The great and ferociously driven Chicago Bulls basketball player Michael Jordan wasn’t a man who ever needed extra motivation, but that didn’t stop him providing himself some anyway.
Before stepping onto court, especially later in his career, the singular “MJ” would remind himself that there was someone in the crowd who’d heard about his stellar achievement, who knew his legend, but who would shortly be seeing him play for the very first time. He felt he owed it to that person to bring his “A” game. He felt is was essential that he showed that guy the very best version of himself.
I sometimes think that anyone in public life would be well served by adopting such a mindset.
For many years I was a devoted member of a club whose aim was to improve a person’s public speaking, which in itself might suggest something seriously awry in my psychological makeup. After all, most people hate public speaking to the extent that, when attending a funeral, most folk would rather be the guy in the box than the guy behind it delivering the eulogy.
The concept of the club was that an individual spoke for several minutes on a given subject before being evaluated by the others in the group. It wasn’t as terrifying as it sounds, but it was rarely less than daunting.
There were days when you were damned with the faintest of praise. When the best anyone can say about your speech is: “Well, Alec, I could hear every word”, you can probably assume that you haven’t exactly just delivered the Gettysburg Address. Or if someone says: “Aye well, that fairly shortened the winter”, it’s probably a good idea to shorten the speech by an hour or two.
And while public speaking never gets easy, is does get easier. You get to a point where you are if not exactly comfortable in every situation but at least have the tools to, as a respected senior of the club once put it, make your butterflies fly in roughly the same direction. Indeed, the day you aren’t a bit nervous is the day you need to worry. You need that edge to keep yourself focussed.
And you learn the hard way – not that there’s an easy way – that the old coaching maxim about failure to prepare means preparing to fail – holds true in all walks of life. You learn that there’s no such thing as being over-prepared because you need to be all over your brief, and that anything less than that is letting down the people who have given up their time to hear you in the belief that you might be able to offer them something.
I remember reading an interview with the late, great Rangers and Scotland manager Walter Smith in which he said that, having retired, he found it impossible to enjoy a football match as a mere fan because his life’s vocation had hardwired the analytical side of his brain. So, while everyone else was cheering a great goal, he’d be wondering why the full backs weren’t overlapping or why the forwards weren’t tracking back. And I’m exactly the same with watching speeches.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson and his speech to the CBI.
Here’s what I think.
Whatever else it was, the speech was, in a strange way, completely authentic. By that I mean that it was a perfect reflection of the man and his style of non-governance. The streams of consciousness, the terrible jokes, the chaos, the total lack of preparedness or even interest in a serious subject – in this case the post-Covid economic recovery – and a complete lack of respect for the people in the room who were looking for leadership and ended up hearing him lose his place and then drone on about Peppa Pig world. And, in a sense, there’s a logic to his modus operandi. His entire life experience is that incompetence will always see him fail upwards, that he need have no empathy or human investment in people, that he can break what he wants and there will always be someone to clean up the mess.
So it’s hardly surprising that the speech was appalling. What’s surprising is that anyone is surprised. What’s more concerning is that erstwhile supporters who now belatedly – and the mishandling of Covid, the defending of Cummings, the Owen Patterson and second jobs scandals, cash for peerages, the Covid contract profiteering, the scrapping of HS2 and the u-turn on social care – say he needs to change his ways are missing the point. Guys like this don’t change. This is what he is, which makes it difficult to feel sympathy when they express surprise when rather than leading an economic recovery he quotes Lenin and impersonates a motor car. What did they think they would get when they elected him? The Maya Angelou maxim applies here. When people show you what they are, believe them the first time.
You get the impression that he actually considered the whole exercise a bit beneath him. You’d say he misjudged his audience but that implies that they were on his radar at all, and given that he spent most of the time talking about a business three hundred miles south of where he was dying on stage they probably weren’t. It’s possible that he wasn’t speaking to Teeside business people but to his supporters in the shires who still enjoy his slapstick, PG Wodehouse Billy Bunter schtick. And as for presenting the best possible version of himself, in that at least he succeeded. Because what we witnessed was the only version he has.
And in that sense the journalist asking the brilliant question: “Are you ok” – was missing the point. The whole speech was Johnson being completely ok. He didn’t screw up because he was having a bad day, he screwed up because it’s what he does. A bouroch, for sure, but an authentic one.
I’d also be sceptical of the view that the speech betrayed a loss of nerve. I’d argue the opposite. I mean, the guy clearly decided to wing it in front of the CBI. That’s completely mental, but hardly a decision made my someone lacking self-confidence. Nobody else would dare to do such a thing. You’d need cojones the size of Scotland to even consider it.
And just as the speech wasn’t an anomaly, neither is the speaker. Indeed, the elevation of such an unserious and unsuitable candidate for the highest office in the lands isn’t an outlier but proof positive of a dysfunctional, corrupt, broken political system that Scotland will remain tethered to until such times as it decides not to be.
I’m tired of having a fourth rate after-dinner speaker pretending to know what he’s doing. Tired of the lies and the corruption and the cynicism and the sense of entitlement and the abdication of responsibility and the bone idleness of a man who doesn’t even bother trying. And why should he? It’s worked well all his life. But it isn’t working for me. The joke isn’t funny anymore. It was a lame joke the first time round.
On the eve of the SNP party conference, I heard First Minister Nicola Sturgeon say that she “intends” to fulfil the (many) mandates and call a second independence referendum during the current parliamentary term.
Intending isn’t doing, though. Intending leaves far too much wiggle room for the growing number of us who see the full return of powers to Scotland not just as a political necessity but as a matter of self-respect. It’s all very well saying that the blustering, buffoonish Johnson doesn’t speak for us, but here’s the thing: for as long as we’re ruled by him and his political class, he kind of does. This is what Better Together looks like. We either thole it or do something about it. What, pray, is stopping us?
The great Michael Jordan was right. Always try to be your best. He nearly always was.
Let Scotland be Scotland. And the only way for us to become the best version of ourselves in by having all the powers available to do so. Which means we must achieve our independence by whatever means available to us.
Stay safe everybody. I’ll meet you further on up the road.