Dangerous stuff, oratory…

SO the Commons voted for Syria airstrikes by a large majority and the first missiles have been dispatched by RAF crews.

Whether this is the start of the solution against the evil men of Isis, or the first move towards another disastrous intervention, cannot yet be said. Only time will tell and time is not always kind in these matters. Often time is a bitch.

Ten hours is a lot of debating, and few people can have listened all the way through unless they were in the Chamber – or professional observers in the media.

So any summary will be based on picking the bits that suit the person doing the summing up. And any conclusions will be based on the beliefs of the person doing the concluding.

This is what I saw from my wind-blown ledge.

Prime Minister David Cameron may have won the vote, but his speech was perfunctory, even the perfectly reasonable anger he directed against Isis was delivered without much impact. He sounded like a man who had calculated that the vote would be won, and therefore he wasn’t going to put himself out too much.

Cameron also pointedly refused to apologise for his squalid remarks the previous night about “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. That displayed poor judgement and the weakness of a man who wasn’t prepared to give an inch to his opponents.

A greater statesman would have found a gracious way out of that sorry situation. But grace has never been Cameron’s thing – and the outrageous slight on Corbyn suggested a glimpse of the real Cameron beneath the smooth PR mask.

As for the Labour leader, his performance was equally what one would have expected: polite, good mannered, head-masterly dull – and lacking in the intellectual spark you might have anticipated from someone who has been saying these things for 30 years. He was against the airstrikes, as are many people, but he didn’t exactly spell out an alternative.

By consensus this morning, the star turn of the debate fell to Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, who showed a touch of his father’s oratory in a speech supporting the airstrikes. His speech was certainly an elegant and powerful piece of oratory, and delivered at the last minute, like the dramatic denouement in a very long play.

Everyone sat up and paid attention for two reasons: Benn made his case forcefully and well; and that well-put case was totally against the views of his leader, adding to the dramatic tension.

Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter who wrote the US political drama The West Wing, said something notable about the art of giving a speech: “Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place.”

So it was telling that Benn should have been the one blowing the doors off the place. Cameron merely held a flaming match to the door. Corbyn tried to talk the door open. But Benn blew the door off its hinges.

Oratory is a great skill and a tricky art. There is tremendous force in the well-delivered word, yet just because a speech is delivered well doesn’t mean the message is right.

This whole debate has been framed in terms of certainty – from those who believe that missiles are the only answer; and from those who insist that bombs will kill innocent people and make a bad situation worse.

My heart was against the bombs, partly because it usually is, and partly because David Cameron’s case seemed poorly put. My head said “don’t know” – and the ‘don’t knows’ have moral logic on their side in a sense. How can anyone know for sure that the right decision has been made? They just can’t know that. The trouble is that not knowing doesn’t get you anywhere either.


  1. Pretty much sums up how I feel about it all. Disapointed. Corbyn, despite his obvious intelligence and integrity, is not a leader. Hilary Benn however…

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