Andrew Roberts: masterly

At the end of June 2012, United States Army War College posted on YouTube a video of a lecture by British historian, Dr Andrew Roberts. I think we can assume the lecture took place at very much the same time. The lecture was entitled Why Hitler Lost the War.

Before even clicking to start the video I believe I spot something in the image below that emphasises to me Andrew Roberts’ Englishness. I think he’s wearing a Free Forester tie. Free Foresters is the name of a distinguished English Cricket Club.

Before we address the rhetor stuff let’s get one important thing out of the way. This talk is absolutely fascinating, and I wholeheartedly commend it. It makes me want to read The Storm of War, his book on which some of this talk is based.

Roberts has manifestly researched the subject to within an inch of its life, and has such a comprehensive command of it that he’s easily able to shoot the lecture from the hip. This man is a very fine speaker, and regular readers of this blog will know what therefore comes next. I am going to get super-picky – when they’re this good I always do.

Referring again to that still image of the video you will see that he has pointedly come out from behind the lectern, and placed a tiny piece of paper on its corner. That piece of paper is the target of my pickiness. It is his crib sheet.

I know what’s on it: a series of signpost words or phrases that indicate the path he wants the lecture to take. So far, no problem; I don’t so much mind its existence, but what it causes.

Very soon I can predict each time he is about to glance at it, because the smooth flow of the narrative has begun to fragment. He glances and moves on, but the fragmentation is still there for a sentence or two till he is back in his rhythm. This a sure sign that the speech is modular, a compilation of tried-and-tested modules.

Again I have no quarrel with that, modular structures work very well, but time and trouble has to be spent in building and refining bridges between the modules in order to smooth over the joins, maintain the narrative thread, and obviate the need for a crib sheet. If I were advising him I would concede that bridges can fail, particularly when adrenaline has a nasty habit of robbing you of some of your capacity to think on your feet, so his crib sheet might still be desirable. Nevertheless I’d suggest that he put it in his jacket pocket. Its very presence would reassure him, suppress the adrenaline, and make it redundant.

And there is another more prosaic problem with his crib sheet. On two or three occasions during the talk he produces The Storm of War, in order to read out where he has quoted things others have written. (In passing, this is one of the short list of circumstances where reading during a speech is not only acceptable but commendable.) When he does so he shows us that he needs reading spectacles (don’t we all). But understandably he doesn’t bother to use his glasses to glance at his crib sheet, and that could be causing each glance to be slightly more problematic. That crib sheet needs to be made redundant.

I told you I was going to get super-picky; but I now have a final bouquet to bestow. His finish, his final sentence, is masterly.

Malcolm Rifkind concludes the Queen & Country debate

For a couple of weeks we have been working our way through the speeches that comprised a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most famous debate the Union has staged. In 1933 the motion, “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was carried. What would happen when a similar motion was proposed in 2013? We have heard from Ben Sullivan, Ben Griffin and Gareth Porter for the proposition, and from Rory Stewart and Nikolai Tolstoy for the opposition. Now it is the turn for Malcolm Rifkind to conclude the debate with one more speech for the opposition.

As I prepare to watch his speech I find myself considering how many different ways he could choose to follow, summarise and conclude what has already been said, and to what extent he will vary his tone to blend with the decorum set by his predecessors. The golden rule, when in doubt, is to trust your own game. A seasoned performer as he is, and the decorum’s having varied so much already, I expect him to grab the proceeding by the throat and bend it to his will.

He starts by making the audience laugh. I know every one of the jokes, but then I am a great deal older than this audience. There’s a moral here: if you are addressing students you can afford to dust off and recycle material that you thought had completely run out of steam.

He also recalls that he has been here before, when he took part in the 60th anniversary debate on the same motion. I wonder whether he is going to recycle some of that material also. I wouldn’t blame him – if it works.

It is at 3:19 that he finally gets down to cases. “The choice we are being asked to make…” At this point he seamlessly moves into a higher gear. He claims that the other side had essentially condemned all wars, despite their attempts to qualify their declarations. He names justifiable wars, citing The Falklands and of course World War II. He hits us with a startling statistic to the effect that – the 1933 debate notwithstanding – when WWII broke out, of the 3,000 Oxford students eligible to fight, 2,600 volunteered.

He concedes that there are unjust wars, and he is the one that identifies the elephant that has been quietly growing in the room. All six of the speakers, he included, were against the Iraq War: it was unnecessary and illegal. Yet the previous Gulf War to liberate Kuwait was quite different, being unanimously sanctioned by the United Nations. His speaking tone and power have grown to oratorial dimensions; so it is highly unexpected when suddenly he introduces two more jokes, just as old as the others and just as successful at harvesting laughs. But he hasn’t finished with the serious stuff: he is still beating the drum for the war that is last-resort and just. He even cites St Augustine. But he is cleverly keeping the audience receptive by occasionally mixing in the unexpected laughs. He knows what he is doing.

So ends the debate.

The motion “This house would not fight for Queen and country” is carried.