On Tuesday I went to the splendid and richly historic city of Oxford, a place with far too much to see and experience in just the one day. I saw many things that fascinated and intrigued me, along with a couple of artefacts that totally blew my mind.
This was never more pronounced than during my brief browsing of the Weston Library, anattraction that was received widespread attention from tourists and visitors since it was opened in its current state back in March 2015. Unfortunately it was moving towards closing time when I ventured inside, partly to escape from the pouring rain.
Shelves and shelves of books and other media were on display beyond a first floor balcony when I first walked inside on to a wide and pristine foyer, while there was a shop and small cafe to the left. On the right was a collection of items exhibited to mark the centenary of the birth of former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson, which included personal notes and photographs, as well as numerous letters he sent during his time in office.
Seeing these items was special enough, but the real treasure hoard was through a nearby door, where a heavily bearded member of staff was leading a group of people around a room sprinkled with display cabinets, all containing items written or produced by the hands of world-famous individuals.
Among them were the musings of 19th century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, poet John Milton, and renowned scientist Dorothy Hodgkin – whose crystallography skills were integral to the development of penicillin. It was spellbinding for me, and presumably it was the same for everyone of all those many nationalities within that lamplit showroom.
But the subject of this post centres around a transcript that was pinned to the wall just to the right of Benjamin Disraeli’s letter. Continuing with the political theme, it happened to be the speech given by Geoffrey Howe as he resigned from the UK cabinet in November 1990, an event which is viewed by many as the trigger for Margaret Thatcher to resign as Prime Minister shortly after.
For me, speeches are not an area covered in enough depth from an academic point of view. When I was at school there were times that we sat a mock exam and one of our optional questions would be based around writing a speech. I tried such a question once with mixed results – using the required amount of persuasive language, but elsewhere it was a little lacking in substance because of my limited background knowledge.
Everybody enters a speech with a different approach. For a perfect speech a number of things need getting right including content, balance and validity of argument, and most importantly the delivery. The person making the speech must be engaging, and this particularly applies in places such as the House of Commons as MPs vie to get their voices heard and views sympathised with. And that is where Howe got everything spot on.
He began with a lengthy cricket analogy, part of which went something like this…
It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.
Now, it has been acknowledged that Howe himself didn’t write this line, or indeed any part of this metaphor, but it was the way he delivered it that brought about the end of Thatcher’s 11-year reign. The person who wrote it was in fact his wife.