“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”. (Michael Jordan, basketball legend)
In a bid to escape Storm Ophelia, I’m back in Orkney this week. I’ve come north to avoid the kind of weather that Orcadians would consider nearly ideal conditions for hanging out the washing. They gave me pelters for it today, which I probably deserved.
Actually, I’m not fleeing from Ophelia – I’m just up getting on with the day job, to borrow a modern cliché. A temporary loss of power in the Lochans and the devastating short-term loss of wifi signal are the very epitome of first-world problems, and are placed in sharp relief by today’s discussions with my Orcadian farmer friends. Poor weather from mid-August onwards has seen cattle coming in early. There’s still grass growing, but with a few exceptions fields are tender, and not only is there a lot of straw still lying waiting to be baled: there’s still harvest to do. Straw will be at an absolute premium. A lady from Dounby told me today that the machinery ring stopped taking orders for the stuff three weeks ago, and there’s now demand for an alternative source of bedding – sand. And the difficult harvest didn’t stop at Stromness, so it’s not as if there’s an abundance of straw on the mainland. There’s even been discussion about looking to the Scottish Government and other bodies for financial assistance, but, as a farmer drily retorted today, what’s the point of getting money to pay for something that doesn’t exist?
It’s been a similar story in Wigtownshire, but it’s been compounded by the fact that many of us are in areas called NVZs (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones), areas close to watercourses which are subject to restrictions on when we can apply slurry to farmland (given its close proximity to watercourses). With a delayed harvest and with some folk still trying to take a third cut of silage, and with slurry storage capacities rapidly approaching capacity, an upturn in the weather can’t come soon enough.
Still, let’s look on the bright side, eh? Things could be worse. I mean, imagine if we were being dragged out of the world’s biggest trading union against our will as the direct result of a civil war in a party whom we haven’t voted for since 1955.
Imagine an unelected Prime Minister trying to start this process without debating it in Parliament, and then calling those who questioned this “saboteurs”.
Imagine having our powers over own industry repatriated.
Imagine finding out that Barnett had no legal standing and could be revoked by a government with a wafer-thin majority bribing the DUP with a billion pounds (without paying the equivalent £2.9bn to Scotland), thus jeopardising peace in Ireland and breaking the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement because they valued power over peace, at any price.
Imagine if, after a campaign in which Leave based their arguments on £350m a week for the NHS and continued membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union, a hard Brexit was now a likely reality and we were being told that we’d have had our convergence uplift monies and that our support monies would be halved.
Imagine thirteen Tory MPs with the power to deliver all of this but who chose not to because their first -their only – allegiance is to party, not people.
Imagine having a Secretary of State for Scotland using our taxes to brief against his fellow Scots.
Imagine a leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland lambasting Donald Trump whilst failing to discipline the bigots in her own party. A leader who has the hypocrisy to the First Minister of Scotland to get on with the day job that she is getting on with and then signs up for The Great British Bake Off.
Thank God, then, that none of this has happened. I digress, but to this we shall return.
In the meantime, my Autumn pilgrimage to Orkney is always a pleasure but this time it has a different ending. I have been afforded the privilege of speaking at the South Ronaldsay and Burray Harvest Home dinner. Although it may end up being called the Harvest nearly Home Dinner. It’s an honour but it’s also terrifying. I remember once being asked by someone to give a keynote speech and asking the chairman what he wanted from me. “Och”, he said. “Ye dinnae have to be witty, erudite and intelligent. Just be yersel!”. No pressure, then.
I do loads of this stuff, from Burns Suppers to after dinner speeches to my well-known political activities. I’ve done this for years. But it’s still utterly terrifying. The truth is that most people fear public speaking more than death itself. Indeed, as the journalist David Aarranovich sagely observes, most folk who go to funerals would rather be in the box in front rather than delivering the eulogy behind it. And yet I voluntarily speak in public every second Tuesday, and plenty other times too. That probably says a lot about me: I’m just not sure what.
I couldn’t possibly have become a competent public speaker without my twenty year long membership of my local Speakers Club, which is essentially an eclectic group of people who meet to discuss everything from matters of grave importance to the ludicrously trivial. Given that it’s a body whose raison d’etre is something that people are scared of – public oratory – it’s a brilliant night out with folk that you might not always agree with, or otherwise have much in common with. But that’s the appeal – it’s healthy to meet people from outwith your own echo chamber and have your own views challenged. It also performs an important social function, as a few of our members are at a stage in life when their partners have passed on, and who need a bit of conversation and grey matter stimulus of a wet Tuesday.
I often reflect that a good speaker can benefit the wider community. I’ve chaired dozens of meetings where the Q&A session has been a bit dreich, and not because the speakers have been poor. And yet, in the bar afterwards, folk ask the kind of brilliant, incisive questions that, had they asked them during the formal part of the evening, would have allowed everyone to have heard a really important answer. A little bit of formal training enables that guy to become the person to ask what everyone wanted to ask but who was too afraid to raise her hand. To be brave enough raise your hand is incredibly liberating – for everybody.
The most important person of a Tuesday night is the evaluator – the person who, after listening to a speech, tells not just the speaker but the wider group, what was good about it and what the speaker needs to work on. The aim of the evaluator should always be to give helpful advice and encouragement, so we may “learn to fail a little better next time”, as modern sports coaches like to say. I used to think that was jargon. It isn’t.
Some of the advice stands the test of time. Know (and stick to) your central theme. Make your tone and vocabulary reflect the importance of your subject (or lack thereof). Engage with your audience through good eye contact and appropriate gestures. The best bit of advice I got was from an old member of our club, a wonderful man by the name of David Jackson. “Nerves are good, Alec”, he’d say. “The day you’re not nervous is the day you quit speaking. The trick is to get all your butterflies flying in the same direction”. I’ve never wavered from that advice, and I haven’t quit yet.
Sometimes, however, a speaker can be damned with faint praise. A lovely lady at our club, if she could think of nothing in the speech worthy of praise, would say: “I could hear every word”. If she considered the speech to be on the lengthy side, she would reflect thus: “well Alec, at least by lengthening the evening you have shortened the winter”.
There are certain unwritten conventions at the club. We aren’t supposed to venture into sex, politics or religion. Which is a pity. I’m very active in one of those subjects and have a lifelong interest in the other two. But we can, for example, talk about political speeches – which is what I did last Tuesday.
I spoke about the great political speeches, which fascinate me for two reasons. Firstly, because I love old fashioned rhetoric – a misused word if ever there was one. Today, it is a pejorative term (“oh, he’s just full of rhetoric!”). But in fact it simply means “a speech done in public with respect to politics and power”. Secondly, and more importantly, in a digitally enhanced, stage-managed age, public speaking is the one thing that survives from the ancient politics of Athens and Rome – the time-honoured act of standing up, alone, in front of strangers, making the argument in the full and certain knowledge that it could all go completely Theresa May.
My speech (on speeches) last week asked “what makes a great speech”? That’s a tough question. Certainly, they all have a standout line. Fight them on the beaches. I have a dream. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. Rivers of Blood, even. Great doesn’t always mean good. But otherwise there are no rules. The Gettysburg Address lasted two and a half minutes, while Fidel Castro regularly spoke for four hours. Most great speakers build from the beginning, but Hitler began from a starting point of grievance, mistreatment and victimhood and went on from there. And that worked too.
So – what am I driving at?
What I’m suggesting is that, to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, never in the world has good speaking been needed by so many from so few. The speeches of yesteryear can, and must, inform where we are right now.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he made a compelling case for America’s entry into the Great War. This was significant in itself, but doubly so given that he’d been re-elected by a wide margin only twenty months earlier on a specifically anti-war, isolationist ticket. There is much about Woodrow Wilson that is to be shunned – he was an ardent segregationist, for example – but it is admirable that he noted that he realised that circumstances had changed and so must he. That politics is a process, not an event. That war was the best of a series of bad options.
He displayed the kind of antithetical mind that Lord Byron once attributed to the great poet – Robert Burns – who In turn influenced the man who redefined the vision of America at a Pennsylvania battlefield: Abraham Lincoln.
Everything is connected. History doesn’t repeat, but it echoes. The past is not another country and things are not done differently there.
I am no speechwriter but, if I were, here’s my starter for ten for two of the key people who are charged with taking us forward. And both take their cue from old Woodrow in Washington.
Firstly, here’s what our farming leader should say:
“Look lads – we have to be honest with you here. We’re getting nowhere with these clowns. The powers we have are going to London, not Edinburgh. They aren’t going to cut us a deal. They openly despise us anyway. Best case scenario is half your current support payment, and that’s if DEFRA can squeeze any money at all out of the Treasury which now controls the budget and will have a lot less money as the economy shrinks after Brexit, which it will. They’d sacrifice us for a trade deal with Trump without looking back. The chlorinated chickens will be home to roost, followed closely by the hormone treated cattle. Although at least they’ll be glowing so they’ll be easier to check on a winter’s night. So basically we’re screwed unless we go it alone. You’ve told us what you want the industry to look like and we’re telling you right here, right now, that we cannot deliver it within the current constitutional framework. Even if you hate the idea of independence, it’s your least worst option and you need to get over yourselves. We can’t afford not to back it. So I’ll be calling Bute House on Monday morning and lobbying the First Minister for a new plebiscite. Not at the end of the Brexit negotiations, but now. Right. Now.
You need to back me on this, or I walk away and you can find yourself a new team. It’s up to you. Well?”
Meanwhile, assuming she’s got an industrial supply of cough sweeties, and despite the fact that I’ve been very critical of her, the following words could be the making of Theresa May.
“Listen, I voted remain because I believed that was the best option for the future of our people, and despite the many concerns I believed that we should address these within the framework of EU membership.
Notwithstanding that I have grave reservations about the legitimacy of the vote – the exclusion of the sixteen and seventeen year olds whose future it is, the fact that all MPs were briefed that this was a vote advisory in nature only, despite the disenfranchisement of EU nationals and UK citizens abroad, and despite the lies about the extra monies for the NHS, I have a graver concern.
I am the Prime Minister, and as PM of this country my first and only priority is the continuing wellbeing of this country. That for me trumps an entirely undemocratic and mendacious referendum and, having studied all the evidence, I conclude that Brexit can only be achieved with enormous cost to our economy. I therefore propose that we, as we are perfectly entitled to do, reverse article 50. And if anyone in this room disagrees? Fine. Make your argument. It might take another election to put this to bed, but I’m more than up for that. Put up or shut up. Bring. It. On”.
It would be her Woodrow Wilson moment. It would be her finest hour.
It would be stretching it a bit to suggest that scholars will be poring over the meaning of anything I say to the good people of South Ronaldsay and Burray on Saturday. But we need to know our history. Perhaps Mrs May, and our industry leaders, by thinking about what our great speakers meant any how they said it, can elucidate the principles through which good politics, and good outcomes – like the ditching of this Brexit madness – can be reached.
My words on Saturday may be little noted, but great words still stir the passions. Their skilled arrangements still make a difference. They matter. They are, in truth, more important than ever.
The question for us now is not whether great words are still being spoken. Much of the time, they are.
But the real question is this:
Are we still listening ?
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. Check out more of his articles by using our search button.