On Monday night I was in a committee room in the Houses Of Parliament, taking part in a debate around the motion “This House Agrees With Dr Johnson that no man but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money”. This was sponsored by the PPA. We won but it was, in the words of the Iron Duke, “a close run thing”, not least because it’s easy to pick holes in anything that came out of the mouth of a controversialist like Johnson.
This was the first time I’d taken part in a formal debate since the age of fourteen. Actually, I took part in one a few years ago at the Oxford Union but that was to a hall full of students. They wanted rabble rousing so rabble rousing they got.
The atmosphere at this debate was very different. The room was full of the great and good of publishing plus a load of people whose idea of a Monday night’s entertainment is popping out to take part in a debate. Any one of them could easily have taken apart my logic.
The usual speakers trick - make eye contact with anyone who looks sympathetic - doesn’t work. You don’t know where to pitch your tone of voice. The atmosphere leaves you unsure whether to declaim or converse.
You can prepare your opening remarks but at the end you have to summarise what’s been said by your opponent and the speakers from the floor, take some of it on board, kick most of it into touch and then somehow restate your argument. It’s very hard. I emerged from the experience with new respect for parliamentarians and a fresh understanding of why so many of them are former barristers.