Like Catholics in Elizabethan times, they must congregate discreetly.
A few columns ago, I told the mortifying story of how I totally died at the Oxford Union. Today I’m going to tell you how I managed to avoid the same fate on a more recent trip to the Cambridge Union, where I spoke in a debate and opposed the motion: ‘This house would open its doors to refugees.’
Partly, I was just better prepared. One of the benefits of a public-speaking disaster is that it makes you particularly loath ever to repeat the horror. I can’t say I spent any longer on my speech. What I did do, though, was co-ordinate much more with the rest of my team beforehand (ex-MEP Godfrey Bloom, current MEP Roger Helmer, economist Alasdair Macleod) so that we knew what we were all going to say and didn’t repeat one another’s arguments. This forced me to write my speech a week early instead of at the last minute: something I commend to debaters because then the material sits in your head and matures and becomes familiar.
Then there is the simple fact that Cambridge is a much better-mannered place than Oxford. It’s not that the undergraduates are any less left-wing — especially not if they’re at King’s, where Jeremy Corbyn would be considered a bourgeois capitalist running-dog lackey. But Cantabrigians are more fastidious, austere and thoughtful than impetuous, thrusting, ostentatious Oxonians, and are consequently much less prone to shouting down their opponents.
But the main reason it went so much better is that I went in fully expecting to lose. (As indeed my team did lose, big time, by a margin of about 90 to ten.) This imbues in you the kind of grim fatalism the 300 must have experienced at Thermopylae or that gladiators no doubt felt as they saluted the emperor. There’s no stupid voice in your head going: ‘Maybe if I smile sweetly enough I can make them like me.’ Instead you think: ‘Sod ’em!’ You’re going to end up face-down in the dust, whatever you do, but at least you can take a few of the bastards with you.
I’m amazed — almost disgusted with myself, actually — that I was naive enough to expect otherwise at Oxford. But the thing people don’t realise about me — which I generally try to keep secret because it’s kind of off-brand — is that in real life I’m a really, really nice, sweet-natured, trusting, innocent person. And also one who lives in a fantasy world. So when I stood on the debating floor that time in Oxford, grinning dementedly, and tried to put all my listeners at ease by opening with an ad-libbed quip about Aids, I genuinely thought in my deluded imagination: ‘Ha, I’m going to win over these kids with my engaging mix of shambolic charm and no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is right-wing politics, just you see…’ This illusion lasted for all of the split-second it took before the boos and hisses began.
Read the rest at the Spectator.