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.

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.

Frederick Forsyth: writer.

Daniel Hannan has been hosting a series of conferences under the title of Britain and the EU. Quite apart from the interesting viewpoints thus being promoted, I am enjoying watching speeches from people whose speaking I have hitherto not found online.

One such is Frederick Forsyth. He was speaking at Kent University on 4th December at one of these gatherings. I am always interested to see how well expert and successful writers speak. The techniques of each are far more different than most imagine. The commonest mistake made by writers is to write and read their speeches. Let us see –

At first glance he appears to be shooting from the hip, though that laptop on the desk has quite a lot of his attention. Could he have learnt his script, while keeping it visible as a backup?

You may wonder why this should bother me, and my reply is that if you are shackled in any way to a script there’s a very good chance that you will not perform as well as you could. Written English is different from spoken English, and when you speak the former it sounds stilted and unengaged. Also writers can use quite convoluted sentences because their readers can always go back and read them again, whereas a speech audience cannot. And there is yet another problem that we find here with the opening of this speech. Reading speed tends to be quite a lot faster than speaking speed. That is why, when speaking, you need to use broader brush strokes so that you cover the ground more quickly and keep up with your audience’s attention.

Listen to Forsyth’s opening section. What he says about the advantages of growing old would work excellently when written but comes across as rather laboured when spoken. Within a few seconds I conclude that he has written and learnt a script at least for this opening. It’s a pity, because if he’d trusted himself to speak spontaneously he would have knocked off the first two minutes in fifteen seconds, and lost no impact at all.

At 2:17 he moves into outlining three choices for Britain with respect to the EU, analysing as he goes. The three choices are –

  1. The status quo
  2. Stop messing around on the periphery and plunge into the heart of the EU
  3. Get out.

This section is much tighter, and is stronger for it.  To his credit he dismisses the first choice, making clear that a proper informed decision is long overdue because what we have now is the worst of all worlds. Furthermore, when he address the second option he actually does what I have heard no Europhile do – least of all the Prime Minister. He tells us – really tells us – what total immersion would mean. It is a scenario that I find ghastly, though others might not, but at least he is saying the previously unsayable. He is to be credited with that.

The speech is an important one, and valuable thoughts are imparted. I commend it, even if if he is a far better writer than speaker.

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.

Cameron: wall-to-wall weasel words.

I am unable to describe this as a speech critique, since that title implies disinterest in the content. I have made it clear in the past that I chose to work on the skill of public speaking in the business rather than the political world as the latter’s oratorial requirements tend to fill me with contempt.  While driving to catch a train I listened on the radio to some of Cameron’s speech, and I was relieved to arrive at my destination and have a good reason to switch it off.  I have since forced myself to watch the whole thing.

At first I was puzzled at the wholesale joy with which the speech was greeted by even the most cynical and euro-sceptic members of the Conservative parliamentary party. My puzzlement was short-lived. Taken at its face-value the speech can be seen as undiluted triumph to any euro-sceptic. Any concern that remains hangs directly upon the Prime Minister’s credibility; and no parliamentary party member will publicly impugn his leader’s integrity except under circumstances far more immediately crisis-laden than this.

Nevertheless privately they will have spotted the plethora of weasel words. The nature of these critters is that they are tiny, thrown away, easily missed yet crucial.  For instance at 2:55 he talks of the EU needing to “retain” the support of its peoples. Retaining something assumes that it currently has it. Does it?  I don’t know, and neither does he or anyone else. The indications seem to be that it doesn’t. After all when France and the Netherlands held referenda on the European Constitution, both countries emphatically threw it out. The EU re-branded it as a ‘treaty’ and refused to ask them again. Blair and Brown tied themselves inside out, finding spurious arguments to avoid asking the British people, and I had the impression that similar pantomimes were being enacted in other countries also. The exception was Ireland whose own constitution insisted upon a referendum, and we all remember what happened there. The Irish voted ‘no’ and the same EU that always scorns referenda suddenly converted long enough to insist upon another. Assuming therefore, in defiance of available evidence, that the EU currently has the support of its peoples requires an Olympic leap of faith; yet with that tiny word “retain” Cameron did just that.  Weasel!

At 3:45 Cameron describes  the EU as “the anchor of freedom and democracy”. Democracy?  See my previous paragraph, and then also factor in how they unseated the elected premiers of both Greece and Italy in favour of their own placemen. Weasel! That democratic deficit, 500 million European people being disenfranchised by a few hundred bureaucrats, is for me the strongest case against the EU. EU apologists never address it. Cameron, of course, even implied the opposite.

The above came in addition to the oft-repeated, preposterous assertion – encapsulated in the ridiculous Nobel Peace Prize this year – that the EU had anything to do with the peace that has reigned in Europe since 1945. Are they really claiming that, but for the Common Fisheries Policy, we’d all be gripped by an uncontrollable urge to invade Poland?  When the EU’s devotees trot out this sort of demonstrable rubbish I find it very difficult to believe they are sincere, because I’d rather not believe that they are stupid.

At 5:10 he starts in on an analysis of the British national character. Do my ears deceive me or is he saying that being locked into the EU, which has raised protectionism to an art form, is indicative of Britain keeping its face open to the world?  Weasel!

This is the vein in which this garbage continues to spew out.

With my rhetor hat on I cringe at the sort of florid catalogues to which his speech-writer has subjected him and us.  At 4:20 is an example I can hardly bring myself to quote, but here goes, ” …from Caesar’s legions to the Napoleonic Wars, from the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution to the defeat of Nazism we have helped to write European History…” If I had included that in an essay at school it would have come back with a red line through it. Quite right too: it’s ghastly!

Also with my rhetor hat on, I have sadly to report that he resurrected that emetic device that appalled me at his 2011 Party conference speech. He periodically utters what he fondly believes to be purple passages straight to camera. That just oozes smarm! Watch him doing it, if you can bear, at 4:45. And it it is repeated often

The overall speech actually says nothing constructive. Though he does speak the dread words, “in/out referendum” the ifs, ans, and buts are so prolific that he has more escape routes than a black and white war-film. His record suggests that he’d use them too. I’d advise no one to hold their breath.

I have no political affiliation, rather disliking the party system – though understanding its practical advantages. I am old enough to have got the vote when ballot papers did not even include the party affiliations of candidates (I seem to remember it was not permitted till 1969).  I am passionate about democracy, and I have watched the political class salami-slice it away. A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, if it happens, will be a chance for the British demos to flex its muscles, rap the Establishment over its smug little knuckles and demand that they have the arguments put properly before them – rather than being palmed off with the bland assertions to which we have become accustomed. The gaping democratic deficit is probably enough to make me unswayable, but still I want a reason to open my mind enough for them to try.

I mentioned that Cameron’s speech has allowed him too much wriggle-room. Expect him, on his past record and that of the EU itself, to use it. But just suppose we do reach the day when a referendum actually gets officially put in the calendar. Stand by then for an acceleration of weasel. Cameron does here hark forward to that time. At 31:20 he actually attempts to equate leaving the EU with leaving NATO. How dare he!  The one involves every detail of our lives being subject to the petty whims of unaccountable pen-pushers: the other concerns solemn mutual defence treaties between independent sovereign countries against third party aggression. They are not remotely equivalent, and he knows it. I say again, how dare he!  It is that sort of thing that causes this speech to disgust me.

And there’s one further thing. At 37:00, in closing, he says that he will campaign to stay in “with all his heart and with all his soul”. What about all his whips? I wouldn’t put it past him.