I habitually interrupt with, “…The answer is yes. Now what’s the question?” The point is that rules, real or imagined, are ultimately irrelevant. All that matters is what can be made to work.

The Oxford Union could be regarded by some as an intimidating environment, beset with tradition and conventions. But Currie cut her speaking teeth here – something she makes very clear – and later went on to perform on the more august stage of the House of Commons. Under the guise of tipping her hat to the conventions, she puts her personal stamp on proceedings the moment she starts speaking. This is her show, and she is going to bend it to her will. This is precisely the right mindset – if it can be made to work.

Syntactically her first sentence is appalling. It contains, “May I actually congratulate, if I may,….” and it continues to ramble around with more of that sort of thing. No one with an education would ever write like that, and this is a brilliant example of what I try to convey when castigating those who read their speeches. Written English is a different language to spoken English. Currie is shooting from the hip and what emerges makes perfect sense when imbued with her strong personality. Furthermore it is infinitely more engaging for the audience than stuffed-shirt literature. There is a very important communication point here.

  • If you want a speech consisting of  elegant literature read a book.
  • If you want a play in which nothing goes wrong, see a film.
  • If you want a concert consisting of flawless performance, listen to a record.

The whole purpose of live performance is the element of danger. Something could go wrong!

Currie spends her first two and a half minutes, beating the decorum into submission. We have the first of numerous Oxford University reminiscences, in which she chats jovially (and sometimes flirts) with her opponents; and in the process I have to say that she lives dangerously. Several times I wince as she appears to be going too far, but though walking a high wire above the Abyss of Embarrassment, she knows what she’s at. She’s always in control.

Eventually she addresses the matter in hand, and again she bends it to her will by adopting her own position. Those for the motion, she says, claim that the battle is won and feminism is universal. Those against it claim that there is still more to be achieved. She is not – and never has been – a feminist. She then proceeds to tell us why feminism is wrong-headed.

I shall not precis her arguments: that’s what the speech is for. She lays out her stall in binary fashion tackling the issue culturally and practically, and all the while the Oxford anecdotes keep coming. At 3:49 she harvests a seismic laugh, with a secondary shock a few seconds later. She is really very skilled.

The skill extends, when it matters, to uttering ringing phrases. There’s a pleasing epistrophe at 2:55 and, in a tribute to Margaret Thatcher, there’s a strong anaphora at 14:20. Another anaphora makes up the spine of the peroration she launches at the 16-minute mark.

What especially singles out this speech for me is what I mentioned earlier. It is saturated with personality – her personality. The whole thing carries her brand. Anyone else would be foolish if they tried to parrot it, but they can learn from the principle. When you deliver a speech, you have the chance to make it your show.

And I was right: this was fun.

John Redwood shows passion

I was chatting a few days ago to a friend who reads this blog occasionally. He observed how many lousy speakers there were around. I managed to resist pointing out that if this opinion was based on my blog he didn’t know the half of it. I discard far more than I cover, and you may take it that I do not do so on the basis of their being too good. For every speech I critique here I watch perhaps five that don’t warrant the effort because they don’t have a facet that I find interesting, because they are boring or because they are just bad.

On a foray in search of something interesting I happened upon a series of speeches in the British House of Commons. It was the debate in October 2011, triggered by an online petition for the UK to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union. I’ve seen many examples of John Redwood speaking, and have tended to pigeon-hole him as staid, safe and unexciting. Here though he was a different beastie!

No script: no notes: just passion.

In answer to those who claim that without a script the quality of your syntax is in danger of fading, I say just take a look at the following list…

  • 0:08 Anadiplosis on the word ‘democracy’
  • 0:17 Anaphora – “it has been humbled”
  • 0:28 Anaphora – “they not only…”

Not bad for half a minute!

  • 1.30 Anaphora – “Go to …”
  • 2:35 Anaphora – “I cannot …”
  • 2:58 Anaphora – “This house was great …”
  • 3:28 Anaphora – “We need to …”

The whole speech lasted less than four minutes, was beautifully structured, clear, powerful, and far from syntax-lite.

So where was the staid, safe and unexciting speaking that I have seen before? Whence came that passion? The subject matter might have something to do with it, but also it has been said often enough that the House of Commons is like a club. Redwood has been a member for more than a quarter of a century and evidently he feels in his element here, far more perhaps than out in the rest of the world. He may feel that in the rest of the world he has to be more circumspect. Who knows?

Whatever the reason, that’s the way to do it.